A Brief History of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo
With more than 150,000 objects on display and more in its basement storage rooms, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo may be the most important museum in the world. Its displays allow visitors to read Egypt’s history through countless objects, which reflect all aspects of life in pharaonic times. It gives us an understanding of the political, economic, social, and religious dimensions of Egypt’s antiquity.
When I took the position of Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, I devoted a lot of care to this Museum. It was in a bad state. Its curators helped foreigners take photos or study an object, but they themselves undertook no scholarly work. No one had ever bothered to create a database of its collections or to track the movement of individual artifacts. Even on my first day in office in 2002, I learned that 38 objects were missing. I sent this case to the administration court, which appointed a committee composed of many archaeologists to review the objects in the Museum, to see if these objects were genuinely missing or not. Only in March 2011 the committee determined that the objects were not in the Museum. This demonstrates how the Egyptian Museum was functioning—or not functioning—in those days.
In 2002, the very year of my appointment, the Egyptian Museum was to celebrate the centennial of its opening. We decided that an international celebration, with an exhibit especially for the occasion, was called for. For the first time, we turned part of the basement into an exhibition hall for “Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum,” an exhibit that brought to light artifacts from many sites that had never been publicly displayed before. The outside of the building was repainted. For the ceremonies, we erected a large tent outside the Museum and made the night at the Museum beautiful with lights. A military band provided music for the anniversary, which Egypt commemorated with a special postage stamp. We showed a National Geographic film about the Museum and we honored not only curators but the workmen and guards who have been responsible for keeping this Museum going for the last hundred years.
The Museum has its own history. Mohamed Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848, recognized the many dangers facing Egypt’s antiquities. In 1826, he prevented the British from taking a pharaonic lintel that had been reused as a building stone in the mosque near Bab El-Nasr. Mohamed Ali gave orders to Hussein Bek Hieder to excavate the area of Kaliubia, where he knew antiquities would be found—he did not want the Europeans to obtain them. Some objects from this site, he had heard, had already left the country through the port of Alexandria. But Mohamed Ali Pasha was not entirely opposed to foreign excavation. In 1828, he permitted Champollion, the decipherer of the hieroglyphs, to excavate because he knew that Egypt would benefit. He made an order to help the French scholar and gave him all the protection that he needed. Champollion explored many sites during the 19 months he was in Egypt, and he recorded what he saw, including the destruction of antiquities. He suggested to Mohamed Ali that a law should be issued to control excavation. Mohamed Ali agreed but did not want to give this responsibility to a foreigner, so he appointed Sheikh Rifaa El Tahtawy to the job. Tahtawy had studied in France as part of a group of students Mohamed Ali had sent there from 1826 to 1831. Tahtawy became the first Egyptian responsible for the preservation and excavation of Egyptian monuments, and he took measures against the theft of antiquities. He also took the first early steps that would eventually lead to the creation of the Egyptian Museum.
In 1835, Mohamed Ali established the first government department to protect and serve antiquities—including laws governing their ownership—and developed a program to preserve ancient monuments. He asked Yusuf Diger Effendi to suggest a site for the first museum. Diger, who oversaw archaeological sites in Upper Egypt, suggested El-Azbakia. Objects from all over Egypt were sent to Diger for storage. Mohamed Ali asked the Ministry of Education to present a report about ancient sites and objects, but the end of his reign in 1848 also ended this project. Three years later, Khedive Abbas Helmi I, moved the objects that had been collected to a hall inside the Citadel, which sits atop Mokattam hill in the center of Cairo. Four years after that, Khedive Mohamed Said Pasha granted a large portion of the collection to Duke Maximilian of Austria, as an official gift. This was a common practice at the time.
Said also ordered the police to give more attention to the protection of the monuments and also to watch over any export of antiquities beyond Egypt’s borders. Only a couple of years before, while Abbas Helmi I still ruled, the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette had begun to excavate at Saqqara, where he was fortunate enough to discover the Serapaeum, burial place of the sacred Apis bulls. Defying khedival orders, Mariette continued to dig and secretly sent most of the objects that he found to France.
