The Egyptian Museum of Cairo is, without a doubt, the best collection of Egyptian art and artifacts on the planet. The treasures it houses, like the Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (‘King Tut’), are not only relics of an ancient past, but modern day symbols of the country itself. So when revolution broke out in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, it is only natural that Egyptologists the world over worried that looting on the scale of the Baghdad Museum would cripple not only their fields but the heritage of a nation forever.
On January 28, it seemed that their worst fears were well founded when looters broke in. They concentrated for the most part in the museum gift shop, however, and damage in museum proper was minimal. 18 items were looted, but many now have been recovered, including a statue of Tutankhamun that was later discovered buried nearby. On the morning of January 29th, citizens of Cairo formed a human barrier around the building in an attempt to discourage further looting. One man reportedly plead with the protesters at Tahrir, yelling “We are not Baghdad.”
Eventually, the military secured the museum, bolstering its security force substantially against would-be burglars. While the actual damage has been surprisingly minimal, it and looting elsewhere throughout the country, has shaken international confidence that Egypt will be able to keep its treasures safe. Attempts to recover objects like the Rosetta Stone and the Bust of Nefertiti from the foreign museums in which they are housed will no doubt be hindered by this development.