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Is the Egyptian Museum Under Threat? [UPDATE 23] Looters Got Into Museum, Destroyed 2 Mummies

by Hrag Vartanian on January 28, 2011

Al-Jazeera is reporting a troubling development at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The Qatar-based news network has been extensively covering the political protests that have engulfed Egypt, causing the country to cut off the internet to those within its borders. Al-Jazeera has been showing images of the fires which are burning around downtown Cairo and they mention that the flames could spread to the world-renowned Egyptian Museum.

*** WATCH AL-JAZEERA ENGLISH LIVE HERE ***

Mask of Tutankhamun's mummy (image via Wikipedia)

Officially known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the century-old building exhibits over 100,000 artifacts from ancient Egypt. The insitution is home to the largest and best collections of ancient Egyptian art in the world.

A big portion of the National Museum’s first floor exhibition is dedicated to the finds in the tomb of the 14th century BCE Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The iconic gold death mask of the young pharoah is one of the most famous images of ancient Egypt art. It is unclear if the gold mask and other major artifacts are currently in the museum, though according to a January 21 article in the Japan Times, they certainly appear to be in the country and possibly in the Museum’s storage facilities. It should be mentioned that a large collection of objects from King Tut’s tomb are currently on tour across America.

The internet ban in Egypt appears to have made the Egyptian Museum’s website inaccessible.

UPDATE: JAN 28, 12:45pm EST: An Al-Jazeera English reporting is saying that there is no sign of fire services in downtown Cairo and that the Egyptian Museum will be on a high state of alert.

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UPDATE 2: 12:53pm EST: Currently the bigger threat to the Egyptian Museum appears to be looting. So the institution has two major potential threats.

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UPDATE 3: Jan 28, 1:10pm EST: Trees outside Egyptian Museum appear to be on fire. Al-Jazeera reporting that fire is approaching the Egyptian Museum.

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UPDATE 4: Jan 28, 1:17pm EST: A Syrian journalist just tweeted this.

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UPDATE 5: Jan 28, 1:21pm EST: A sign of hope?

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UPDATE 6: Jan 28, 1:37pm EST: The reports seem to be mixed and no one seems to be able to confirm what is happening. The Arab-speaking journalists of West Asian and Northern Africa are reporting circles around their Western colleagues.

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UPDATE 7: Jan 28, 1:44pm EST: More hope?

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UPDATE 8: Jan 28, 2:05pm EST: We’re trying to get more accurate info so don’t believe this yet.

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UPDATE 9: Jan 28, 2:25pm EST: An Al-Jazeera liveblog has the following graphic demonstrating the impact of the internet ban in Egypt:

Internet in Egypt, as far as we can tell, has now been disabled for a full 24 hours. Arbor Networks, which has been monitoring traffic in and out of the country over 80 service providers, has released an updated graphic:

Here is a timeline of what has gone on so far during the Egyptian demonstrations in the last four days.

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UPDATE 10: 2:50pm EST: Let’s hope this is true.

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UPDATE 11: 3:37pm EST: Reuters is reporting that the Egyptian Army is protecting the Egyptian Museum:

State TV carried a brief headline saying the army had secured the museum but did not give any more details.

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UPDATE 12: 4:23 pm EST: We haven’t been finding any new news about the situation with the Egyptian Museum. We hope this is a good sign but we are also hearing that Egyptian TV and other media outlets are having some difficulty disseminating information. Not sure what this means.

Greg Allen of Greg.org is asking about the controverisal Dr. Zahi Hawass, who is known for demanding that ancient Egyptian art works be returned to Egypt. Most recently he asked Germany to return the bust of Nefertiti and questioned whether New York could take care of Cleopatra’s Needle. We’re guessing he will soon be unemployed like many of the protesters who ignited the latest wave of protests in Tunisia and later in Egypt.

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UPDATE 13: 5:09pm EST: Al-Jazeera is reporting that the National Museum is still in possible danger. They showed this image on the screen and told us that the building on the left is the Museum and, as you can see, there are flames on the right.


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UPDATE 14: 5:44pm EST: And this report (last modified: 28 Jan 2011 22:33 GMT, or 5:33pm EST) from Al-Jazeera’s website:

As reports of looting emerged, state media said army units secured the Egyptian Museum in the capital, where pharaonic treasures are displayed.

Looters had broken into an NDP building located near the museum and were walking out with furniture, computers and other items.

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UPDATE 15: 6:01pm EST: We’ve been trying to figure out the location of the Al-Jazeera cameras to figure out how close the National Museum is to the NDP headquarters, which is on fire. We have not been able to find the exact address of the NDP headquarters.

Now, blogger James Wagner has suggested a scenario that sounds very convincing so we’ve mocked up a map with his hypothesis.

And the fact is that we’re pretty much certain about the location of the NDP Headquarters but since we’re still unsure about the location of the Al-Jazeera camera I will keep the “?” by the NDP location.

