Sunday, January 30, 2011

this weekend at the Egyptian Museum

Hello readers,

I apologize for being lax in posting recently. I have been busy following the news in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon, sick with a terrible cold, and teaching. Below, is a modified version of a post that I wrote today for the class blog in my critical museum studies class, where we are examining the multiple social, historical, economic, and political contexts of museums and our engagements with them.

Tut ankh Amen. image source

I know I don’t have to introduce Tutankhamen to you. People in the West have had a long history of interest in the antiquities of ancient Egypt. This is evidenced in a special cable to the New York Times, written up in the Feb. 16, 1926 NYT article, “Tut-ankh-Amen’s Inner Tomb is Opened Revealing Undreamed of Splendors, Still Untouched After 3,400 Years.” “EXPLORERS ARE DAZZLED” begins the article, which glowingly reports on the speechlessness and gasps that followed the opening of Tut ankh Amen’s tomb. This momentous unveiling was the particular privilege of a primarily Western audience of, to quote the article, “EXPLORERS.” With one Egyptian official named as part of the party, the article notes that “There were twenty in all, to whom must be added the laborers who carried down the huge trays for the reception of seals, & amp;c [sic].”

Jan. 28, 2011, looters smash cases to steal antiquities from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

artifact thrown onto the floor of the museum in the midst of smash-and-grab

Over the years, interest in the artifacts of Tutankhamen’s tomb has only grown, and they circulate the world to the delight of audiences everywhere, and, as well, millions of tourist visit Egypt each year to see the national treasures of Egypt in their homeland. And today, rather than read about the colonial adventures of Western explorers in American newspapers, the news from Egypt accessed online through various media sources, including Arab digital media, speaks of challenges to the legacy of colonialism and to state repression by the descendants of the unnamed “labourers.”

I am sure that you have been keeping up with the news about the recent popular uprising in Egypt that came to a head this Friday and Saturday and continues as we speak. The Egyptian people, inspired by the grassroots revolt for democracy in Tunisia (led by young people and enabled by social media), have been gathering, demonstrating, and defying government curfews and military violence in their demands for the resignation of Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The uprising is a response to increasing poverty (40% of Egyptians earn $2/day), unemployment, rapidly rising food prices, political corruption, and a 30 year long American supported ($1.3 billion military and security “aid” each year; US economic aid in 2009 was only $200 m.) repressive dictatorship, i.e. the government of Hosni Mubarak.

smashed case of antiquities at the Egyptian Museum

Egyptian army tanks move in to secure the museum

The Egyptian people have been demonstrating for days and nights in cities across the country, and many people have been killed (100-150 deaths) and injured (over 1000) by Egyptian security forces. In Cairo, where demonstrations are particularly intense, people have been gathering in Tahrir Square (Freedom Square), which the Egyptian Museum faces.

The building beside the museum is (I should say, was) the headquarters of the despised ruling party, which the anti-government pro-democracy protesters set on fire on Friday night and destroyed. The raging fire engulfed the party headquarters, which endangered the museum due to its proximity, and in the melee “dozens of would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum, climbing over the metal fence or jumping inside from trees lining the sidewalk outside.”

Egyptian army securing the interior of the Egyptian Museum

The first people to secure the museum and stop further looting were the people, the anti-government demonstrators. As reported in the article by Maggie Michaels (that I linked to above), people formed a human chain around the museum, preventing more looters from entering the museum:

One man pleaded with people outside the museum’s gates on Tahrir Square not to loot the building, shouting at the crowd: ‘We are not like Baghdad.’ ….

Suddenly other young men — some armed with truncheons taken from the police — formed a human chain outside the main entrance in an attempt to protect the collection inside.

‘I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure,’ said one of the men….Another man…said it was important to guard the museum because it ‘has 5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we’ll never find it again.’”

Egyptian army patrolling the museum

Tourist police assisted the pro-democracy demonstrators in protecting the museum until the Egyptian army arrived to secure the building. However, looters destroyed two mummies by ripping off their heads, damaged 10 other artifacts, smashed glass cases, along with other damage; some of which you can see in the photos I have posted. I took the photos yesterday while watching the Al-Jazeera English website, which is live streaming the uprising in Egypt. So they are images I snapped from webcasts that I was watching on my computer monitor and my TV.

Above is a short (about 1 minute) newscast of the destruction at the museum that I found on the Al Jazeera website.

artifact smashed into pieces

Along with the Egyptian army securing the museum to prevent further theft, the fire in the adjacent building was extinguished. However, the museum is still not safe until the burnt building is torn down (Zahi Hawass says that it can fall onto the museum, causing damage), and, of course, the current volatile instability in Egypt is resolved. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a particularly valuable cultural archive of North African antiquities, important not only to the Egyptian people, but to all humanity.

The Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) is a “two-storey museum, built in 1902, [which] houses tens of thousands of objects in its galleries and storerooms, including most of the King Tutankhamen collection.” The looters, thankfully, were caught and the stolen artifacts retrieved, according to this report.

However, the situation in Egypt remains insecure, tense, and unpredictable. Unlike Canada and its aging population, the countries of the Middle East have young populations; overall, 70% of the population is under 30 years of age. In light of high unemployment, skyrocketing food prices, increasing poverty, censorship, and violent repression of any dissent against the ruling government, young Egyptians and their allies, family members, and neighbours, male and female, have taken to the streets to attempt to change their futures. On Saturday, as Manar Ammar reports on the collectively written blog, bikyamasr (which, according to my husband, translates roughly to “all the bits and pieces that make up the problems in Egypt and you don’t know where to start”), “Egyptian demonstrators took their protest movement on the offensive, braving gun fire, tear gas and violence to protest in front of the ministry of interior. Reports from the scene are anything but harrowing [sic], with one reporter saying lines of people would brave the live fire and march toward the ministry, only to return with blood and wounds, in a Gandhi-like protest against state tyranny.”

The short video above clearly gives you a sense of what the Egyptian people are against, and their determination to free themselves from the stupidity of Mubarak. I am heartened by the courage and rage of the peoples of Egypt (and Tunisia) in rising up against their repressive regimes, standing up against corruption and for their human rights, and I wish them success in their struggles.


marja-leena said...

Yes, the damage to the antiquities and the museum is disturbing, as are the deaths and injuries of course. Thank you for pulling all these together to help my understanding! I too hope that the young people win the struggle for change and democracy in Egypt - it would have an impact on the whole region of the Middle East.

20th Century Woman said...

I hope that whatever new government emerges from this upheaval will not be another repressive and dictatorial one. Any new government will have a terrible problem coping with the existing economic situation. These young people need jobs and a stable political situation to be able to nurture a new generation.

northshorewoman said...

hello ML and 20th C Woman,

There is only the way forward from here for the Egyptian people. They have suffered under a repressive regime for 30 years, American backed, and what is to come can only be better. I can't imagine the people would settle for anything less than progress. People have lost their lives and have nothing more to lose. They won't settle for less than a better chance for change.

Merche Pallarés said...

Terrible the looting of the Egyptian Museum... I hope you're much better from your cold. Hugs, M.