In 1858, Khedive Said Pasha established the Antiquities Service and appointed Auguste Mariette as its first Director. Mariette, who had worked at the Louvre for several years, created a program to document the objects and discoveries, and we can also credit him with renewing Mohamed Ali’s project to establish an Egyptian Museum. Although he wished to have the Museum at Giza, Mariette restored an old mosque at the area of Bulaq as a temporary museum. He collected many objects from different sites and put them on display here.
In 1859, Mariette found the tomb of Queen Ahhotep at Dra Abou El Naga in western Thebes. The queen’s beautiful jewelry and other treasures captivated Khedive Said, who was finally inspired to commission the construction of a proper museum. Four years later, the next khedive, Ismail Pasha, officially opened the Museum at Bulaq to display these objects and many more unearthed by other excavations. Near the Bulaq Museum, Ali Mubarak (who was important in the development of modern Cairo) and the German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch founded the first school of Egyptology. The school lasted from 1869 to 1874, when Brugsch’s absence and Mariette’s hostility brought it to a close. Mariette, it was rumored, was jealous of his position in the Antiquities Service and did not wish to train Egyptian archaeologists.
More than just personalities conspired against the growth of Egyptian Egyptology in the early days. The flood of 1878 reached the museum in Bulaq, damaging the building and the artifacts in it. Mariette then asked for a safer, more permanent place for a museum.
A month before his death in 1881, Mariette wrote that no Egyptian artifact should be given to any foreign power. But foreigners were still important within the Antiquities Service. Another French Egyptologist, Gaston Maspero took Mariette’s place. At the same time, another great Egyptian personality in antiquities appeared, Ahmed Kamal Pasha, Egypt’s first Egyptologist. Trained by Brugsch, he belonged to a group documenting antiquities and preparing a new catalog of the Museum’s collections. Kamal opened a small school of Egyptology inside the Museum, but lack of funding forced it to close in 1885.
By 1887, the Bulaq Museum was overcrowded with antiquities. It looked like a shop, not a museum. To resolve the situation, the khedive, Tawfiq Pasha, donated one of his palaces at Giza, which opened as a museum in 1890. But even this was not big enough to contain all the objects in the growing collection.
Tawfiq decided to build a new museum in Cairo. He announced an international architecture competition for the building, which resulted in the submission of 73 projects. The honor of designing the new museum went to the French architect Marcel Dourgnon, but the contract for the construction went to an Italian team, perhaps as a consolation for having lost.
Construction began in 1897, and in 1901, Alessandro Barasanti, one of Maspero’s assistants, received the key to the world’s first building built as a museum. Then the difficult work of transferring the collection began. So many objects were moved from the Giza palace, the Bulaq Museum, and storage room at Azbakia that it took 5,000 boxes to hold them all.
On November 15, 1902, during the reign of Khedive Abbas Helmi II, the Egyptian Museum opened with 36,000 objects. Artifacts within the Museum are displayed according to their historical sequence. Although the outside of the building is Neoclassical with almost no Egyptian influence, the rooms inside were built to resemble the chapels in the Temple of Edfu. Maspero was appointed the first curator. On July 13 1902, the body of Auguste Mariette was moved to the garden of the Museum. It is appropriate for his remains to be buried near the antiquities he worked so very hard to collect and protect.
Egyptology was changing then and becoming more Egyptian. In 1910, Ahmed Kamal convinced the Minister of Education to open a new archaeology department at the Higher Teachers College in Cairo, and in 1951 he was honored with a bust placed in the museum’s garden. Twelve years after Kamal established the archaeology department, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. Until that time, if a foreign scholar found an intact tomb, the objects were divided between Egypt and the expedition team. But now there were new laws, and with Tutankhamun’s tomb, for the first time, Egypt was able to keep all the objects that were found in the tomb. A special hall within the museum was dedicated to these beautiful artifacts, which number about 4,500 pieces.
