As I was sitting in front of the Egyptian Museum in a simple chair, the phone of one of the young men around me rang. It was his mother, and he told her what had happened and how he had protected the museum.
He handed me his phone, asking me to tell his mother that he was a really brave man. I did as he asked and told her that I was very proud of her son. I said that “he protected his heritage.” Any mother should be proud of such a thing.
Another youth told me a story to show how stupid the museum looters really were. He said that the looters had entered the museum shop and were busy stealing the replica silver and gold pieces, but the funny thing was that they never looked at the books, even though some of these were more expensive than the gold pieces they made off with. But their ignorance made them not even touch the books.
The other funny thing was that some of them had seen a fire department vehicle parked in front of the museum’s northern gate. Some people, ignorant about how to drive this kind of vehicle, were able to move it anyway. The youths said that they did not understood why the thieves had taken this vehicle away. Some believed that they didn’t want anyone to use it to help put out the fire at the National Democratic Party building.
But the looters didn’t only loot the museum shop. Some got into the museum café beside it and raided the kitchen. They broke open the refrigerator and stole meat, chicken, hamburgers, and everything else they could grab, even salt, ketchup, knives, and forks. As the thieves left the museum, the young people searched them. When they found they had no antiquities, only stuff from the kitchen, they let them go.
However, the youths guarding the museum did not know that another group of criminals had entered the museum itself and tried to break open the padlocks. But the building’s century-old doors were made so that virtually no one could open them by force.
Even so, the museum’s luck ran out during the night, because the rear wall of the museum has an iron ladder against it leading up to the roof. This ladder had been there for a very long time, and the section that reached the ground had earlier been taken out for security reasons. But it had recently been restored to be used by workmen and engineers working to improve the roof and ceiling in order to protect the museum from rain and wind. A security guard was stationed near the ladder after hours.
But nobody had believed that the Egyptian Museum would be looted and that this ladder would be the way in.
I told army commando Major Hatem that I needed to meet the criminals face to face. He told me that they had 11 of them tied up outside and one still inside the museum. I left my chair and went to see the first 10. They were sitting on the ground, each looking ugly and stupid. None seemed to have had any education.
I approached them and asked, “why did you enter the museum?” I got no answer except stupid looks. “How many people entered the museum?” No answer at all. They stared at me, and I could not see any sign that they felt any guilt. They did not understand that this museum held the evidence of their great history.
When I realised that talking to them was useless, I walked off and then saw two skulls that had been in the hands of these ignorant thugs. A great fear seized me. Had these men entered the Mummy Rooms of the museum or damaged the three mummies that we had determined to belong to the family of king Tutankhamun?
Using DNA and CT scans, we had identified one of these mummies as being that of Akhenaten and discovered that he had been Tutankhamun’s father. Another mummy was that of queen Tie, Tutankhamun’s grandmother, and the third was of an unknown woman who was his mother. Because there was no room to exhibit these important mummies inside the Second Mummy Room, I had decided that they should be displayed outside it.
But after a moment of fear, I began to look at the skulls more carefully. None of these could belong to Tutankhamun’s family. But still some doubt lingered.
Other artefacts were kept in the office of the chief of the museum’s security department. Three of his staff, who did not wear uniform, had not left the museum. I found that they had retained many Late Period artefacts and a gilded statue of Isis.
Then I entered the bookstore. As the young men had told me outside, the books were fine. It was the areas housing the gold and the replicas that had been disturbed. The youths had even brought back some gold jewellery that had been stolen from the museum shop.
Tourists today exit the museum through the shop door. As I left it, I saw one of the strangest scenes that I will ever see in my life. A man was handcuffed to the door, another ugly man wearing a galabiya. Scars covered his face, and his eyes were almost closed. He had been inside the museum when he had seen a police officer in civilian clothes outside the museum. The thief was crying and asking for water. The officer came with his handcuffs and fastened him to the iron door handle. I asked the thief if he had any antiquities and how many other people were there.
