The break-in at Cairo's Egyptian Museum could have been a disaster of historic proportions, a repeat of the rape of Baghdad's multi-millennial heritage after Iraq's equivalent museum was looted in 2003. It wasn't. But only thanks to sheer dumb luck.
On Friday, Egypt's government declared a 6 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew. The much detested riot police, who had fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters all day, suddenly withdrew from the streets at around the start of the curfew, including from their positions guarding Cairo's famed antiquities museum in the heart of the capital, on Tahrir Square, which is the epicenter of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Immediately, Egypt became a police state without police.
The museum had been closed all day because of the street demonstrations, but after virtually all police abandoned their posts, "people began to enter the museum," says Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities department. They climbed over walls, forced open doors and entered the museum's vast souvenir shop. "I'm glad that those people were idiots," Hawass told TIME. "They looted the museum shop. Thank God they thought that the museum shop was the museum."
While many of the intruders were dazzled by the souvenir shop, a few others knew there was more to the museum. Nine of them apparently realized that the real treasures were elsewhere. They entered a room containing artifacts dating back to 500 B.C. The intruders broke into some 13 glass panel display cases as well as one case in the Tutankahmun exhibition. Hawass did not give TIME permission to view the destruction in the museum, which has been shut for the duration of the crisis. But video footage from several Arabic satellite networks, including al-Arabiya, showed shards of glass littering the floor and several artifacts carelessly tossed around, some resting on splinters, others hanging out of display cases. "They were looking for gold," Hawass told TIME, just like the grave robbers of old.
The military, which has taken over security duties throughout Cairo and in many other cities, did not arrive on the scene until 10 p.m. In the meantime, ordinary Cairenes, aware of the security vacuum, flocked to protect the museum. "That was wonderful," says Hawass. "The Cairo museum is like the place for our identity. If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe."
The citizens, as well as three police officers who refused to leave their posts, apprehended the nine alleged culprits as they tried to flee the museum with their loot, including two mummy skulls and a statue of Isis. Hawass says that nothing is missing from the museum although about 100 items were damaged — though not irreparably. "They're easy to restore," he says.
The incident recalls a more serious event that happened in Baghdad in 2003 when mobs looted the Baghdad Museum after the fall of Saddam Hussein, carrying away priceless artifacts by the wheelbarrow-load and destroying countless others.
Hussein made an official request to Germany for the return of Babylon's Ishtar Gate to Iraq in 2002, a year before the Baghdad Museum was looted. Fortunately, the gate remains safe and sound in Berlin's Pergamon Museum.
Returning artifacts to their country of origin has been somewhat of an obsession lately. Just a week before the unrest in Cairo broke out, Egypt's top archeologist had issued a formal request to the German government for the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti, which is housed in Berlin's Neues Museum.
Egypt's top archaeologist has formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades, the latest move in his eight-year-old campaign to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times.What would have happened to this bust if it had been returned to Cairo and looters had managed to find it? It's only sheer luck that Egyptian artifacts like Tutankhamun's gold death mask weren't found and destroyed by the mob that trashed the museum last week.
The bust dates back to the time of the 14th century B.C. queen and tops Egypt's wish list of artifacts that Zahi Hawass wants to see back home. The bust is currently at Berlin's Neues Museum.
Germany has declined past Egyptian requests for the bust's return, saying it was in Germany legally and is too fragile to move. But Egypt contends it was taken out with fraudulent documents in 1913.
Yale University recently agreed to return priceless Inca artifacts from Machu Picchu that have been in its possession since 1915. Peru is a politically unstable country that has been fighting a war against leftist insurgents since the 1980s that is far from resolved. What would happen to this irreplaceable collection if the capital was overrun by Shining Path guerrillas doesn't take much imagination.
Britain, so far, has resisted increasing pressure from Greece to return the Elgin Marbles - the sculptures taken from the Parthenon in 1816 and now housed in the British Museum. Considering the turmoil that has wracked Greece in the succeeding two hundred years and the recent rioting in Athens in response to the government's austerity measures, it's not a stretch to suggest that the statues might have been better off in London all along.
The art and artifacts taken by imperialist collectors that are housed in various museums around the world represent the collective heritage of world civilization. We all have an interest in their preservation. Sometimes the best thing is to keep them where they are, preserved and studied by curators with resources and expertise, in politically stable countries with the means and the will to protect them. Countries whose own people would loot and destroy their heritage don't deserve to have these works returned.