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Egypt must wake up to respect and protect its treasures

Egypt is an open-air museum. Every few months a news release pops up in newsroom inboxes announcing the discovery of an ancient tomb, statue or even complete cities.

Abu Simbel The latest was the discovery of a Greco-Roman underwater city discovered in the elite summer playground of Marina. It’s amazing to think about the hundreds of upper-class Egyptians frolicking in their pools and pristine beaches, right on top of one of the oldest human cities.

It reminded me of the ancient Egyptian grave site I was invited to visit a year ago and discovered just an hour outside Cairo. We were led by the head archaeologist on the dig and invited to crouch down inside the graves, inches away from intricately painted sarcophaguses, with pieces of mummy linen escaping from the cracks.

Besides the things still undiscovered, the number of precious items in museums is also mind-boggling. The Egyptian museum is filled to the ceilings with massive granite coffins, highly decorated masks and jewellery, and ceiling-high statues of kings, queens and gods.

Everywhere and in every room and hall you turn into there is a cupboard or a display of hundreds of pieces of jewellery, accessories like combs or housewares and pots and cooking utensils. The mummy room has at least 10 tightly wound humans who would have walked and talked on the same earth we did thousands of years ago.

A popular rumour among journalists is that the Egyptian museum’s basement is filled to the brim with “undiscovered” pieces of ancient life. There’s just so much that there will be enough to fill a massive new museum called the Grand Cairo Museum being built near the Pyramids, and also keep the downtown building open and alive.

And so it is heartbreaking to walk through the existing Egyptian Museum and see the state of the building and its contents – peeling walls, dirty bathrooms, lazy security guards and unlabelled displays.

Entering the museum during the summer, you are met with hundreds of tourists fanning themselves and looking dehydrated in the lobby. Either beginning or ending their tour, some are leaning against the walls or displays, or sitting on the steps in the front entrance, faces red like tomatoes and hair matted against foreheads.

There are only two air-conditioned rooms in the building – the mummy room and the Gold room , which also houses King Tut’s mask. The rest is humid and stuffy and dusty.

I caught at least two security guards using their mobile phones while tourists crowded around a display case, leaning and sitting against it. Another guard dozed visibly, his head lolling lazily falling to either side as he snoozed.

Most of the displays were unlabelled, and the ones that were sported yellowed and dried-up pieces of paper with typewriter-written description, obviously from another era themselves.

The display cupboards were as much part of the heritage as the pieces they held, locked using rusty, clunky padlocks.

I felt a little embarrassed for the ancient history housed in this humid building, wishing things were preserved with the dignity they deserved as the thousands of foreigners passed by them, admiringly. I cringed when the guards sloppily threw visitors’ bags through the ancient surveillance machine.

The future of museums and their security have been a major topic of discussion in Egyptian media in the past month, after a valuable piece of art was stolen in broad daylight from the Mahmoud Khalil museum. Taking advantage of the security guards’ prayer time and the lethargy in Ramadan, the thieves were able to use a box cutter to slice a Vincent van Gogh painting out of its frame and escape undetected.

Authorities still haven’t found it, but they did discover that only seven out of 43 cameras were working at the time of the theft and that none of the alarms was functioning.

The culture minister found himself in a he-said/she-said with his staff as to why this could happen. His deputies say they had asked for money to upgrade their security systems, he said he approved it, they said they never received it. In typical Egyptian bureaucratic incompetence, leaders find themselves in an embarrassing scandal that has grabbed the attention of the world.

Art experts are now asking: How can Egypt fight to have its treasures returned, if it can’t take care of the things it already has? And local critics wonder what it will take for Egyptians to realise that its treasures deserve pride, respect and care.

How can a culture of “leaving it up to God” be changed to snap security guards and authorities out of their dozing and be proactive instead of reactive, doing only what is needed when something as valuable as a van Gogh is taken away, perhaps forever?


Author: Hadeel al Shalch | Source: The National [September 10, 2010]


TANN

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