During its centennial in 2002, the museum gained a new school, for adults and children. This had been a dream of mine, to have the school at the museum, to follow in the footsteps of Tahtawy and Kamal long before me, to raise Egyptians’ awareness and appreciation of their ancient heritage.
More changes were in store for the museum. I wanted to bring it into a new, more modern phase, so my office undertook a number of other projects. The most important of these was the Museum database. The American Research Center in Egypt funded the project, which was directed by Dr. Janice Kamrin, who later left to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She trained capable staff of young Egyptian scholars who continue to work on the project today.
The basement underwent major changes to make it unlike that of any other museum in the world. Artifacts in storage there were moved to magazines at different sites to make room for new curatorial offices and a DNA lab for the scientific examination of mummies.
In the garden on the east side of the Museum grounds, choice sculptures are now exhibited and can be seen by passersby through an iron gate that replaced the old stone wall. This exhibit is specially illuminated at night. The area behind the Museum was redone as well. Such work was supervised by my office and the Secretary of Projects.
The Museum also needed a change in its traffic flow. Visitors used to enter and leave through the same set of doors, but now they exit through the new gift shop, where there is also a café. This not only improves the flow of people through the Museum but, by making sure that everyone must pass by the gifts and books, it also increases the funding for conservation. The Museum and other sites in Egypt rely on ticket sales to provide such things.
More changes lie ahead for the Museum, with the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum underway at Giza. The GEM is to receive many of the Egyptian Museum’s objects, as is the National Egyptian Museum of Civilization in Fustat, so that the Egyptian Museum’s new mission would be to display masterpieces of Egyptian art in an archaeological context.
It was such a bright future for the Museum, a future that I never suspected would hold looters and theft. Even if my dreams had shown it to me, I never would have believed it would happen.
The Looters and the Museum
Friday, January 28, 2011
This was called the Friday of Anger because it was the day when the young people expressed their rage—the Revolution had arrived and the people declared that President Mubarak should leave. The government imposed a curfew that night. I could do nothing more than sit at home, wondering what would happen to the country, as the TV screen showed the increasing numbers of people at Tahrir Square, which became the heart of the Revolution. I do not know why it never came to my mind that the Egyptian Museum might be looted. Maybe it was just too terrible a thought.
I thought to myself that these young people were organized and had used Facebook and other online communities to change Egypt—they had no guns in their hands, not even sticks. They used signs and voices to ask for change. They needed to see Egypt become a democratic country.
At 10 PM, I was still watching the TV. Then suddenly I heard the voice of Khaled Yussef, a famous film director considered to be one of the best; his movies show the depth of society. He was screaming that the Museum had to be saved. He saw people jumping from the wall and entering the building.
At that moment I could have had a heart attack.
The Internet was not working, neither was text messaging. Nobody could contact another. I wanted to leave my home and go to the Museum—never mind the curfew!—but what could I do by myself? When protests began to erupt on the January 25, I had ordered the Director of the Museum and also the Head of Security to keep the Museum closed. What more could I do? What more could any of us do?
The Director was Tarek El Awady. Although only 40 years old, he is one of the finest archaeologists in Egypt, and he is certainly one of the most honest of men. He served as my assistant when I was Director of the Pyramids, and even then I saw great promise in him. I decided he should have more education, because he could be useful in the future for his country and for the field of archaeology. I called Miroslav Verner of Prague University in the Czech Republic to see if he could give Tarek a fellowship. After four years of studying in Prague, Tarek returned to work as the Director of my Scientific Office. Only a few weeks before the Revolution, I appointed him as the Director of the Cairo Museum, making him the youngest person to hold this important position; Tarek proved to be fully dedicated to his job during the Revolution. He was at the Museum on the Friday of Anger, but with the communication blackout I could not reach him.
Again I heard Khaled Youssef begging everyone to save the Museum, but I could not see any response from anyone. What was happening? Where was the police?
