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Cairo's Egyptian Museum After The Looting

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One of the most enduring events of the Egyptian uprising occurred late one night when local citizens formed a human chain to protect the Egyptian Antiquities Museum on Tahrir Square from those seeking to damage or steal its priceless contents. Sadly, this followed reports that the museum had been looted. Now, some 21 months later, the museum is attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy.

Tahrir Square, the focal point for Arab Spring in Egypt and subsequent protests, is once again calm. Few signs of the latest protest after the embassy riots remain. The large Ritz-Carlton sign announcing the opening of the new hotel on the site of the former iconic Nile Hilton flanks beside both the Egyptian Antiquities Museum and the still-empty burned out National Party headquarters, physical reminders of the continuing contradictions of post-revolution Egypt.

At the center of the Square, in the center of Cairo, sits the museum. It is arguably the finest repository of ancient treasures in the world, save those removed by others, both legally and illegally (think Napoleon). This single museum represents the finest antiquities from Egypt's Pharaonic past. It chronicles a civilization that remains the pinnacle of ancient learning, sophistication, art and creativity. Protection of the treasures here and throughout the country is a matter of great Egyptian national pride and international concern.

During the tumultuous days of late January 2011, Zahi Hawass, the swashbuckling Minister of Antiquities and international face of all that was Egypt, announced that though the museum security had been breached, no antiquities had been stolen and that 10 small artifacts and two mummies that were damaged had all been recovered. He noted that the biggest threat to the Museum was from fire at the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling party next door. The world was not to fear that Egypt would be an Afghanistan, a comment referring to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban. Egypt would protect her treasures.

Fast forward to September 2012. Zahi Hawass has been replaced as Minister of Antiquities and awaits resolution of charges that he benefited from promoting the national patrimony. I visited the museum and spoke with several curators, Egyptologists and national guides and the real story of January 2011 is not clear. But the current state of the museum is obvious.

One of the somewhat believable stories from January 2011 is that the looters were really two separate groups. One group, looking for quick money, looted the gift shop of worthless trinkets and broke into a few cases on the first floor looking for quick gold. Many of this group were arrested by the military when they were found cooking meals for themselves in the kitchen of the museum.

The other group, who may have gone through the skylights, were a much more sophisticated group of international thieves who had a list of pieces that they know could be quickly sold on the black market to international investors. I have seen no listing of these pieces that are purported missing and which many fear they may now be in the hands of private collectors abroad. Security cameras were strangely off during this time. Some suggest this was a publicity stunt to provoke international concern and financial aid, gone awry when expert thieves took advantage of a situation. That seems a very Thomas Crown Affair to me, but I wasn't there.

I asked one long-time guide to show me where cases had been broken into and what she knew was missing. She showed me one case from the Amarna period that she said had been broken and then repaired. I asked about a Tutankhamun statue which was found broken on the second floor, and she said that it too was fine. She said nothing else was missing.

So what about the state of the Museum today? Of course the collections, even if missing a few items, are as magnificent as ever. Similarly, as always, the museum is in dire need of funding for everything from infrastructure to preservation efforts to security improvements. It was virtually empty on a Thursday and Friday, so little revenue is coming from entrance fees. The museum shop remains boarded up, and that's much needed revenue gone. The security guards, though always friendly, are too few to begin to protect every hall. Many critical conservation projects are on hold.

Egypt's economy is in dire need of huge financial aid and injections of capital if it is to resume growth. Museum and archaeological needs will not be top of this list. As the world watches and hopefully moves to help, much more will be needed.

The government of President Morsi has repeatedly stated that it supports protection of the national heritage and promotion of tourism. Plans for two new museums, the National Museum of Civilization in Old Cairo and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, are still supported by the new government and both will present new state of the art facilities when complete. But when? I hope it will not be too late.

Cairo September 2012
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