One of the greatest stains on my nation is the 2003 looting of the Iraqi National Museum, which lost 170,000 artifacts to thieves because the US Army would not protect it. Thousands of years of history — not Iraqi history, but human history — were lost in a matter of two days, because the United States did not consider the museum to be of military importance. Nor did any planners of the invasion stop to consider what the natural consequence might be of removing all local rule of law and replacing it with…nothing.
Which is why it was so uplifting to read the news this morning and find this little tidbit buried in all of the information coming out of Egypt:
2000 GMT: A very touching story is developing in Cairo. As the NDP’s headquarters burn, there were fears that the Egyptian National Museum, which houses some of the world’s most ancient artifacts from the old Egyptian civilization and a beautiful collection of ancient whales fossils, would catch on fire too. There were earlier reports – albeit unconfirmed – that some people were looting the museum.
Now Al Jazeera is reporting that young protesters have formed a human chain around the museum to protect it against looting. It seems for now that this treasure trove of human ingenuity and the natural world’s wonders is in no immediate danger.
I tried to confirm this on Al Jazeera’s web site, but it seems to have been a television report only, and has not been put in text form on their site. However, it does state that the Egyptian army “has been able to secure the neighbouring museum of antiquities from the threat of fire and looting, averting the possible loss of thousands of priceless artefacts.”
The Christian Science Monitor has much more detail, tying these two news items together:
Then 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.
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, Farid Saad, a 40-year-old engineer.
Another man, 26-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim, 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.”
Finally, four armored vehicles took up posts outside the massive coral-colored building in downtown Cairo. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside to protect mummies, monumental stone statues, ornate royal jewelry and other pharaonic artifacts.
The word “heartwarming” gets overused in American reporting, but it truly applies to this event. Those individuals who protected their museum until the army could get there deserve the thanks not just of their fellow citizens, but everyone who shares that history. Which is to say, all of us.
UPDATE: The latest news indicates that in fact, some looters did get in before the army could secure the building. They entered from above and destroyed two priceless mummies. I do not think “looter” is the right word to use here; “moronic vandals” would be more appropriate. It’s a safe bet that the mummies possessed more brains than they did.
This news also emphasizes the importance of what yesterday’s protective protesters accomplished. Imagine the damage that would have been done had they not taken a stand.