The reports on TV provided the answer: the police had abandoned everything. They were withdrawing from everywhere. Cairo had no protection. What would happen?
Frightening thoughts came to me. I remembered what had happened in Los Angeles in 1992, when some policemen were found not guilty after beating a black man named Rodney King—the riots and the looting done in anger! And after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, there were riots and battles, it seemed that everyone looted everything in town.
I did not know the reason why the police left Cairo. I heard that the army would come in to control the streets, but I knew that it would take time for the tanks to arrive in Tahrir Square.
The hours of the evening of January 28 passed slowly and brought frightening dreams and nightmares to me. In my sleep, all the stone statues began to become living men. All the great pharaohs of Egypt came to ask me to save the Museum.
The Egyptian Museum Witnesses the Revolution
Even after opening my eyes, I could still see the worried expressions of all the pharaohs. The Museum was Egypt. It had to be protected. My mind began to wonder: how would I find the Egyptian Museum when I arrived later that morning?
I got out of bed but could not open my eyes because I had not slept. I could not eat breakfast. I had no taste for food. I drank coffee only because I needed the caffeine to open my eyes. My driver Mohamed came. In that moment I looked at my books on ancient Egypt and saw a great old book that many people neglect these days, but it contains some of the most beautiful words written about ancient Egypt. The Dawn of Conscience was written by one of the greatest Egyptologists of our time: James Henry Breasted. He wrote, “Egypt laid the foundations of civilization and shaped the human conscience thousands of years ago. All sciences began there, in the place where the Nile flows and floods to form a great Delta; where the ancient Egyptians lived, invented writing and laid the foundations of knowledge and civilization. They were the first to come together to form a village, which later grew to become a city and then the first unified state and political system in the world.”
While I was running to the car at 8 AM, I said to myself “no one will attack the Museum—they are the descendants of the pharaohs! They will protect the Museum from criminals.”
My driver took me directly to Tahrir Square. As I looked through the car window, I found myself driving past people who did not seem to be Egyptian in a country that did not seem to be Egypt. This was a new place, with new people, ones I did not know. The people and cars ran in the wrong direction. I even saw one vehicle coming directly toward us. Burned-out cars littered the streets. This is what we call chaos. Keep this word in mind: we shall see what chaos has in store for us.
There was not one single police car around, no traffic officers. Approaching Tahrir Square, I saw damaged cars everywhere. A great battle had taken place there and I saw the results: destruction, trash, smoke, people running. The tall building west of the Museum, near the Nile, was burning. It housed the ruling National Democratic Party, but other organizations were there too, and only the garden wall separated it from the Museum. In just a few minutes I could see the Museum itself had been spared from the fire. I thanked God for that.
I could not reach the Museum by car. I had to get out and walk toward it from the west side. People began to recognize and welcome me. Someone was saying, “Save the Museum for us!” When I reached the area in front of the Museum, I saw more than a hundred young men standing near each other and holding hands. “We protected the Museum!” they exclaimed. This was one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever heard.
Military vehicles, including tanks, crowded the garden. Despite the movement of the soldiers with their guns, a terrible silence lay over the place.
As I came to enter the Museum, the youths and the soldiers continued to greet me. The young people wanted to tell me their stories, but I was in a hurry to meet Tarek in the administration office and see what had happened to the Museum. Besides Tarek, the head of the Board of Trustees, and the Museum’s Chief of Security, I was met by four tourist policemen in civilian clothing, several other security staff members, and Major Hatem of the army commandos. In Hatem’s face I could see the features of ancient times—he reminded me of Mena, who united the Upper and Lower Egypt 5,000 years ago, and of Ahmose, who expelled the Hyksos, and even Thutmose III, who forged the great empire, and Ramses II, the great leader in war and peace. I could see all of this history reflected in Hatem’s face.
