The Egyptian National Museum is safe, and cultural artifacts damaged by vandals who broke into the building during anti-government protests can be restored, the head of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities said.
Tourism police aided by protesters earlier apprehended nine men in connection with looting at the museum, Zahi Hawass, the council’s secretary general, said yesterday. Dozens of demonstrators had stood guard around the building, one of Cairo’s biggest tourist attractions, to protect it until troops arrived, he said.
“If you shut the lights in New York City for one hour, the people will rob everything in all the shops,” Hawass said in an interview at his office. “What’s happening is normal. Thankfully, all the damaged items can be restored.”
Tens of thousands of people gathered in the city’s Tahrir Square and across the country demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down, and most of the city’s historic sites, including the pyramids, remained off limits to the public.
Protesters flashing ‘V for victory’ signs posed for photographs with Egyptian soldiers yesterday in front of the closed museum, which was surrounded by about a dozen military tanks. The museum appeared intact, though blackened in places by smoke from a fire that had gutted the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party in an adjacent building.
The walls surrounding the museum were daubed in black graffiti that said “No to Mubarak” and “Surrender Mubarak.”
“The marchers are calling for a change of government, but this vandalism is a criminal act,” Hawass said.
The intruders used ropes to descend from the museum’s roof and force their way inside from a fire escape, he said. They broke open 14 display cases in the museum’s Late Period and King Tutankhamun exhibits, in search of gold. Finding none, they shattered statures, including one of the ancient goddess Isis, and smashed some of the museum’s royal mummies, Hawass said.
Police recovered two mummified skulls and other artifacts when they captured the men, he said, adding that he believed the relics could be repaired close to their original condition.
Tourism accounts for 13 percent of jobs in the Arab country. The government aims to attract 16 million tourists in 2011, expecting them to bring in $14 billion in revenue, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah said in an interview in October.
Hawass said he expects tourism to recover “after some time,” depending on how soon the political situation stabilizes.
Flights continued to face delays at Cairo International Airport, and hundreds of tourists camped in the terminals, hoping to find seat on aircraft leaving the country.
“I’m so scared,” said Margaret Wilson of Seattle who arrived Jan. 28, at the height of the protests, with plans to stay for a week. “Nobody has been able to tell us what’s going on, and we can’t find an earlier flight.”
Some foreigners opted to wait out the upheaval and try to make the most of their time in Egypt.
“Our trip today to the pyramids was canceled, and we are waiting to hear if our cruise to Luxor is still on,” said Haarold Osvold, a civil engineer from Malaga, Spain, traveling with his wife.
“If it’s canceled,” he said, “then we’ll try our luck at going home.”