We are told they were looking for gold.
The riots and protests that have enveloped Cairo in the last few days have begun to spill over, as they inevitably do, into the looting of museums and artifact storage warehouses at archaeological sites. The police fully occupied with the riots, private citizens took it upon themselves to direct traffic, guard museums, and handle various other such tasks. But it was of course not enough. This past Friday, when police abandoned their posts to observe the curfew that had been called [yeah, this makes no sense to me. But the articles I skimmed this morning gave no further explanation], a small group of people broke into the Egyptian Museum, and began to ransack the gift shop. Zahi Hawass, head of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, is quoted as saying “I’m glad that those people were idiots. They looted the museum shop. Thank God they thought that the museum shop was the museum.” Only nine people, at that time, moved further into the museum, ripping the heads off two mummies, smashing glass cases, and smashing a number of ancient artifacts, though not beyond repair. Hawass says nothing is missing from the museum, which is now under military guard.
But the museum is still under threat, as the seat of government has been ablaze for days, and if it collapses, there are fears it may collapse onto the museum, or otherwise severely damage the museum as it falls.
A number of historical & archaeological sites such as pharoanic tombs in the Valley of the Kings were, for a time, guarded only by local villagers, who the news articles I read characterized as insufficient or incapable of properly defending the sites; so far, though, it would seem they have succeeded. Some other sites, however, were looted, as people once again sought to take advantage of the chaos to steal themselves some gold – they made off with some things of tremendous historical value, but nothing of particular direct (precious metal) value. Despite Hawass’ assurances that there was no gold to be had at X site or Y site, the looters attacked nevertheless.
For the most part, for now, Egypt’s historical and cultural treasures would seem to be safe, and a disaster such as occurred at Iraq’s chief museum in 2003 has been averted. Or so these news articles seem to imply – the riots are still ongoing, so I don’t honestly see why there should be any implication that the danger has passed. Yes, the Egyptian Museum is now guarded by a military guard. But what about other sites?
Archaeology.org provides us today with a number of links to articles discussing various aspects of the situation. There are a great many more out there, and I do not claim to be in any way fully informed. What I’ve written, and what I understand of the situation, are only scattered bits. I shall be keeping my eye out for more information, however, as this develops.
Further updates/information from Hyperallergic.com:
*Breaking: Images of Egyptian Museum Damage [UPDATE 34] King Tut Objects Damaged?
*Is the Egyptian Museum Under Threat? [UPDATE 23] Looters Got Into Museum, Destroyed 2 Mummies
*Former Egyptian Museum Dir Says Looting Inside Job, Memphis Mus Looted [UPDATE 40] Damaged Mummy ID’d, Sinai Antiquities Robbed
My heartfelt wishes to the people of Egypt that they, their families, their homes should be safe throughout this crisis. I can only image how I would feel if the same were happening in my home city or country.