I sat with them and listened to every detail of the criminal attacks on the Museum on the night of January 28, 2011, a day that Egypt will forever remember. This showed me a side of the story that the TV reports had not explained. The TV news concentrated on the theft and destruction of the Museum’s gift shop but no one said what had happened to the Museum displays. They also concentrated on the fire of the building next to the Museum because it belonged to the National Democratic Party, which all the young people hated.
The 28th had been a day unlike any other that Egypt had ever witnessed before.
This was a new history for Egypt, being written not by old men in power but by the young generation. What happened to the Egyptian Museum is a story with heroes wanting to preserve their heritage, and also villains looking for gold and mummies. Those people did not know, or maybe did not care, that they were destroying their history and civilization.
Watching the façade of the Egyptian Museum looking out over Tahrir Square as it had for more than a hundred years, I felt as if it was giving me a message: “Don’t worry! I am fine. The looters did not hurt me. They were not able to steal anything precious. They were ignorant and stupid. They never understood that I am the one who keeps their history safe.” What the Cairo Museum seemed to be saying to me turned out to be largely true, because the curators told me that they had examined the halls of the Museum through the control room and all the masterpieces were there, intact and safe.
I call times in life such as this one “neurosis hours.” The Museum seemed to me a great man who just got out of the operating room after a dangerous procedure, determined to continue life. In this moment, a strange sensation overcame me: I imagined the Museum as a friend or member of my family, and I wanted to have the Museum in my arms.
I sat on a simple chair at the main entrance of the Museum to receive warm rays from the sun and to watch the young people at Tahrir Square, and, as a photograph showed the whole world, I was protecting the Museum. The Museum was safe.
Most importantly, the Egyptians were happy to see me there in front of the Museum, and to see that the Museum was safe after the difficult hours of the night of January 28.
Beside me was Tarek, whom I had appointed Director of the Museum after the previous director retired after almost eight years in charge. Tarek had been there for only forty days—and look at what he had already had to face! Beside us was a group of young men who had stayed awake all night protecting the museum and also catching some of the thieves as they tried to escape. There were also the army commandos who had arrived at 10 PM the previous night and who had joined the youths as the Museum’s guardians.
The young people began to tell me in detail what had happened the previous night, during the most difficult five hours in the Museum’s 110-year history.
All the conditions in Tahrir Square made certain that something dangerous would happen, especially after Friday prayers, when the square filled with almost a million young Egyptians.
Midan Tahrir, or Liberation Square, is the main square in the city of Cairo and is located in the downtown area. To the northwest of the square is the Museum, and to the west is the Corniche that skirts the Nile with its floating restaurants and tourist boats; the Sixth of October Bridge and the Tahrir Bridge cross the river here too. Also in the neighborhood are government buildings, the American University, hotels, restaurants and all kinds of shops.
When millions of Egyptians left the mosques after noontime prayers on Friday, January 28, 2011, most of them walked to Tahrir Square.
The police did not want them to reach this place in the heart of Cairo. The young people, who wanted to express their desire for change, started to be attacked by the police. When the fight began, of course, the ones who had no guns were the ones who died. We saw death. We witnessed the furnace of anger.
Confusion, chaos, and disorder spread everywhere: on Tahrir Square, the Corniche, the Sixth of October Bridge.
Before the sun set, it was clear that the police could not impose any control and had lost their power in front of the millions of young people.
The government ordered the army into the streets of Cairo. But long before the army reached Tahrir Square, the police vanished from the city as if they had hidden themselves underground. Cairo had no security at all from 6 PM until the army arrived at 10 PM. Four hours, no police in the city. What could happen? I remembered Los Angeles and New Orleans.
A few minutes after the police left, we could see boiling anger and rage in the square. Young people rejoiced that their revolution had apparently succeeded, but criminals—looters—came out of their holes when they realized that the police had withdrawn and that there was no security anywhere in Cairo. They seized this opportunity to rob everything from jewelry shops to supermarkets, and to attack everyone in sight. Even houses were not spared. Their goal was chaos, and they achieved it.
