With the world’s focus on civil unrest in Egypt, one aspect of the turmoil that will be of particular interest to TDG readers is the safety of the country’s priceless antiquities and monuments. Unfortunately, news has emerged that the Cairo Museum has been broken into, and a number of treasures have been either looted or vandalised – including those of Tutankhamun.
Egyptologist Margaret Maitland has kept a close eye on video reports from Al Jazeera and with help from others has documented the possible damages and losses in a series of updates at The Eloquent Peasant. These include t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶u̶m̶m̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶T̶u̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶g̶r̶e̶a̶t̶-̶g̶r̶a̶n̶d̶p̶a̶r̶e̶n̶t̶s̶ ̶Y̶u̶y̶a̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶T̶j̶u̶y̶a̶ (not so, according to this update from Alan Boyle), a 4000-year-old wooden boat, a number of priceless statuettes of Tutankhamun, and also one of Tut’s ceremonial fans.
The current ‘Pharaoh’ of Egyptian archaeology, Dr Zahi Hawass, has also posted a blog on his website with an update on the situation (via fax to Europe, as the internet has been shut down in Egypt), saying his “heart is broken” and his “blood is boiling.” You can also find further information about the museum damage at MSNBC’s Cosmic Log. Let’s hope that the current reports give the full extent of the losses, and it’s not discovered later that someone has filled their boots and things are being covered up.
Maitland notes that Wafaa el-Saddik, former director of the Egyptian Museum, has said in an interview that the looting of the museum was an inside job by guards and police. I’ve also seen rumours on Twitter that the vandalism was done by the Mubarek regime as propaganda against the protesters, but I have seen no actual evidence of that as yet. In more positive news, a number of reports have mentioned that young Egyptians are banding together to help protect various museums and monuments around the country that have not yet been given an official guard.
On a sidenote, one wonders what this damage will mean for the ongoing quest by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to repatriate archaeological treasures in museums around the world. It would be highly likely that these museums, obviously unwilling to let go of priceless Egyptian artefacts, will now put forward the defence that it’s not safe to send them back to their country of origin. Although, to be fair, Berlin Museum – which currently holds the famous bust of Nefertiti – might be hard-pressed to use that argument in their favour…
Another question yet to be answered is what a change of government might mean for Zahi Hawass. Just over a year ago Dr Hawass was installed by President Mubarek as Vice Minister for Culture, in an apparent circumvention of his forced (mandatory) retirement as head of the SCA. He is also a noted sycophant to the current regime:
I would also like to say how grateful I am to President Mubarak. He is a unique man, who has given a lot to his country. He has been in public service for years and I have not once seen him make a decision just for himself. Everything he does, he does for Egypt. His wife, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, I feel deserves a Nobel Prize for the work she has done for peace.
From comments I’ve seen, and emails I’ve received over the years, I think a substantial portion of the archaeological community wouldn’t mind a sea change in Egyptian archaeology.
Update: For ongoing news, see the Egyptologists for Egypt Facebook page.
Previously on TDG: