Egypt Antiquities Damaged, at Risk During Unrest

See Egyptian artifacts damaged during the current instability. Can Egypt's historic sites and antiquities be protected? Video.

Looting attempts at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and at other historic sites have underscored the vulnerability of "a cultural legacy that belongs to mankind." Can the country's antiquities and sites be protected?

© 2011 National Geographic



Political unrest in Egypt turned attention toward the country’s historic sites and vast collection of antiquities.

SOUNDBITE: Terry Garcia, Exec. VP National Geographic Mission Programs - “Egypt is I guess you could say the entire country, is literally a museum and store room for ancient history. I don’t believe it would be an overstatement to say it is one of the great cultural legacies of humanity.”

Perhaps no other country in the world has so many well-known sites and artifacts, many extending back 3 and 4,000 years.

A small group of looters damaged priceless artifacts inside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo before being captured.

Soldiers took position afterwards in the museum to protect the precious contents.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s State Minister for Antiquities and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, confirms the damage, but says ‘nothing was stolen’ at the Cairo Museum.

Among damaged artifacts: items from King Tut’s tomb.

Despite the clearly visible damages, Egyptologists are hopeful some of the items can be restored.

But at other ancient sites and lesser-known museums in Egypt, items were stolen.

National Geographic’s Executive Vice President for Mission Programs, Terry Garcia, says there’s worldwide support for Egypt’s retention of its history.

SOUNDBITE: Terry Garcia, Exec. VP National Geographic Mission Programs - “If some objects have been stolen, that those objects might find their way into the illegal antiquities market, and many archaeologists have called on other countries, such as the United States the United Kingdom and their customs authorities to be on the lookout for Old Kingdom objects … frankly any objects that might be coming out of Egypt. “

At the Egyptian Museum, over 120,000 artifacts are on display from throughout Egypt’s storied history, including the famous golden death mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It was not damaged in the looting attempt.

SOUNDBITE: Terry Garcia, Exec. VP National Geographic Mission Programs - “All of these sites had been well guarded. The Egyptian government had tourism police, as well as guards at all of these sites. And they were well secured.

This is something, unfortunately, that you see when you have great instability and political upheaval as we’re witnessing in Egypt now. This happened in Iraq, following the invasion. It also happened in Afghanistan. We saw certain individuals take advantage of the instability to enrich themselves.”

Much of the Egyptian population itself lives on top of the remains of ancient history. And Egyptologists and other scholars are cautiously optimistic that Egyptians intent on protecting the history will prevail over the few who want to profit from looting it.

SOUNDBITE: Fredrick Hiebert, National Geographic Archaeology Fellow - “When you live on top of layer after layer of civilization and you see it on an everyday basis it becomes part of your persona. And that’s the way Egyptians are. They really feel that – it may not be explicit – it may not be something they talk about every day, but they feel pre-Islamic, that Pharaonic past, they’re very proud of and they should be because it’s at the core of Western Civilization.”

SOUNDBITE: Terry Garcia, Exec. VP National Geographic Mission Programs - “We should care about this because it’s not just about Egypt. Yes, these objects and sites are part of the ancient Egyptian civilization, but at its core what we’re talking about is a cultural legacy that belongs to mankind.”

SOUNDBITE: Fredrick Hiebert, National Geographic Archaeology Fellow - “Egyptians don’t want these sites destroyed. But it happens when there’s chaos and we want to work together with the Egyptians to make sure that nothing gets hurt and that we can continue to tell the stories of modern Egyptians and ancient Egyptians for our future generations.”