The first goal was burning the National Democratic Party building. This building housed also other institutions and a branch of the national bank. The east wall of this building is next to the Museum. Thieves robbed the bank.
The young people were telling me the details of what had happened and I was listening and did not want any interruption.
They said that criminals began to attack the Museum from every side. Some were able to climb the wall surrounding the Museum and got into the garden. The young people of the Revolution saw this and knew what they had to do. They formed a human wall to stop anyone else from entering the Museum . These were the hours before the army arrived. No officials, no government security, tried to protect anything. It was up to the youths, who did not only try to stop the looters from entering but they even caught some who had been lucky enough to have got in and were trying to leave with their loot.
These hours before the arrival of the army had many stories of adventures, heroes, and great men who gave their life to protect their heritage.
They told me some of these stories, such as when they saw a man with a strange face, just like one of the bad guys in the movies. He tried to escape by climbing the north wall of the Museum at Abdel Moneim Riyadh Square to escape, but the youth stopped him. Then he came back with an iron tool and threatened everyone. He struck some of the youngsters and made his escape.
Another group of criminals had entered from the west side of the Museum, where the new Museum shop is located. These looters mistook the shop for the museum! They went directly to the gold and the precious items sold to tourists and stole much of it. They had mistaken the replicas for genuine artifacts and stolen them! The looters began to fight among themselves because each wanted to have more than the others. They did not know that the youth of the Revolution was waiting for them as the honest guardians of their history! It is true that the existence of the shop, opened just a few months before, protected the Cairo Museum.
The hours of fear continued.
Before the Arrival of Aid
As I was sitting in front of the Museum, in that simple chair, the phone of one of the young men rang. It was his mother, and he told her what had happened the previous night and how he had protected the Museum. He handed me his phone, asking me to tell his mother that he really was a brave man. I did as he asked and told her that I was very proud of her son. I said, “He protected his heritage.” Any mother should be proud of such a thing.
Another young man told me a story to show how stupid those 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 that they never looked at the books. Some of these were more expensive than the gold pieces they left with. But their ignorance made them not even touch the books.
Another amusing thing is that some of them saw the fire department vehicle parked in front of the Museum’s northern gate. Some people, who were ignorant about how to drive this kind of vehicle, were able to move it anyway. The youths said that they never understood why the thieves took this vehicle away. Some believe that they didn’t want any one to use it to help put out the fire at the National Democratic Party building.
The looters did not 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, hamburger, and everything else they could grab, even salt, ketchup, knives, and forks. As they left the Museum, the young people searched them. When they found they had no antiquities, only stuff from the kitchen, they let them go. But the young men guarding the Museum did not know that another group of criminals had entered the Museum itself and tried to break open the padlocks of the Museum. These doors—century-old doors—were made so that virtually no one could open them.
But the Museum’s luck ran out during the night, because the rear wall of the Museum has an iron ladder leading to the roof. This ladder had been there for a very long time, and the section that reached to the ground had been taken out for security reasons. But it had been restored to be used by workmen and engineers working to improve the roof and ceiling to protect the Museum from rain and wind. One security guard was stationed near the ladder during closing hours.
Even so, nobody believed that the Egyptian Museum would be looted like this and that this ladder was going to be the way in.
Meeting the Looters: Face to Face
I told Major Hatem that I needed to meet the criminals face to face. He told me that they had eleven, ten tied with ropes outside and one still caught inside the Museum.
I left my chair and went to see the first ten. They were sitting on the ground, each of them looking ugly and stupid. None seemed to have any education. I approached 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 realized that talking to them was useless, I walked out and saw two skulls that had been in the hands of these ignorant thugs. Great fear seized me. Had these men entered the Mummy Rooms or damaged the three mummies that we had determined to belong to the family of King Tut? Using DNA and CT scans, we had identified one of these mummies as Akhenaten and discovered that he was Tutankhamun’s father. Another mummy was Queen Tiye, Tut’s grandmother, and the third was 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 to display them outside the room.
