Friday, January 28th, 2011
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has found itself in a perilous location because of the anti-government protests that have rocked the country over the past few days. It is next door to the headquarters of the National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, a focal point of protest. There have been reports of government buildings being looted, continuing explosions downtown and the NDP headquarters is burning with no firefighters on the way.
Unconfirmed stories emerged earlier today that people were attempting to break into the museum to plunder it. Al Jazeera’s live feed reported that thousands of civilian protesters formed a human chain around the Egyptian Museum to keep any would-be looters away. That story appears to be true.
The greatest threat to the Egyptian Museum first appeared to come from the fire enguling the ruling party headquarters next door on Friday night as anti-government protests roiled the country.
Then dozens of would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum.
Suddenly other young men — some armed with truncheons taken from the police — formed a human chain outside the main gates on Tahrir Square in an attempt to protect the collection inside.
“I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure,” said one of the men, Farid Saad, a 40-year-old engineer.
Another man, 26-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim, said it was important to guard the museum because it “has 5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we’ll never find it again.”
Finally, four armored vehicles took up posts outside the massive coral-colored building in downtown Cairo. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside to protect mummies, monumental stone statues, ornate royal jewelry and other pharaonic artifacts.
It’s a beautiful thing, and a testament to the profound connection contemporary Egyptians have to their ancient past.
Unfortunately neither the army nor a human cordon can keep the museum from catching fire, so it’s still in urgent peril. The building doesn’t even have to catastrophically burn down for sparks and smoke to cause enormous damage to the precious antiquities within. Egypt’s dry climate means a great number of highly flammable ancient organic materials have survived the millennia. The museum is packed with wood furniture, papyri, ancient textiles, even food and, of course, human bodies. The golden death mask of Tutankhamun is a lot less danger than they are.