Egypt Sees Looting In Wake Of Protests
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Egypt is home to some of the world's most precious monuments and antiquities, from the Pyramids of Giza to Luxor's Valley of the Kings, to the museums of Cairo.
Well, thieves have used the growing unrest in the country as cover to plunder, or at least try to plunder some of those treasures. On Friday, looters broke into Cairo's Egyptian National Museum and damaged, among other things, a statue of King Tut.
Dr. Zahi Hawass was a longtime government antiquities official, and as of yesterday, the new minister of state for archeology. He says, though, he knew the museum had been broken into Friday night, he could not survey the damage until Saturday morning because of a government curfew.
Dr. ZAHI HAWASS (Minister of State for Archeology, Egypt): In the ceiling of the museum, the windows are like from glasses. They broke the glasses and they were like maybe 15 feet down at night, therefore they could not see anything. Then they began to open 13 cases, and they began to look for gold. When they found no gold, they threw the statues on the ground.
NORRIS: Mm-hmm. It looked like they spent a good deal of time in the gift shop.
Dr. HAWASS: Yes, they did that.
NORRIS: Were they possibly mistaken? Did they think that that was actually part of the museum?
Dr. HAWASS: Exactly. You know, they're ignorant people. They have no education. They are criminals. But the most important thing, the real Egyptian who love their antiquities, protect the Cairo Museum, not the police. And the army came at 10 o'clock, and they still, the commanders now, surrounding the museum from everywhere, protecting the Cairo Museum.
And yesterday, I was inside the Cairo Museum, looking at every object that is broken. It can't be restored and it can't be back beautifully to the showcases again.
NORRIS: What kind of damage or plundering is taking place elsewhere in the country? We've been talking about the national museum there in Cairo.
Dr. HAWASS: In the same time, Saturday morning, I have been informed that people went to Saqqara. Saqqara is the place that contains all these pyramids in Egypt, the Step Pyramid, the (unintelligible) pyramid.
NORRIS: And the seal on the tomb - was the seal on the tomb broken there at Saqqara?
Dr. HAWASS: Exactly. But yesterday, I sent a committee. And they entered inside the tombs, and they found nothing stolen. The tombs are safe. The site of Abusir, located north of Saqqara, is safe. The Valley of the Kings in Luxor and the Temples of Karnak are safe. Giza Pyramids, safe. And this is because of the Egyptians. They went, stayed beside my guards, and they protected every site and every museum.
NORRIS: Now, you sound like you're quite relieved right now. But at one point, when you did find out that the loss...
Dr. HAWASS: I am. (Unintelligible).
NORRIS: Earlier, though, when you sent out this blog, you said that: My heart is broken and my blood is boiling.
Dr. HAWASS: Right.
NORRIS: What were you worried about that might be taken?
Dr. HAWASS: I was worried when I heard that they broke the seal. Those tombs are very precious, like the Tomb of Mereruka and the Tomb of Ti, dating back 4,300 years ago. They are the tombs that the tourists come to Egypt to look and enter.
When I sent the committee yesterday, they gave me a report, saying the tombs are safe. And I'm really happy to hear that.
NORRIS: Now, the future of the leadership is very much in question right now, very much in flux. You were appointed by President Hosni Mubarak. If there is a change in leadership at the very top, will you hold on to your job?
Dr. HAWASS: I don't know. I don't know. You know, I'm doing my job. And I love Egypt. I love the Egyptian monuments. I gave my life to it. And I'm really happy that the Egyptian government, for the first time, recognized the value of antiquities. We are maybe one of the few countries in the world that have now a ministry for antiquities, and this is wonderful.
NORRIS: Dr. Zahi Hawass was a longtime antiquities official. We spoke to him earlier today. As part of the recent reorganization of the Egyptian government, he was named minister of state for archeology.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.