But after a moment of fear, I began to look at the skulls more carefully. None of these could belong to Tut’s family. But still, even with my examination, some doubt lingered.
Other artifacts were kept in the office of the chief of the Museum’s security department. Three of his staff, who did not wear uniforms, had not left the Museum. I found that they had many Late Period artifacts and a gilded statue of Isis, which they were able to save from the looters.
Next I entered the book store. As the young man had told me outside, the section of books was fine. It was the areas with the gold and the replicas that had been looted. The young men had even brought back some gold jewelry that had been stolen from the Museum shop.
As I mentioned earlier, tourists now exit the Museum through the shop door. At this door I saw one of the strangest scenes that I will ever see in my life. A man was handcuffed to the door. He was another ugly man wearing a galabiya. Scars covered his face and his eyes were almost closed. He had been inside the Museum when he saw a police officer in civilian clothing outside the Museum. The thief was crying and asking for water. The officer came with 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!”
He was lying.
We did not learn how many people had actually entered the Museum and how many objects were stolen. But Tarek and the army commandos had done the important things, making all the necessary arrangements to enter the Museum on Saturday, January 29 to determine if the masterpieces were still there and report the situation to me. Keys to padlocks had been stolen, so they had to break open some of the doors, including the main Museum door. Tarek called me to say that they had found about 13 showcases on the second floor opened and all the artifacts thrown on the ground. A case that contained a beautiful coffin that dated to the 19th Dynasty was also broken. I asked Tarek about the Mask Room, which contained all King Tut’s jewelry, 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 jewelry and the gold from Tanis. Tarek and the curators said that the Museum was safe. Feeling relieved, I went to see the foreign and Egyptian media to convince them, too, that the Egyptian Museum was safe.
The Egyptian Museum is Safe
The media began asking for interviews—CNN, the BBC, Good Morning, America, the Today Show, and many others from American, European, and Japanese TV. What had happened in Egypt had affected also these other countries. The one million foreign tourists who were in Egypt during the Revolution had left safely. The Egyptians in the tourism industry had done their part to be sure that no foreigner had been 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 have been, just as Tarek had said, it was a great relief.
Now I had to speak to the media. What should I say?
I will tell you what I did say, and why.
I announced that the masterpieces were there, safe in the Museum. The Egyptian Museum was safe, and that meant Egypt was safe.
I also told everyone that I was appointing a committee to inventory the Museum to see what was missing. With the vast amount of objects on display, this would have taken time. We could not announce that the Museum had been robbed without knowing what artifacts had been stolen. It would have been irresponsible.
This is why I did not announce the thefts. And there was 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. 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 young people who made the Revolution also protected the Museum, which contains artifacts that record the history of the pharaohs—the history of the world. It is 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 put their lives on the line to save the history of Egypt.
If the police abandons any city in the world for a few hours, gangs will come out and rob museums, shops and the whole city. This is true anywhere in the world.
And there are always people waiting in the shadows to catch mistakes. They are people who do not like the success of others and pounce on any error they think they see. One of them is an archaeologist who served as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and did nothing. He began claiming that the Museum had been robbed of thousands of artifacts. He claimed that I had lied to everyone when I had said that the Museum was safe. But I have told you the true story and I leave it for you to judge.
When all Egyptians thought that the Museum was burning
The night of Wednesday, February 2, 2011 is another day that I will never forget. No one would ever imagine happening what happened in that day.
Cairo was still under curfew, so I was sitting at home following the news on TV.
Everything looked normal at Tahrir Square. All the demonstrators were sitting in their spots. They had all sworn that they would never leave the square until all their demands were met.
Before the sun set, beyond the square, horses and camels appeared. It transformed modern Tahrir Square into a scene of Medieval battle—like something out of the Arabian desert, when horses were the heroes of war. It was as if the television screen had begun to show an epic Indian film, but this was not a movie. It was not an event from the past. Before our very eyes the Revolution had turned a dangerous corner, into the kind of scene that could not bring anything good to Egypt.
