Inside the Collection

My escape from Cairo: Egypt’s Uprising and the National Museum

Soldiers standing on top of a tank in a crowded public space
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

I have just returned from Cairo after a tumultuous few days caught up in the demonstrations in Egypt. I was meant to be there for 6 weeks undertaking research for my PhD before leading an independent 24-day tour of Egypt, “From Alexandria to Abu Simbel” for Alumni Travel in Sydney. Since I was staying in a hotel located at the epicentre of the protests and demonstrations (adjacent to Midan Tahrir, also known as Liberation Square), I had a unique vantage point and was able to witness everything from the burnt out National Democratic Building to the looted businesses, roaming tanks, armed soldiers and snipers, the looming presence of fighter jets and army helicopters overhead, as well as the waves of peaceful and then potentially dangerous protests. Fortunately, I left before the exchange of Molotov cocktails, stones and other forms of ammunition broke out.

As I am a naturally very curious person with a passion for museums and cultural heritage, I couldn’t resist making a visit (actually, a few visits!) into Midan Tahrir to check on the well-being of Egypt’s national museum of antiquities and to see what was happening with the protests more generally. In this rather extraordinary blog post, I thought I would share with you some of my observations and perhaps also provoke some thought around what the role of a national museum is during an uprising – does it play any part in building and/or maintaining a sense of solidarity and national pride with its people or is the museum made redundant?

Protests outside the front of the Egyptian Museum positioned in the heart of Midan Tahrir.
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

As you will see in the photograph above, the Egyptian Museum (the pink building) is located in a very vulnerable position in the heart of Midan Tahrir. To give you some idea of its location in context, behind it is the Ramses Hilton hotel, to the left is the ex-National Democratic Party building and to the far left is the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel (the old Nile Hilton) which is currently under construction. In front of the Museum is the site for what is believed to be a new car park, although it has looked more like a demolition zone for longer than I care to remember!

Egyptian Museum facade is extravagant salmon colour
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

Above and below is how the Egyptian Museum looked when I made a visit only a few months ago (in November 2010). It’s quite a contrast to what I have just experienced, as you will see! Take particular note of the National Democratic Building behind it.

Large crowds of people outside the Egyptian Museum
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

The Egyptian Museum was founded by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1858 (it was also Mariette who founded what is today known as the Supreme Council of Antiquities, now subsumed into the Ministry of Antiquities). The initial Museum was located in Bulaq, just outside of Cairo, and moved to its present location in 1902. A new Museum, known as the Grand Egyptian Museum, is currently under construction and due to open not far from the Giza Plateau in 2012-2013. The Museum consists of two floors. Downstairs is a chronological arrangement of artefacts from the Predynastic Period to the Roman Period (upon entry visitors are greeted by the colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Queen Tiye) and upstairs objects are arranged thematically. Some of the best known displays here include the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Royal Mummy and animal mummy rooms and the royal finds from Tanis.

Army tank parked outside the front of the Egyptian Museum
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

What first struck me when looking at the Museum was the vast number of armed guards stationed in the Museum’s courtyard and on the roof. Each guard was equipped with an automatic rifle and bayonet and their faces were eerily disguised with visored helmets. Normally, the Museum’s courtyard is bustling with tourists taking happy snaps, but on this occasion, they were conspicuously absent. Also conspicuously absent were the many coaches and taxis which typically pull up outside the Museum. These were replaced with tanks, army personnel vehicles and protestors.

At the time I was in Cairo, the government imposed a curfew from 4pm – 8am, which technically meant no one was allowed outside their home during these hours. Many people in Midan Tahrir, however, disobeyed these orders to continue their protesting, but in other parts of the city it was simply too dangerous to be out since the military had been authorised to ‘shoot to kill’. I stayed out in Midan Tahrir until 6pm on Sunday 31st January, during which time two fighter jets flew low and fast over the square. Every time they flew over, the protestors either erupted in a huge roar (to show that they would not be intimidated) or dropped their jaws in surprise (there seemed to have been little indication they were coming until they were directly overhead!). As a bit of a fluke, I managed to capture the sound of the jets flying over while shooting some of the banter outside the Museum (see below).