He only cried and said, “I did not do anything.” But he was lying.
We didn’t learn how any people had actually entered the museum and how many objects were stolen. But Museum Director Tarek Al-Awadi and the army commandos had made all the necessary arrangements to enter the museum on 29 January to determine if the masterpieces were still there and report the situation to me.
The keys to the padlocks had been stolen, so they had to break open some of the doors, including the main museum door. Al-Awadi called me to say that they had found about 13 showcases on the second floor that had been opened and all the artefacts thrown on the floor. A case that contained a beautiful coffin that dated to the 19th Dynasty was also broken. I asked Al-Awadi about the Mask Room, which contains all Tutankhamun’s jewellery, most of the objects found inside and outside the mummy, and the young king’s two spectacular golden coffins.
I also asked about the rooms of Middle Kingdom jewellery and the gold collection from Tanis. Al-Awadi and the curators said that the museum was safe. Feeling relieved, I went to speak to the foreign and Egyptian media in order to convince them, too, that the Egyptian Museum was safe.
THE MUSEUM IS SAFE
The media began asking for interviews — CNN, the BBC, Good Morning America, the Today Show, and many other programmes from US, European, and Japanese TV.
What had happened in Egypt had affected these other countries, too. The one million foreign tourists who were in Egypt during the revolution had left safely. The Egyptians in the tourist industry had done their part in order to be sure that no foreigner was hurt. The tourist hotels had been spared from destruction.
And so had the masterpieces of the museum. When I looked at the security monitor and saw that all the masterpieces were where they should be, just as Al-Awadi had said, it was a great relief. Now I had to speak to the media. I will tell you what I said and why.
I announced that the masterpieces were there, safe in the museum. The Egyptian Museum was safe, and that meant that Egypt was also safe. I also said that I was appointing a committee to inventory the museum to see what was missing. With the vast number of objects on display, this would take time. We could not announce that the museum had been robbed without knowing what artefacts had been stolen. It would have been irresponsible.
This is why I did not announce the thefts. But there was also another reason. If I had said that the museum had been robbed, the revolution would have been held responsible and the world might not have supported the young people behind it. The world at large cares more about the museum and its treasures than it does about the revolution and Egyptian democracy.
While it is true that the effects of the revolution allowed the looting, the youths who made the revolution also protected the museum, which contains artefacts that record the history of the Pharaohs and thus the history of the world. It was the young people who put their bodies together to stand in front of the south side of the museum. It was a message to the world that they would put their lives on the line to save the history of Egypt.
If the police abandon any city in the world for a few hours, gangs will likely emerge to rob and pillage. This is true anywhere in the world. Moreover, there are always people waiting in the shadows to catch mistakes. They are people who do not like to see the success of others and who pounce on any error they think they see. One of them was an archaeologist who had served as secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). He began claiming that the museum had been robbed of thousands of artefacts. He claimed that I had lied when I had said that the museum was safe. But I have told the true story, and I leave it to the reader to judge.
The night of 2 February was another remarkable one for me. It saw another thing that nobody would ever imagine happening, even in a film. Nobody would even have gone to see such a film because it was too much to believe. It would have seemed no more real than people who predict the future.
Cairo was still under curfew, and I was sitting at home watching events on TV. Everything looked normal in Tahrir Square. The demonstrators were sitting in their spots. They had all sworn that they would not leave the Square until their demands were met.
Then before the sun set, and from beyond the Square, horses and camels appeared. They transformed modern Tahrir Square into a scene from a mediaeval battle, like something out of the Arabian Desert, when horses were the heroes of war. It was as if the television had begun to show an epic film, but this was not a film. It was not an event from the historical past. Before our very eyes, the Revolution had turned a dangerous corner and entered the kind of scene that could not bring anything good to Egypt.
The youths began to defend themselves against the mounted attackers in the square who were beating them with sticks. They threw stones at them, but before midnight the battle took on another face.
