It was called the “Friday of Anger” because it was the day that young people expressed their rage. The revolution had arrived, and the people declared that president Hosni Mubarak should leave.
The government imposed a curfew that night. I could do no more than sit at home, wondering what would happen to the country, as the TV screen showed the increasing numbers of people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which became the heart of the revolution.
I do not know why it never came to my mind that the Egyptian Museum might be looted. Maybe it was just too terrible a thought.
I thought to myself that these young people were organised and had used Facebook and other online communities to change Egypt. They had no weapons in their hands, not even sticks. They used signs and voices to ask for change. They needed to see Egypt become a democratic country.
At 10pm, I was still watching the TV. Then suddenly I heard the voice of Khaled Youssef, a famous film director considered to be one of the best, since his movies show the depths of society. He was screaming that the museum had to be saved. He had seen people jumping from the wall and entering the building. At that moment I could have had a heart attack.
The Internet wasn’t working, and neither was text messaging. Nobody could contact anyone else. I wanted to leave my home and go to the museum — never mind the curfew. But what could I do by myself? When the protests began to erupt on 25 January, I had ordered the director of the museum and the head of security to keep the museum closed. What more could I do? What more could any of us do?
The director was Tarek Al-Awadi. Although only 40 years old, he is one of the finest archaeologists in Egypt and certainly one of the most honest of men. He served as my assistant when I was director of the Pyramids Plateau, and even then I saw great promise in him.
I decided he should have more education because he could be useful to the future of his country and the field of archaeology. I called Mirsolav Verner of Prague University in the Czech Republic to see if he could give Al-Awadi a fellowship. After four years of studying at Prague, Al-Awadi then returned to work as the director of my scientific office. Only a few weeks before the revolution, I appointed him the director of the Cairo Museum, making him the youngest person to hold this important position.
Tarek proved to be fully dedicated to his job during the revolution. He was at the museum on the Friday of Anger, but with the communication blackout I couldn’t reach him.
Again, I heard Khaled Youssef begging everyone to save the museum, but I could not see any response from anyone. What was happening? Where were the police?
The reports on TV provided the answer: the police had abandoned everything. They were withdrawing from everywhere. Cairo had no protection. What would happen?
Frightening thoughts came to me. I remembered what had happened in Los Angeles in 1992 when some policemen were found not guilty after beating a black man named Rodney King. I remembered the riots and the looting done in anger. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in the US there had also been riots and battles.
I did not know the reason why the police had left Cairo. I heard that the army would come in to control the streets, but I knew that it would take time for tanks to arrive in Tahrir Square.
The hours of the evening of 28 January passed slowly and brought frightening dreams. In my sleep, the stone statues in the museum began to become living men. All the great pharaohs of Egypt came to ask me to save the museum.
THE MUSEUM IN REVOLUTION
Even after my eyes were open, I seemed to see the worried expressions on the faces of the Pharaohs. The museum was Egypt. It had to be protected.
My mind began to wonder: how would I find the Egyptian Museum when I arrived later that morning? I got out of bed but could not open my eyes because I hadn’t slept. I couldn’t eat breakfast. I had no taste for food. I drank some coffee because I needed the caffeine to open my eyes.
My driver Mohamed came, and at that moment I looked at my books on ancient Egypt and saw a great old book that many people neglect these days, but it contains some of the most beautiful words ever written about ancient Egypt.
The Dawn of Conscience was written by one of the greatest Egyptologists of all time, James Henry Breasted. He wrote that “Egypt laid the foundations of civilisation and shaped the human conscience thousands of years ago. All science began there, in the place where the Nile flows and floods to form a great Delta; where the ancient Egyptians lived, invented writing, and laid the foundations of knowledge and civilisation. They were the first to come together to form a village, which later grew to become a city and then the first unified state and political system in the world.”
While I was running to the car at 8am, I said to myself that no one will attack the museum. They are the descendants of the Pharaohs. They will protect the museum from criminals.
My driver took me directly to Tahrir Square. As I looked through the car window, I found myself driving past people who did not seem to be Egyptian in a country that did not seem to be Egypt. This was a new place, with new people, ones I did not know. The people and the cars ran in the wrong directions. I even saw one vehicle coming directly towards us. Burned-out cars littered the streets. This is what we call chaos, I thought. Keep these words in mind. We shall see what chaos has in store for us.
There was not a single police car around and no traffic officers. Approaching Tahrir Square, I saw ruined cars everywhere. A great battle had taken place here, and I saw the results — destruction, trash, smoke, people running. The tall building west of the museum, near the Nile was burning. It housed the ruling National Democratic Party, but other organisations were there too, and only the garden wall separated it from the museum. In just a few minutes I could see the museum itself had been spared from the fire. I thanked God for that.
I could not reach the museum by car. I had to get out and walk towards it from the west side. People began to recognise and welcome me. Someone was saying, “save the museum for us.” When I reached the area in front of the museum, I saw more than 100 young men standing near each other and holding hands.
“We have protected the museum,” they exclaimed. This was one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever heard.
Military vehicles, including tanks, crowded the garden. Despite the movement of the soldiers with their guns, a terrible silence lay over the place.
IN THE MUSEUM
As I came to enter the museum, the youths and soldiers continued to greet me. The young people wanted to tell me their stories, but I was in a hurry to meet Al-Awadi in the administration office, so that we could see what had happened to the museum.
Besides Al-Awadi, the head of the Board of Trustees, and the museum’s chief of security, I was met by our tourist police in civilian clothing, several other security staff members, and Major Hatem of the army commandos. In Hatem’s face I could see the features of ancient times: he reminded me of Mena, who united Upper and Lower Egypt 5,000 years, and of Ahmose, who expelled the Hyksos, and even Thutmose Ill, who forged the great empire, and Ramses II, the great leader in war and peace. I could see all this history reflected in Hatem’s face.
