The boards were buzzing. “What’s happening in Egypt? Are there riots? Are the museums being looted? Is the Library at Alexandria burning…again? Are the archaeological teams okay? WHAT’S HAPPENING?”
With the internet down and Twitter blocked, we had to rely on second hand reports from friends of friends or relatives in Egypt with land lines. Western papers speculated on rumors. Al Jazeera posted a series of scary photos on Flickr showing damaged items from the Cairo Museum. I’m sure visions of the criminal looting of the Baghdad Museum in Iraq, while U.S. troops guarded the Oil Ministry, flashed through more than one person’s mind.
Finally Dr. Zahi Hawass was able to fax a report to Italian colleagues, who posted it on his blog Sunday, January 30, with mixed news. The Cairo Museum had been breached, but some of the vandals were caught and the damaged antiquities are all reparable. Egyptian citizens organized to protect the institutions, until the army could arrive and take over. Bad news from outlying areas, which are much harder to protect: criminals armed with guns entered and looted a storage magazine in Qantara. Other sites were also threatened. Reports started coming in from research and dig groups. From Dr. Hawass’ January 30 post:
My heart is broken and my blood is boiling. I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years has been destroyed in one day, but all the inspectors, young archaeologists, and administrators, are calling me from sites and museums all over Egypt to tell me that they will give their life to protect our antiquities. Many young Egyptians are in the streets trying to stop the criminals. Due to the circumstances, this behaviour is not surprising; criminals and people without a conscience will rob their own country. If the lights went off in New York City, or London, even if only for an hour, criminal behaviour will occur. I am very proud that Egyptians want to stop these criminals to protect Egypt and its heritage.
From Ismail Serageldin the Director of Bibliotheca Alexandrine January 30 post on the Library’s website:
The world has witnessed an unprecedented popular action in the streets of Egypt, led by Egypt’s youth with their justified demands for more freedom, more democracy, lower prices for necessities and more employment opportunities…Events deteriorated as lawless bands of thugs, and maybe agents provocateurs, appeared and looting began. The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria. They are collaborating with the army…The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.
As the initial chaos settled, good news started to emerge. Dr. Hawass was appointed Minister of Antiquities, a new department charged with the protection of all Egyptian monuments and museums. Today he issued the following statement:
I would like to tell the people, all over the world, the good news: the storage magazine that was looted in Qantara, in the Sinai, has had 288 objects returned! I cannot say exactly how many objects were lost, but it seems that the majority of what was stolen has been returned.
I would like to say that we were afraid that sites around Alexandria were robbed, but the military is now protecting them all. Also, the site of San el-Hagar in the Delta, where important 21st and 22nd Dynasty tombs are located, is being protected by the local Egyptians. More good news comes from Saqqara, where a committee reported that, although outlaws did open the padlocks of tombs there, they did not enter the tombs or cause any damage; everything is safe. The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is fine, too. A total of seventy objects have been broken, but the museum was dark and the nine robbers did not recognise the value of what was in the vitrines. They opened thirteen cases, threw the seventy objects on the ground and broke them, including one Tutankhamun case, from which they broke the statue of the king on a panther. However, the broken objects can all be restored, and we will begin the restoration process this week.
The commanders of the army are now protecting the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and all of the major sites of Egypt (Luxor, Aswan, Saqqara, and the pyramids of Giza) are safe. The twenty-four museums in Egypt, including the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo, are all safe, as well. I would like to say that I am very happy to see that the Egyptian people, young and old, stood as one person against the escaped prisoners to protect monuments all over the country. The monuments are safe because of both the army and the ordinary people.
Some foreigners think Egypt is not interested in protecting our monuments and museums, but that is not true, at all. Egypt has 5,000 years of civilisation, and we love our heritage. I want to send a message to the people of Egypt: all of you are responsible, to ultimately be judged by your own history, to protect your monuments, and should not permit ignorance or outlaws to damage our history – it is the most important thing we own. I am sure the bells from the churches are ringing now, and the voices from the minarets of mosques are calling, to say that Egypt is a safe place to live.
We all believe Egypt will be safe.
Updated: Dr. Hawass continues to send out regular reports. From his 2/5/11 post:
Today is a new day, but there are still marches in the streets of Cairo. I am personally very sad for my country. I cannot believe the devastation that has happened in the streets, and that so much has stopped in the last 11 days. We have lost so much, and I do not understand how this could be. It is like a dream for me. I have come into this new position at a very critical time, but the most important thing about this is that for the first time in history Egypt has a Ministry of Antiquities.
…As I have already stated, nothing was stolen from the museum; 70 objects were damaged but can be restored. Unfortunately, we cannot restore them now, as we had hoped, because the museum is closed and surrounded by the commanders of the army. The curators are stationed in the control room, and the cameras in the control room can see outside and inside of the museum.
…Yesterday, I received a report from Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, the general director of Lower Egypt, that 288 objects stolen from the storage magazine in Qantara East in the Sinai have been returned. He also confirmed that these objects and statues constitute everything that was taken.
…I hope that my reports will help you all to feel calm. Each of of my daily reports have been posted on my website, drhawass.com, and the SCA website, http://www.sca-egypt.org/eng/MR_PR.htm. You all know me, if anything happens I will report it right away. Again, and again, and again I tell you that the monuments of Egypt are safe.
Updated: Dr. Hawass posted on February 12 that after an inventory, they have discovered several items missing from the museum and another magazine has been broken into.
An investigation has begun to search for the people who have taken these objects, and the police and army plan to follow up with the criminals already in custody. I have said if the Egyptian Museum is safe, than Egypt is safe. However, I am now concerned Egypt is not safe…In another terrible turn of events, last night a magazine in Dahshur was broken into; it is called De Morgan’s. This magazine contains large blocks and small artifacts.
- Dr. Zahi Hawass’ blog
- Bibliotheca Alexandrina
- National Geographic: Egypt Treasures Looted, but Public Strikes Back
- Discovery News: Egypt’s Treasures: Assessing the Damage
- Egyptology News: Updates as they arrive on reports and dig diaries