We watched in horror as the youths endured showers of Molotov cocktails. Bottles rained down from the tops of the buildings on Tahrir Square at Mariette Pasha Street near the museum. Petrol-fueled flames spread across the street as the bottles burst. A TV station planted its cameras on the balcony of a hotel on the north side of the museum and broadcast what it called “the burning of the museum.” It claimed that the smoke was rising from inside the museum. The news crawl of many TV stations began to read that the Egyptian Museum was burning.
My home phone was ringing — everyone was trying to contact me to ask me to save the museum. There was one lady in particular who was crying, saying “please in the name of God, I ask you to save the museum. The museum is burning, our heritage is finished. Do something. How will we face the world when they ask us why we did not save our heritage?”
She asked me to turn on the TV and see with my own eyes the “burning of the museum.” It did indeed look as if smoke was rising from the museum in the TV pictures. I had also heard an official at the SCA, though one with a reputation for dishonesty, screaming that the museum was finished.
I was able to convince the lady that I would call her back in two minutes after I had found out the truth. I was trembling as I called the head of the control room at the museum. “Is it true that the museum is burning,” I asked. “Sir, this is not true,” he said. “We have cameras monitoring everything inside and outside the museum. I can tell you that the smoke is from a car burning outside the museum. It cannot affect the museum.”
I called the lady back and told her that the news story was wrong. The museum was safe. “Believe me,” I said. “Then call the Al-Arabiya TV channel and tell them the news is not true,” she replied.
But when I began to call the TV stations, another call came to me. This time it was Mahmoud Mabrouk, who works on the interior design of many museums. He said that from the bridge on the northern side of the museum he could see the museum burning. “Mahmoud, listen to me please,” I said, explaining about the museum’s security cameras. I insisted that the smoke was coming from a car on the street. The smoke might get into the museum, but the museum itself was not on fire.
Finally, I called the TV station. I was very firm, saying “please, all of you listen to me. The museum is safe, and any archaeologist who says otherwise is a liar.” I explained the truth that the museum was safe and was not burning.
Afterwards, people forgot about the car and the fire but remembered what I had said — that “the Egyptian Museum is safe, and the youths saved the museum.”
The fire was a secondary thing compared to the Battle of the Camel when more than 900 people died. The attorney-general investigated the incident and determined that many of the people involved in the Battle of the Camel had been members of the former ruling National Democratic Party. There were no tourists at the Pyramids, so they had found another job. These men were sent to jail.
A curious thing happened during the investigation. When the horse and camel riders arrived at Tahrir Square, they began attacking and killing the young people of the revolution, as they clearly had been hired to do. But they later claimed that they had come to Tahrir Square to make a demonstration against me.
The SCA today receives many complaints about some of the owners of the horses and camels who work at Giza, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. They abuse their jobs and concern themselves only with making money. They used to spread out all over the Plateau whenever they pleased. There was no control, and some unfairly stole business from their competitors. Not only that, but they also damaged tombs on the plateau in what I call “site pollution”.
I worked to change all this. In the project I undertook, all tourists enter the Giza Plateau from the Fayoum Road. In further plans, south of the first pyramid, a parking lot would be prepared for cars. There would be a visitor centre to teach visitors about the site they were about to visit with films and other media. An electric car would then bring them to the second pyramid, and here they would be able to walk and enjoy.
If any tourist wanted to ride a camel or a horse, they would be able to hire one from the new stables near the parking lot. The Pyramids would still be looking their best against their scenic backdrop. In this more organised way, everyone would have fair work and could be supervised by the tourist police. If a tourist had a complaint against one of the horse-owners, site security would know about it and could take appropriate action against the offender.
This is what had made the riders of the horses and camels so unhappy that they had come to Tahrir Square. Or that’s what they said, as if that could cover up the fact that they had killed all those people. I am glad that they were later proved guilty and punished by the law.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.