The National Democratic Building, of whose charred remains you can see throughout many of my photos, was set alight the day before I arrived in Cairo and understandably sparked a lot of concern for the safety of the Museum. As far as I could tell, the fire didn’t affect the Museum – although there was some evidence of spot fires around the rear of the building and many burnt out vehicles belonging to the tourist police, government organisations and private individuals.

National Democratic Building with smoke merging from the windows, next door to the Egyptian Museum
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved
Burnt out van next door to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo Egypt.
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved
Burnt ute on the side of the road, Cairo Egypt
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

The city of Cairo has also become a canvas for anti-Mubarak slogans, and I am afraid some of the external walls of the Museum did not escape this. Most of the slogans, translated from the Arabic, read ‘Down with Mubarak!’, ‘He will go!’ and ‘Get out!’ (in addition to many others which weren’t quite as savoury in their expression). A lot of these slogans were also spray painted onto the tanks.

Spray painted bridge in Arabic text
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

On the day I arrived in Cairo, the media reported that the Egyptian Museum had been broken into. The Minister of Antiquities in Egypt, Dr Zahi Hawass, reported that only 13 out of hundreds of display cases were damaged and 70 objects broken, all of which he claims can be repaired. Among these include a New Kingdom dated coffin, two skulls and a gilded walking stick belonging to Tutankhamun. The new Museum shop was also looted and many replica objects stolen by thieves under the false impression that these were in fact the ‘real deal’. I filmed the coverage of one of these reports on local Egyptian television via my iPhone, which you can see below. This footage shows armed guards patrolling the Museum and some detail shots of a damaged Middle Kingdom dated model boat, a wooden statue and other funerary goods.

While it is not appropriate for me to comment on the country’s political situation here, I should at least point out that the riots of the last week or so are said to have been fuelled by criminals who were released from prison, and more recently, pro-Mubarak supporters. During the time I was in Midan Tahrir, the protests were peaceful and I felt quite safe. There were even many opportunities for me to chat with protestors and share in some spreads of figs, dates, nuts, bananas, wafer biscuits and soft drinks! During these chats, the most common sentiments I heard from the protestors was that they were against violence, they were proud to be Egyptian and they cared for the state of the monuments and museums in their country. Hawass recalls a similar response on his website, “…the people in the streets defend the museums, monuments and sites. When I came into work today, I had to pass through a checkpoint. When the men in the Popular Committees running the checkpoint saw me, they asked ‘Sir, how is the Museum?’. These men may not know how to read or write, but they are worried about their cultural heritage”.

I should also point out that life in many parts of Cairo and the rest of Egypt have been going on as normal despite the uprisings and there continues to be many opportunities for prayer, reflection, downtime and social banter, even in Midan Tahrir itself. This is something the media rarely shows. For example, as you will see in the image below, people have been sleeping the night in the square, cooking food, praying and protesting – after all, no matter what the occasion, people still have basic human needs to fulfil.

People praying, reflection, in Midan Tahrir
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved
Photograph of protest with a woman holding up sign with the text reading " No Violence"
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

One of President Mubarak’s responses to these uprisings has been the dismissal of his existing cabinet and the installation of a new one. Notably, among these new appointments to his cabinet is the former Director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr Zahi Hawass. He now holds the post – Minister of Antiquities. Before this, the Supreme Council of Antiquities fell under the Ministry of Culture and earlier, the Ministries of Tourism and Education. Until now, it had never been given a government department in its own right. The decision to make this change during the uprisings demonstrates just how powerful and influential Egypt’s museums and monuments are, in addition to Dr Hawass himself, to the political landscape of the country.

I guess in light of the many requests Egypt has made of overseas museums to repatriate Egyptian antiquities in recent times, it is also imperative that the country be seen to be doing everything in its power to show that they can adequately care for their own cultural heritage. After all, UNESCO and other heritage bodies have been knocking on their door to see if international intervention is necessary to protect their monuments and collections from harms way. Dr Hawass’s new appointment, however, must be doing the trick as the recently released “ICOM Preliminary Report on Museums in Egypt” was, according to Zahi, based “mostly on the statements I made over the past week and those posted here on my website”. In other words, there is no chance of shipping out the Egyptian Museum’s contents to Europe or the USA any time yet!

