As soon as the Maghreb protest contagion spread to Egypt, one of my first thoughts was about the Egyptian Museum. Remember the aftermath of our Iraq invasion, when organized looters raided the Baghdad museum and nearly emptied it of Iraq’s cultural heritage going all the way back to Babylon? And all that then-SECDEF Donald Rumsfeld could muster was this petulant complaint about how bad it made him look:
The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think: ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’
Fucking heathen; just thinking about that can still make my blood boil even now. Consider: Egypt was home to the world’s first empire, the world’s first superpower and it is still home to the world’s most complete archaeological record currently known. Thank goodness that there weren’t gangs of looters linked to organized crime, just waiting for hostilities to start so they could move in and rob the nation (and the world) of Egypt’s heritage. But even more, thank the people of Egypt themselves who were not about to let it happen to them:
- “We are not like Baghdad.”
- “I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure.”
- The museum holds “…5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we’ll never find it again.”
Hosni Mubarak is an authoritarian dictator who has many, many, many faults, but I don’t think that failure to appreciate and protect his nation’s cultural heritage is among them. He sent in the Egyptian army to guard the museum — even if for no more lofty reason than to protect tourism revenue, a not-insignificant sector of modern Egypt’s economy. Let’s hope that whatever happens with Mubarak’s government, all parties can agree that antiquity is out of bounds. Zahi Hawass may be a shameless celebrity and publicity hound, but that also undeniably makes him the face of Egyptian archaeology. Given his international media stature, I hope he speaks out on behalf of antiquity soon, because there are quite a lot of vases in Egypt.