The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has snipers on its roof and soldiers patrolling inside, according to reports on NPR, CNN and Al Jazeera and elsewhere. As protesters calling for the abdication of President Hosni Mubarak surge in the streets and buildings burn, soldiers arrested 35 would-be looters trying to break into the museum on Saturday and another 15 today, as reported by NPR. Officials are hoping to fend off the cultural cannibalism that took place during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. A group of civilians also were reported to have formed a human blockade in front of the museum.
The gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, which is kept in a gated room, was unharmed. Heads were ripped off two mummies, display cases smashed and at least 75 objects damaged. But Zahi Hawass, director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the press that none of the antiquities were stolen. Today he was appointed Minister of State Antiquities by Mubarak, who is forming a new government after firing his cabinet.
Hawass is the man behind the “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” exhibition at the Discovery Center in Times Square last year, a venue he reluctantly agreed to after failing to convince the Metropolitan Museum to mount the exhibition. In his official capacity, Hawass has also sought the return of numerous Egyptian antiquities from international museums, including Nefertiti’s bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin.
On his blog, Hawass said that the museum had recently finished a gift shop. “The people entered the gift shop and stole all the jewelry and escaped; they thought the shop was the museum, thank God!” Another small group gained entry by breaking the glass skylights that provide natural illumination to the galleries.
Hawass had to fax his blog post to a source in Italy who posted it for him. He was still awaiting news on sites at Saqqara. Hawass reported that a large group, armed with guns and a truck, looted precious objects for the Port Said Museum in the Sinai, and that other attempts had been made on the Coptic Museum, the Royal Jewelry Museum, the National Museum of Alexandria and El Manial Museum.
Peter Der Manuelian, professor of Egyptology at Harvard University, told CNN that Egypt is “the greatest open-air museum in the world.” He and others antiquities specialists are attempting to stay in touch with colleagues in Egypt, a challenging task since the government shut down the Internet.
As of Monday, 500 Americans had been evacuated with another 1,000 in process. Among the many others preparing to leave are archeologists, a number of whom work for major U.S. museums. Their institutions declined to comment out of concern for their safety.