Amr Nabil / AP file
The golden mask of Tutankhamun is the best-known treasure at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
By Alan Boyle
The situation in Egypt may be grim, but it sounds as if the government and the protesters agree on at least one thing: The golden mask of Tutankhamun and the nation’s other ancient treasures must be protected from harm.
When fire broke out tonight at the ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters in central Cairo, an urgent call was issued by Khaled Youssef, an Egyptian film director who has made movies critical of government policies. “I am calling on the Egyptian army to head instantly to the Egyptian Museum. There is a fire right next to it in the party headquarters,” he told the Al Arabiya television channel in a report relayed by Reuters.
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As the fire raged, would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum, The Associated Press reported. But other young men, some armed with truncheons taken from the police, formed a protective human chain outside the museum’s main gates. “I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure,” one of the men, a 40-year-old engineer named Farid Saad, told AP.
AP quoted 26-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim as saying that it was important to guard the museum because it has “5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we’ll never find it again.”
Finally, four of the army’s armored vehicles took up posts outside the museum. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside to protect the priceless artifacts.
There’s lots to protect: Tut’s golden mask is arguably the most precious of the treasures found by Egyptologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 — so precious that authorities will no longer let it travel out of the country. (I had the chance to see it in Seattle in 1978 during the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit.) The 109-year-old museum serves as the central repository for Tut’s treasures, but there’s lots more to see. The highlights range from monumental statues of Amenhotep III and his family to Roman-era gold treasures dug up from Egypt’s Western Desert.
The museum was tangled up in a controversy over lax security last year, after the theft of a Van Gogh painting from a different museum in Cairo. In light of the fact that looting has been reported at other buildings in Cairo, the concerns of the government — and the crowd in the streets — are well-grounded.
“If the reports about the human cordon around the museum are true, that’s a very moving thing for me,” Elizabeth Bartman, the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, told me. “They regard their archaeological finds as so precious that it’s worth their lives to protect them.”
Such a situation is more heartening than the situation that unfolded in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when thousands of relics were looted from the nation’s museums. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist C. Brian Rose, the institute’s past president, said Egyptians tended to be particularly protective of their cultural treasures.
“It’s not possible to plan for the future unless one understands the past, and I think this is something that all Egyptians understand very well,” Rose told me. “There’s a great respect for the cultural heritage of Egypt — shared, I think, by I would say nearly all Egyptians. I hope that respect will keep the archaeological sites and museums safe from any harm during this period of conflict.”
Even if the protesters and government forces share that respect for the museum’s antiquities, the situation could still lead to unintended and unwelcome consequences.
“Especially with Egypt being such a dry place — they have all these organic materials, they have textiles, they have ancient food, they have lots of wooden items — fire is a very scary proposition,” Bartman said. “Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the museums are not going to be caught in the crossfire.”
More tales of endangered antiquities:
* Mystery of Afghan gold has a happy ending * Looted Baghdad museum restored, dedicated * Iraq finds missing artifacts in premier’s storage * Fire at Nazi death camp destroys victims’ shoes
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Check back for updates on the fate of the Egyptian Museum.
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