If you look at the photos and videos of the mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, you might catch sight of a vintage pink building at the edge of the frame. That is the Egyptian Museum, the antiquated, too-small, not very modern but nevertheless precious and indispensible repository for many Egyptian antiquites, from King Tut's mask to ancient jewelry and carvings to mummies. After the Giza pyramids and the Great Sphinx, the museum is perhaps the leading tourist attraction in the Cairo area.
Civil unrest in Egypt pitting pro-democracy demonstrators versus defenders of the status quo and embattled President Hosni Mubarak has put this unique world heritage site at risk - risk of looting, risk of damage to the building. There has already been some destruction, according to media reports, though pro-democracy demonstrators have at times taken steps to secure the building by forming a human chain.
This last fact comes courtesy of Renee Dreyfus, curator at San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums, who was interviewed in the Feb. 8 San Francisco Chronicle by contributor Jesse Hamlin. You can read the interview online at the Chronicle-affiliated Web site SFGate.com. What follows here are some salient points by Dreyfus, who has organized several popular exhibits of Egyptian antiquities in San Francisco over the past several decades:
Hamlin reports that a gilt statue of the boy monarch King Tut standing on a jaguar was smashed when the Tahrir Square protests spilled over into the museum two weeks ago. "They damaged 70 irreplaceable antiquities, ripping the heads off two mummies and throwing objects to the floor,'' Hamlin writes.
The Chronicle piece goes on to quote Dreyfus: "I was horrified to hear the museum had been broken into and objects destroyed ... It's tragic to see these great treasures destroyed and looted. They are not just national treasures, they belong to the entire world.''
Elaborating on attacks on antiquities, Hamlin writes that "some of the looters were poorly paid museum guards. (Dreyfus) also reported that major looting had occured at the Memphis Museum, south of Cairo.''
The celebrity Egyptian archeologist Zahi Hawass asserts that smashed antiquites in the Egyptian Museum can be repaired. This opinion is not necessarily shared, especially when it comes to the ancient mummies. "You can't repair a mummy,'' Dreyfus says. "If you have a body that's no longer intact, how are you going to perform any kind of examination of it? It's now contaminated.''
Dreyfus is surely right about one thing: The treasures of ancient Egypt belong to Egypt, yes, but more than that, they belong to the whole world. They are part of the human story. Whoever comes out on top in the agonizing struggle between Mubarak and his circle and the passionate, mostly young protestors who want him to go, preserving the Egyptian Museum and making sure it survives intact will be a prime responsibility of the next Egyptian government.