Czech Egyptologist: Ancient Egyptian sites damaged during unrest

Egyptian museums and ancient sites have been robbed in the chaos, Czech professor Miroslav Bárta reports from Cairo

Foreign Affairs
Miroslav Bárta | 31.01.2011
The extent of the thefts and damage is still unknown, but it is certain to affect the future of Egyptology, Prof. Bárta says

Nearly a week after Egyptians first took to the streets in a popular uprising to oust President Hosni Mubarak the country was engulfed this past Sunday in an unstoppable wave of developments, the outcome of which we still cannot predict, but which will undoubtedly affect our future knowledge of the history of civilization on our planet.       

While the main events in Cairo are playing out on Tahrir Square and people are dying across the country, the famous heritage of the ancient civilization on the Nile is itself under threat. Last Friday night a serious blow was dealt to all the declarations of intent to protest peacefully when several thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum through the roof. Once inside, they damaged several unique historical artifacts from the era of rule by the Pharos. The Egyptian Museum is located on Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the ongoing protests against Mubarak.    

Photographs and television footage and comments by the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass show that among the unique artifacts damaged are two gilded wooden figurines of the ruler Tutankhamun: one portrays him hunting on a boat, and the other is of the pharaoh standing on a panther’s back.

Thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, as well as the Coptic Museum, Royal Jewelry Museum and National Museum of Alexandria

An army of wooden Mehseti soldiers, a funeral boat from Asyut dating backing some 4,000 years to the 11th dynasty, and several other artifacts were also damaged. Fortunately, the thieves did not manage to get to the ground floor of the museum, where the collection includes unique artifacts from the period of the pyramid builders. The safe rooms with the collections of gold and most valuable findings from Tutankhamun’s tomb were also untouched.               

More details about the damage done by the thieves are available at www.eloquentpeasant.com.

On Saturday night, when across the country police disappeared from the streets, there were widespread raids of ancient Egyptian sites. Because I have worked in the areas around the Pyramids, I have most information from there. A number of sites including in Giza, Abusir and Saqqara were also targeted by gangs of thieves. According to the latest news, almost all the archeological objects in Saqqara were forced open, including the famous tombs of high-ranking dignitaries situated next to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which dates back to 2700 BC.    

Archeological objects in the pyramid field of Abusir uncovered by Czech expeditions over the last 50 years were also targeted by thieves. The extent of the damage caused will have to be examined later because organized gangs are operating in the dessert both night and day. Although these gangs’ raids are haphazard, it’s almost certain that artifacts of immeasurable historical value have been destroyed or damaged. The museum and store of artifacts in Mit Rahina (or Memphis), the heart of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt have also been damaged. The director of the Egyptian Museum, a colleague and friend of mine, has been sleeping in the building.

It should be said that most Egyptians are aware of the gravity of the situation: Before the army arrived on Tahir Square, people formed a protective cordon around the Egyptian Museum. The director of the museum, a colleague and friend of mine, has been sleeping in the building. The area of Western Thebes were the Valley of Kings is situated was protected in a similar fashion. It’s worth noting that the citizens who defended the site were locals who had been forced to move out of the conservation area.   

The information about the state of the monuments in the pyramid field came from Egyptian colleagues who had been shot at by gangs of raiders.

What is certain is that if the current situation is not resolved and the breakdown of law and order continues, we can expect further heavy losses which will have an impact upon Egyptian archeology for many years. Nevertheless, the situation is not hopeless. Despite the tragic losses and damages to priceless artifacts, the actions by concerned individuals in Egypt are a source of hope for the future.  

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