"My heart is broken and my blood is boiling"

(Cross-post from Chronica Minora)


That is how Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, feels about the wanton destruction carried out by looters in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. If you haven’t read the story, here it is in Dr Hawass’ words:

As every one knows, the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is naturally lit and due to the architectural style of it, there are glass windows on its roof.  The criminals broke the glass windows and used ropes to get inside, there is a distance of four metres from the ceiling to the ground of the museum.  The ten people broke in when I was at home and, although I desperately wanted to go to the museum, I could not leave my house due to the curfew. In the morning, as soon as I woke up, I went directly there…   Luckily, the criminals who stole the jewellery from the gift shop did not know where the jewellery inside the museum is kept.  They went into the Late Period gallery but, when they found no gold, they broke thirteen vitrines and threw the antiquities on the floor.  Then the criminals went to the King Tutankhamun galleries.  Thank God they opened only one case!  The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor.

But apart from damaging priceless artifacts – and for a rough list of what was damaged, see Eloquent Peasant – two mummies were destroyed and had their heads ripped off.  The mummies, which have not yet been identified in the media, may have been those of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, and were among the best-preserved in the museum’s holdings.

It’s possible, based on what I’ve read on Twitter and elsewhere, that the plan was to sell these on the black market. The salaries of many Egyptians are so low, and unemployment is so high (these are some of the reasons people have been protesting for the last week) that it might be a temptation too far for some. That the would-be thieves came in through the roof suggests a certain element of organisation and planning, although nothing more has been said about them.

Quite apart from attempting to steal some of the most priceless treasures any civilisation has produced, the desecration of the dead is something I find particularly horrifying. Whether it was Carter hacking up Tutankhamum in order to remove him from the coffin, or this atrocity, the destruction of a corpse is just unforgivable. I accept that removing the bodies from their original context in their tombs was, in itself, disturbing the dead, but as it was for their long-term preservation and safeguarding it was clearly for the best. What happened in the Cairo museum was mindless vandalism and cruelty, depriving not only the dead of their dignity but future generations of the chance to learn of and see these historical figures first-hand.

Perhaps part of my disgust is that mummification keeps the bodies so close to the state in which they were in at death. I think this adds to the horror of what happened, because these criminals destroyed two bodies which were clearly identifiable. I can only wonder at the inner workings of whoever could bring themselves to do this. Like Dr Hawass, my blood too is boiling. When I heard that the museum had been broken in to and mummies beheaded, my heart skipped a few beats. I have loved Egyptian history for as long as I can remember, and I am passionate about the preservation of all history. It is all part of human civilisation, and if we don’t remember and treasure what has gone before, what is the point of going forward?

Dr Hawass’ statement, which had to be faxed to Italy to be put online, as the Egyptian government has shut down the internet there, also mentions that stores of antiquities at various other dig sites have been looted. We can only hope that some of these can be recovered, but history teaches us that they may be gone unless turned in or otherwise stumbled across. In Cairo, Egyptian citizens mindful of their magnificent heritage surrounded the museum to keep looters out until the army could take control of the building. I am unsure what is happening at other sites.

While I know there are those who believe Dr Hawass to be more intent on grandstanding and seeking publicity, the fact remains that he is a master of his field and that his passion for antiquities sparks something in everyone who hears him. I met him once, very briefly, when he gave a guest lecture in UCC. I still have my lecture notes with his autograph, “Zahi”, scrawled across them. His enthusiasm for Egyptian archaeology and heritage was infectious, and so I know that his distress at what has happened is all the more intense.

“My heart is broken and my blood is boiling”. These words sum up the feelings of anyone who loves history and who shares the horror at the events of this week.


I’m also watching Egyptology News for updates on the situation.

UPDATE: 30/1/2011, 21.23: KV64 has more on the damage.

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