On Wednesday as a ferocious clash between the President’s supporters and the protestors reached its highest point in Al-Tahrir square, ‘molotov cocktail’ bottles were thrown onto the exquisite 20th century edifice of the Egyptian museum and landed in its garden. Some fell on one of the army tanks located there to secure the museum, setting the tank on fire. Flames and smoke spread over towards the museum, leading to a rumour that the building was on fire. This led to a media frenzy but in fact the museum was unscathed.
“The Egyptian museum is safe and secured,” Tarek El-Awadi, Director-General of the museum told Ahram Online. “The fire was immediately extinguished by soldiers,” he confirmed.
Zahi Hawass, the newly-appointed Minister of State for Antiquities describes those people who spread these rumours as “idiots.”
“I have been saying in each of my statements, if the Egyptian museum is safe, Egypt is safe,” he asserted. “A complete fire-fighting unit is permanently located outside the museum and could quickly contain, control and put out any fire.”
Following this incident the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called Hawass to check on the position of the museum and all the archaeological sites in Egypt and he was able to reassure her that the rumours were unfounded.
“The museum is safe and secured by the Egyptian army and by decent Egyptian people,” he said. Hawass also rejected the decision taken by the International Committee of Museums (ICOM) to establish an international supervision committee to oversee and monitor the museum to protect it following the recent failed attempts to loot it. “We don’t need any international supervision,” he declared.
He told Ahram Online that he is the only source of the facts concerning the antiquities and that “these rumours are aimed at making the Egyptian people look bad. If anything happens to the museum, I would tell the whole world because I am a man of honour and would never hide anything,” Hawass stressed. “It is from my heart that I tell people everywhere that I am the guardian of these monuments, which belong to the whole world.”
Last Friday night, while chaos spread throughout Al-Tahrir square, robbers snatched the opportunity and jumped over the wall of the eastern side of the museum, right into the courtyard. They stole all the jewellery in the gift shop and then escaped, while around ten of them succeeded in entering the museum through the fire-escape stairs located in the backyard. They reached the roof, broke the windows of the dome and used ropes to get inside. The thieves then entered the late-period gallery, broke into thirty showcases and threw the collection on the floor, breaking some of the artifacts. Among these was a statue of Tutankhamen on a panther, from one of the boy-king’s display cases.
On their way out, the vandals smashed two skeletons, mistaking them for mummies, stored inside the galleries. At the entrance gate to the museum the robbers were cornered by some young Egyptian protestors, who prevented the looters from escaping with the priceless artifacts.
Hawass said the vandals did not manage to steal any of the museum’s collection, which is now completely safe and under military protection. “The seventy damaged artifacts will be restored to their original condition,” he promised.
With mass anti-government protests unleashing chaos on the streets, the Egyptian museum was not the only site under threat.
Burglars attempted to enter the Coptic museum in old Cairo, the Royal Jewellery museum and National museum of Alexandria, as well as El Manial museum. Luckily, the employees of the Royal Jewellery museum had the foresight to move all objects into the basement, and sealed it before leaving. Archaeological sites such as Saqqara, Mit Rahina, Luxor and Aswan were also under threat. Vandals did manage to open the padlocks of some tombs but did not enter or cause any damage.
Last Saturday, the storage galleries of Qantara East in north Sinai, where objects from the Port Said museum are located, was entered by armed looters who filled six boxes with artifacts. Mohmed Abdel Maqsoud, Head of Alexandria and Lower Egypt Antiquities told Ahram Online that although no exact number of objects were identified, with the help of the honest Sinai Bedouins, 288 items were returned the next day.
Hawass has announced that the commanders of the army are now protecting the Egyptian museum and all of the major sites in Egypt such as Luxor, Aswan, Saqqara and the pyramids of Giza. The twenty-four museums in Egypt, including the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo are all safe as well. “I would like to state 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,” he confirmed.
Hawass suggested that some foreigners think Egypt is not interested in protecting its monuments and museums, but that is not true. “Egypt has 5,000 years of civilisation and we love our heritage. “We are not the Taliban, who destroyed Afghanistan’s monuments.”
“I want everyone to relax and know that I am here and alert. I want people to know that after nine days of protests, the monuments are safe. Why? Because the Egyptian people are protecting them,” Hawass concluded.