Minor Update: Ok, Wagner assured me that the NDP headquarters is in fact the HQ, so I removed the “?”

He added:

… to clarify the identities of what you see on the Google map, I know that the high rise section of the NDP is in the middle of the complex, and may now be virtually gutted by fire;  the section above the “the” in the indication for the Cairo Museum on your published map is a low rise section [probably not part of the NDP complex] (and may not be entirely in flames yet).

(Google map link here)

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UPDATE 16: 6:59pm EST:  If you haven’t seen this yet (it is a few hours old), this is a touching narrative on enduringamerica.com about the way everyday Egyptians rallied to save the National Museum (via Andrew Sullivan):

2000 GMT: A very touching story is developing in Cairo. As the NDP’s headquarters burn, there were fears that the Egyptian National Museum, which houses some of the world’s most ancient artifacts from the old Egyptian civilization and a beautiful collection of ancient whales fossils, would catch on fire too. There were earlier reports – albeit unconfirmed – that some people were looting the museum.

Now Al Jazeera is reporting that young protesters have formed a human chain around the museum to protect it against looting. It seems for now that this treasure trove of human ingenuity and the natural world’s wonders is in no immediate danger.

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UPDATE 17: 7:02pm EST:  This photo by Lefteris Pitarakis for AP seems destined — at least for now — to be the major image that represents today’s protests in Egypt.

The following caption is on a MSNBC’s photoblog for this image:

An Egyptian anti-government activist kisses a riot police officer following clashes in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 28, 2011. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters poured into the streets of Egypt Friday, stoning and confronting police who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas in the most violent and chaotic scenes yet in the challenge to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

EDITOR’S NOTE: There seems to be little museum news about the National Museum and the nearby fire at this point so we will not be updating for an hour or so unless some breaking news happens.

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UPDATE 18: Sat. Jan 29, 8:21am EST:  We’re just getting started in New York and we’re trying to current gauge the situation at the National Museum in Cairo. So far no major news but we did see this from a journalist we’ve been following. More as it develops.

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UPDATE 19: 9:13am EST:  Reuters is reporting that looters did get into the National Museum at one point yesterday, and the one doing the talking is the infamous Zahi Hawass:

Looters broke into the Egyptian Museum during anti-government protests late on Friday and destroyed two Pharaonic mummies, Egypt’s top archaeologist told state television.

… “I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said.

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UPDATE 20: 10:05am EST: This video report from Euronews has footage of protesters in front of the gates of the National Museum (aka Egyptian Museum) last night protecting the institution.

Here are some key screenshots, including a shot of the graffiti on the front gate, which reads “down with the dog Mubarak”:


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UPDATE 21: 10:23am EST: Some thoughts on the latest developments. I would advise taking everything the current — but severely crippled — Egyptian government with a grain of salt.

Anything that Hawass, who is part of the ruling elite, says will undoubtedly be part of the government’s propaganda campaign to maintain control. Was there actually looting in the National Museum? Until we see evidence in the form of third-party reporting (the Reuters report only quotes Hawass), we would advise being suspicious of that reality. The only source to discuss the looting has been Hawass, and his statements may be an effort by the current government to justify why they should continue to maintain control in the country. The Egyptian authorities obviously want to suggest that they are the only thing that protects the public and national treasures from looting and other thuggery.

We will update you as we learn more.

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UPDATE 22: 10:23am EST: A chilling photo of fires close to the reddish National Museum building.

The Christian Science Monitor has the following report about the Egyptian Army protecting the National Museum:

One man pleaded with people outside the museum’s gates on Tahrir Square not to loot the building, shouting at the crowd: “We are not like Baghdad.” After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, thieves carted off thousands of artifacts from the National Museum in Baghdad — only a fraction of which have been recovered.

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UPDATE 23: 11:33am EST: BBC reporter just reported that there are reports of looting in various neighborhoods in Cairo. She did not specify where. An Al-Jazeera source in Cairo also reported that there is looting in Cairo.

A man interviewed on BBC is saying that there are people wandering Zamalek with sticks. Zamalek is one of the most affluent districts of Cairo, and is where a number of embassies and the Mohammed Khalil Museum is located. The Mohammed Khalil Museum has works by Gauguin, Monet, Rodin, and other well-known artists. the Museum of Islamic Ceramics. The neighborhood is also home to the Egyptian Opera House and the El Sawy culturewheel Centre.

UPDATE 24: 12:36pm EST: SINCE THIS STRING HAS GOTTEN TOO LONG, WE’VE DECIDED TO START A NEW ONE HERE.

IT BEGINS WITH PHOTOS, VIA AL-JAZEERA, OF THE VISUAL EVIDENCE OF THE LOOTING AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM. HERE IS ONE OF THE MANY IMAGES. SEE MORE HERE.

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