CAIRO, Egypt - The daring robbery of the Egyptian Museum took place on Friday evening, January 28th - the day that Mubarak withdrew his police from the streets, leaving the city in a state of confusion, prey to looters and criminals who had escaped from jails. A group of looters smashed their way into the gift shop of the famous museum and started stealing reproductions of the priceless artifacts kept in the museum. The mob may not have realized what they were stealing was not real. But there was one group of thieves who thought they knew better.
According to Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Antiquities minister (and the familiar face of the pyramids on countless TV programs - he wears the same hat as the Indiana Jones character in the Spielberg movies) these thieves - possibly as many as nine of them - had come prepared with 30-foot long ropes. They climbed up a fire escape to the roof, and then made their way to a portion of the roof covered with glass panels, some of which they were able to remove. They used the ropes to lower themselves right into the center of the museum. But it was pitch black - one of the thieves landed on one of the glass display cases, smashing it and severely cutting his leg. "We know this," said Hawass, "because we could follow his footprints in blood along the floor."
Presumably they had flashlights, because they began breaking open display cases, looking for what Hawass thinks was probably anything made of gold. "They were not experts - they did not get any masterpieces. They were just looking for gold." They left many artifacts strewn over the floor. When museum workers came back Saturday morning and discovered the break-in, there were about 70 objects strewn over the floor. Initially they thought nothing was missing, but after a full inventory was done of all the objects - and the museum has about 150,000 artifacts from the age of the pharaohs, they discovered that 18 items were missing - including two gilded wooden statues of the famous boy-king Tutankhamun. In one statue, Tutankhamun is being carried by a goddess, and in another he is depicted holding a fishing harpoon on a boat.
But it turns out that the thieves were not only ignorant of what they were stealing, but incompetent too. Several of the items have already been found in the grass between the museum building and the iron fencing that surrounds it. Hawass speculates that the thieves tossed the objects away after they emerged, realizing they hadn't got the gold they were looking for. Just one hour before we went to see him today, he had received a call from the museum where they had just found another one of the statues, with a head broken off. His staff are still searching every square inch of the museum grounds and the surrounding streets, hoping they will find the other objects discarded somewhere. A number of men who were seen coming out of the museum were captured by protesters in the square that night and detained - they are still being questioned by the authorities about the break-in. "You see," said Hawass, "Egyptians helped save these artifacts for us all." The museum - along with the pyramids - remains closed, but Hawass is hopeful that all Egypt's antiquities will soon be back on display.