I sat with them and listened to every detail of the criminal attacks on the museum on the night of 28 January 2011, a day that Egypt will forever remember. This showed me a side of the story that the TV reports had not explained. The TV news had concentrated on the thefts and destruction at the museum’s gift shop, but no one had said what had happened to the museum displays. They also concentrated on the fire in the building next to the museum because it belonged to the National Democratic Party, which all the young people hated.
28 January had been a day unlike any other that Egypt had ever witnessed before.
This was a new history for Egypt, being written not by old men in power but by the young generation. What happened to the Egyptian Museum is a story with heroes wanting to preserve their heritage, and also villains looking for gold and mummies.
Those people did not know, or maybe did not care, that they were destroying their history and civilisation.
Seeing the façade of the Egyptian Museum looking out over Tahrir Square as it had for more than 100 years, I felt as if it was giving me a message: “Don’t worry. I am fine. The looters did not hurt me. They were not able to steal anything precious. They were ignorant and stupid. They never understood that I am the one who keeps their history safe.” What the museum seemed to be saying to me turned out to be largely true, because the curators told me that they examined the halls of the museum.
In the control room, we saw that all the masterpieces were there, intact and safe. Times in life like this I call “neurosis hours”. The museum seemed to me like a great man who has just got out of the operating theatre after a dangerous procedure, determined to continue life. At this moment, a strange sensation overcame me: I imagined the museum as a friend or member of my family, and I wanted to have the museum in my arms.
I sat on a simple chair at the main entrance of the museum to receive warm rays from the sun and to watch the young people in Tahrir Square. As a photograph showed the whole world at the time, I was protecting the museum. The museum was safe.
Most importantly, Egyptians were happy to see me there in front of the museum, and to see that the museum was safe after the difficult hours of the night of 28 January.
Beside me was Al-Awadi, whom I’d appointed director of the museum after the previous director retired after almost eight years on the job. Al-Awadi had been there for only 40 days and look at what he’d already had to face.
Beside us was a group of the young men who had stayed awake all night protecting the museum and also catching some of the thieves as they tried to escape. There, too, were the army commandos who had arrived at 10pm the previous night and who had joined the youths as the museum’s guardians.
The young people began to tell me in detail what had happened last night, during the most difficult five hours in the museum’s 110-year history. All the conditions in Tahrir Square made it certain that something dangerous would happen, especially after Friday prayers, when the square filled with almost a million young Egyptians.
Tahrir Square, or Liberation Square, is the main square in the city of Cairo and is located in the downtown area. To the northwest of the square is the museum, and to the west is the Corniche that skirts the Nile with its floating restaurants and tourist boats.
The 6 October Bridge and the Tahrir Bridge cross the river here too. Also in the neighbourhood are government buildings, the American University in Cairo, hotels, restaurants, and all kinds of shops.
When millions of Egyptians left the mosques after noontime prayers on Friday, 28 January 2011, most of them walked to Tahrir Square. The police did not want them to reach this place in the heart of Cairo. The young people, who wanted to express their desire for change, began to receive attacks from the police. When the fight began, of course, the ones who had no guns were the ones who died. We saw death. We witnessed the furnace of anger. Confusion, chaos, and disorder spread everywhere in Tahrir Square, the Corniche, and the 6 October Bridge.
Before the sun set, it was clear that the police could not impose control and had lost their power in front of the millions of young people. The government ordered the army into the streets of Cairo in response. But long before the army reached Tahrir Square, the police vanished from the city as if they’d hidden themselves underground. Cairo had no security at all from 6pm until the army arrived at 10pm. Four hours, no police in the city. What could happen? I remembered Los Angles and New Orleans.
A few minutes after the police left, we could see boiling anger and rage in the square. Young people rejoiced that their revolution had apparently succeeded, but criminals, looters, came out of their holes when they realised that the police had withdrawn and that there was no security anywhere in Cairo. They seized this opportunity to rob everything from jewellery shops to supermarkets and to attack everyone in sight. Even horses were not spared. Their goal was chaos, and they achieved it.
The first spark was the burning the National Democratic Party building. This building housed other institutions, too, even a branch of the National Bank. The east wall of this building is next to the museum. Thieves robbed the bank. The young people were telling me the details of what happened, and I was listening and did not want any interruption.
They said that criminals had begun to attack the museum from every side. Some were able to climb the wall surrounding the museum and get into the garden. The young people of the revolution saw this and knew what they had to do. They formed a human wall to stop anyone else from entering the museum.
These were the hours before the army arrived. No officials, no government security, tried to protect anything. It was up to the youths, who didn’t only try to stop the looters from entering but they even caught some who had been lucky enough to have got in and were trying to leave with their loot.
These hours before the arrival of the army had many stories of adventures, heroes and great men who gave their life to protect their heritage.
They told me some of these stories, like when they saw a man with a strange face, just like one of the bad guys in the films. He tried to escape by climbing the north wall of the museum at Abdel-Moneim Riad Square, but the youths stopped him. Then he came back with an iron tool and threatened everyone. He struck some of the youths and made his escape.
Another group of criminals had entered through the west side of the museum, where the new museum shop is located. These looters mistook the shop for the museum. They went directly to the gold and the precious items sold to tourists and stole much of it.
They had mistaken the replicas for genuine artefacts and stolen them.
The looters began to fight among themselves because each wanted to have more than the others. They didn’t know that the youths of the revolution were waiting for them as the honest guardians of their history. It is true that the existence of the shop, opened just a few months before, protected the Cairo Museum. The hours of fear continued.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.