AP Interview: Egypt declares treasures safe

CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA - Associated Press
Egyptian special forces secure the main floor inside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Jan. 31, 2011. Would-be looters broke into Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum on Saturday Jan. 29, 2011, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging some artifacts before being caught and detained by army soldiers, Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass said Saturday, while reporting that the vandals did not manage to steal any of the museum's antiquities, and that the prized collection is secure from thieves and under military guard.(AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
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Egyptian special forces secure the main floor inside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Jan. 31, 2011. Would-be looters broke into Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum on Saturday Jan. 29, 2011, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging some artifacts before being caught and detained by army soldiers, Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass said Saturday, while reporting that the vandals did not manage to steal any of the museum's antiquities, and that the prized collection is secure from thieves and under military guard.

Egypt's museums and ancient monuments, including the Pyramids of Giza, are secure despite upheaval in the streets, and officials recovered nearly 300 archaeological items that were plundered by armed Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula, the government said Tuesday.

The week-old uprising, marked by huge street protests, deadly clashes with police, economic paralysis and a mass exodus of foreigners, raised fears of major theft or destruction of Egypt's treasures. Some museums and antiquities were threatened in a series of close calls.

Now, however, the Egyptian military is protecting the pyramids, the temple city of Luxor, the Nile cruise destination of Aswan and other major sites, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told The Associated Press.

Military vehicles blocked access to the pyramids near Cairo, but Luxor's Valley of the Kings remained open to tourism, a chief driver of the Egyptian economy.

Thieves broke padlocks at tomb entrances in the ancient burial ground of Saqqara, but nothing was stolen or damaged, Hawass said in an interview. He declared Egypt's major museums, including the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo, to be safe.

Hawass, who was named antiquities minister in a new Cabinet appointed by besieged President Hosni Mubarak, said the survival of Egypt's rich archaeological heritage amid chaos reflected a fundamental pride among Egyptians even as they revolt against their leadership.

"We cannot be like Afghanistan," said Hawass, referring to a depleted nation where war overshadows centuries of cultural history. "Civilization is inside the Egyptians."

The sites have not been immune to the chaos.

Last week, Bedouins pulled up in a truck and looted a storage site in Qantara, near the Suez Canal. But 288 items — the majority of what was missing — were returned, said Hawass, a prolific, flamboyant figure who escorted President Barack Obama around the pyramids during his 2009 visit.

People surged into the garden of Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum at the peak of the violence on Friday, but civilians formed a human chain to protect the building. Dozens of looters were detained over several days and most appeared unaware of the value of what was in the museum, gleefully ransacking the gift shop.

"They thought that the museum shop was the museum," said Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist. "These people are ignorant, they are outlaws."

Nine looters climbed the fire escape to the museum roof and lowered themselves on ropes from a glass pane ceiling onto the top floor, where they fumbled in the darkness, tossing aside ancient objects in what museum staff believe was a frenzied search for gold.

Some damage occurred next to the gated room containing the gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, one of the museum's chief attractions.

Seventy objects in 13 cases were broken — one was a statue of the king on a panther — but the museum said they could be repaired. Hawass earlier said heads were ripped off two mummies. On Tuesday, though, he said the museum had mistaken two skulls, separated from their skeletons, for mummy heads and that the items were intact.

"I had tears because I thought that what I did for the last nine years protecting the Egyptian monuments, was gone," Hawass declared, so ebullient that he was almost shouting. "I am so happy to announce that today everything is safe."

He spoke in his office at the Supreme Council of Antiquities in the relative calm of Zamalek, an upscale island district in the Nile River. He wore a white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit jacket and framed photographs showed him with singer Celine Dion, Queen Sofia of Spain and other luminaries.

He also wears an Indiana Jones-style explorer's hat on excavations. The battered fedora sits on a cabinet in his office. "It's a part of me," said Hawass, whose website includes personal quotations and lists a "fanclub."

There has been concern about the cultural wealth in Egypt well before the chaos and uncertainty that engulfed Egypt and that has yet to be resolved. Last year, the theft of a van Gogh painting from a museum in Cairo focused attention on outdated alarm and camera systems and other troubling gaps in security.

Hawass has long campaigned to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times. Last month, just before anti-government protests erupted, he formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades.

He also chided New York City over the condition of Cleopatra's Needle, an ancient column in Central Park.

The antiquities department previously fell under the supervision of the Culture Ministry, but it constitutes a separate ministry in the new government. While protesters dismissed the Cabinet reshuffle as cosmetic and demanded Mubarak's immediate ouster, Hawass said Egyptians should give his boss more time.

"The people in the streets have to give this government an opportunity to change," he said cheerfully. "Beautiful things happened in the last five days."