In this bizarre scene, the youth began to defend themselves against the mounted attackers. Mubarak’s forces beat the demonstrators with sticks. They threw stones at the demonstrators, but before midnight the battle took on another face. We watched in horror as the youth 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.
One of the TV stations planted their cameras on the balcony of a hotel at the north side of the Museum and broadcast news of what they called “the burning of the Museum.” At the beginning they claimed that the smoke was rising from inside the Museum. The news crawl on the screens of many TV stations began to read that the Egyptian Museum was burning.
My home phone rang—everyone was trying to contact me to ask me to save the Museum! One of these was a certain lady. She was crying, saying, “Please by the name of God, I ask you to save the Museum…. The Museum is burning… Our heritage is finished…. Do something right now! How will we face the world when they ask us why we did not save our heritage?”
I asked her to wait—and I called her back but in vain and she asked me to turn on the TV and see with my own eyes the “burning of the Museum.” On TV it did look like smoke was rising from the Museum. Meanwhile, I heard an official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities—a man with a reputation for dishonesty—screaming that the Museum was finished.
I was able finally 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. I said to him with a voice filled with fear, “Is it true that the Museum is burning?” He said, “Sir, this is not true. We have cameras monitoring everything inside and also cameras monitoring everything outside. I can tell you that the smoke is coming from a car burning outside the Museum and nothing can affect the Museum.”
I called the lady back and told her that the news story was wrong and the Museum is safe. I said to her, “Believe me!”
Then she said, “Call Al Arabia TV and tell them this is not true!”
But when I began to call the TV stations, another call came to me. This time it was Mahmoud Mabrouk, who works with us on the interior design of many museums; he is an honest man and I do trust him. He said, “I must tell you that from the bridge that looks at the northern side of the Museum, I could see the Museum burning.”
I said, “Mahmoud, listen to me please!” And I explained to him about the Museum’s security cameras, but he argued with me. I insisted that the smoke came from a car on the street. Smoke might get into the Museum, but the Museum was not on fire.
Finally I called the TV station. I was very firm: “Please, all of you listen to me. The Museum is safe and this archaeologist who says otherwise is a liar.” I explained the truth to all the people in Cairo: the Museum is safe and is not burning.
Afterwards, people forgot about the car and the fire but all remembered what I said: “The Egyptian Museum is safe, and the youth saved the Museum.”
The fire was a secondary thing compared to the Battle of the Camels. More than 900 people died that night. All this violence inflamed the anger against Mubarak and his people.
The Attorney General investigated the incident and determined that many people who were involved in the Battle of the Camels were members of the 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. Although 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, they later claimed that they had come to Tahrir Square to make a demonstration against me!
The SCA receives many complaints against 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, concerning themselves only with making money. They used to spread out all over the plateau however they pleased. There was no control, and some unfairly stole business from their competitors. Not only that, they damaged tombs on the plateau. This is what I call “site pollution.”
I worked to change this through a project that I initiated before the Revolution and which is still underway. According to this project, all tourists will enter the Giza Plateau from the Fayoum Road. South of the pyramid of Menkaure, a parking lot is under preparation for the tourists’ cars and coaches. Here will be a visitor center to teach them about the site they are about to visit with films and other media. An electric car will bring them to the pyramid of Khafre, and here they can walk and enjoy the pyramids.
If any tourist wants to ride a camel or a horse, they can hire one from the new stables near the parking lot. The pyramids will still be their scenic backdrop. In this more organized way, everyone will have fair work and they can be supervised by the tourist police. If a tourist has a complaint against one of the owners, site security will know about it and can take appropriate actions against the offender.
This is what made the riders of the horses and camels so unhappy that they came into Tahrir Square. Or that is what they said, as if that could cover the fact that they had killed all those people.
I am glad that they were proved guilty and punished by the law.