Details of looting of Cairo and other Egyptian museums
Jewellery the main target in the Egyptian Museum, but mummies also damaged
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 31 January 2011
CAIRO. Egypt’s antiquities remain under serious threat, as anti-government protests and violence continue. Officials are now assessing the damage that has been caused by looters. At the Egyptian Museum, a statue from Tutankhamun’s tomb was thrown to the ground, breaking in half, and two mummies were decapitated.
In the evening of 28 January, a thousand people jumped over a wall into the compound of the Egyptian Museum, which lies at the north end of Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square). This is the major intersection in central Cairo, and the scene of protests against president Hosni Mubarak.
Most of the looters who entered the museum grounds headed for the gift shop, where all the modern jewellery was stolen. Fortunately, the shop offered no direct access to the galleries.
However, ten people managed to enter the main building. They climbed fire-exit stairs to the roof, broke though a glass panel, and lowered themselves on a rope into the gallery, four metres below. They first went to a Late Period display, presumably looking for antique jewellery. Thirteen vitrines were broken and their contents thrown onto the floor.
Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass says the looters then headed for the Tutankhamun galleries on the upper level, which hold the greatest treasures of Egyptian art. They were unable to reach the room with Tutankhamun’s golden mask, but broke a vitrine with a statue of a pharaoh on a panther, throwing it on the floor.
Two mummies were taken from glass cases. They were damaged and their skulls broken off. There has been controversy over whether bodies should be exhibited, but it is unclear whether the two mummies were on open display or removed from their coffins. At least one of the looters was caught. Army tanks were later brought in to protect the museum and some protesters joined soldiers guarding the museum.
Fortunately, the damaged antiquities can be restored and initially it seemed that few, if any pieces, had been stolen from the Egyptian Museum. However, the break-in could well have ended up being as serious as the looting and vandalism of the Kabul Museum (1994-2001) and the Baghdad Museum (2003).
In an emotional statement on 30 January, Hawass commented: “My heart is broken and my blood is boiling. I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years had been destroyed in one day.”
The fate of archaeological sites and other museums still remains unclear. Near Qantara, on the Suez Canal, a group of armed men with a truck entered an archaeological store and took antiquities belonging to the Port Said Museum.
Another store at Abu Sir, just west of Alexandria, was broken into. Attempts were also made to enter the National Museum and the Royal Jewellery Museum in Alexandria, as well as the Coptic Museum and Manial Museum in Cairo. There have also been reports of looting at Saqqara, a key site 15 kilometres south of the capital.
Disturbingly, museums in Egypt appear to have had little in the way of disaster plans. Security at the Egyptian Museum has been poor, with its 1902 building allowed to deteriorate and antiquated display cases still in use. Yet it houses the world’s most important collection of Egyptian antiquities, with over 100,000 objects on display.
Following the theft of a Van Gogh painting at Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum on 20 August 2010, the latest looting emphasises the importance of upgrading security at Egypt’s museums. However, the fall in international tourism, which will inevitably follow this latest unrest, will reduce still further the resources available.
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