Aerial shot of the crowded Midan Tahrir
Photography by Melanie Pitkin © all rights reserved

I think the Museum as a statement of national pride and identity does in fact have a bigger role to play in the mentality of the people during these uprisings than what many may initially assume. Not only is the physical presence of the Museum always there at the heart of the protests (given its prominent position in Midan Tahrir), but it is a word on the lips of the Egyptian people across all strata of society. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

To read more about the Egyptian Museum during these uprisings, I recommend you visit Dr Hawass’s website here (Dr Hawass has been keeping a daily blog about the situation of Egypt’s cultural heritage and you can also subscribe to his RSS feed) or visit Cambridge University’s Egyptology Resources here.

12 responses to “My escape from Cairo: Egypt’s Uprising and the National Museum

  • A wonderful summation of the events in Egypt from a first hand position Melanie! This adds a great deal to what the media has been sharing with us over the past two weeks. Particularly comforting is the detail on the state of the National Museum on the inside. We had been shown film of Egyptian citizens standing with arms linked outside, protecting the Museum. This national concern was something I hadn’t been aware of, but which I find quite moving.

  • Hi Melanie,
    A bit of an adventure. I am glad you are back safely.

    I wonder if you could help me. You show a couple of pictures of burnt out vans. I am trying to understand which part of the museum the van in cairo7-450×599 is against. The wall doesn’t seem high enough to be the main building. Is it an annexe – or am I confused and it isn’t up against the museum at all?


  • Thanks Melanie for your report. It was interesting to hear about life outside Tahrir Square and the extent of the impact of the curfew. Excellent images too! Penny

  • Melanie. Fabulous blog. You have a second calling – frontline journalism! And the pic of the tank in front of the National Museum is a classic. One for the memoirs.

  • Hi Kate

    Thanks for your comment and good question. It is an annexe of the Museum. If you look at the picture above it you can see the small outbuilding at the back. I’m not sure what it’s used for. The white bricked wall and burnt out van form part of the National Democratic Building surrounds and the burnt out tourist police vehicle was actually located outside my hotel (the Semiramis).

    Also, I think you’ve done a wonderful job with the Egyptological looting database. For other readers of this blog, it’s really worth having a look at here:

  • Hi Melanie – excellent coverage and very valuable to read about the situation from a cultural heritage perspective. Suggest you send a link to the Museums Australia and ICOM websites as would be of wide interest to the museum community. Well done and glad you are back safe and sound!

  • Thank you for the narrative and consideration of the antiquities. I am glad you”survived” to tell us about your experience. My personal opinion has to include politics. That is..I believe Mubarrak has resigned himself to the fact that he must step down however, it needs to be a peaceful transition, perhaps this might be the first “revolution” ever to democratically change. I do not believe many of the antiquities have been damaged. This will affect tourism for a cpl of years, perhaps more or not, depending on the next government. I think Mubarak has obliged and I think the Egyptians that earn so little also need to settle down and live their lives. As u said, the antiquities are still cared for. Perhaps once this upheaval has ended, Egypt can really take pride. I suspect Melanie you are the woman to do it properly too.

    Thank God (Allah even!) you are safe. xxx

  • Thank you Melanie for sharing these amazing experiences. As a regular visitor to the region myself I know the emotional connection you would feel to the country and its people that would inevitably fuel a mixture of concerned elation for the future of Egypt, its people, and its cultural heritage. I was in Jordan when the events in Tunisia and Egypt erupted and while that country is governed by a popular monarchy and its cabinet, it was sobering to imagine a Jordan in turmoil; its antiquities in jeopardy, and Pella where I was excavating, turned into a source of illicit income. Let’s hope for the peaceful transition of Egypt into a well-governed secular nation its people show they deserve. Paul

  • Thanks for the blog. I was not aware of the close proximity of the museum to the Midan Tahrir, your pics are quite enlightening.

  • Melanie, thank you for this excellent report which gives us a beautifully focused snapshot of what is happening in Cairo (and I am referring not only to the photos and videos, but to the words). I wish our journalists would do as good a job as you have done.

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