I woke up early on Friday 25 January 2011, as has been my custom over the past 40 years, and I remember thinking that we were standing on the verge of a momentous event that would shake the entire foundations of Egypt. It was this same feeling that had caused me to take the decision to close the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to visitors, particularly after I had been advised by several parties that the revolution of the Tahrir Square youth was expected to reach its zenith on that particular Friday. By now everybody must be aware that the Egyptian Museum is situated in the heart of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, immediately adjacent to the headquarters of Egypt’s [former ruling] National Democratic Party.
What further confirmed my feelings that Egypt stood on the verge of a historic moment was the fact that all means of communication through mobile phone networks and the internet, were shut down, which represented an unprecedented state of affairs in Egypt. This meant I had to resort to a land-line telephone in order to check up with friends and archeological sites and museums throughout the country.
Everybody in the country was in the same boat, and a phrase that was repeated throughout the day was “God be with us” as nobody could be sure about what was happening.
I remember that the hours passed very slowly, and the Friday sermon at the mosque close to my house focused upon “blessings of security and safety for the Egyptian people.” At night, the television channels broadcast the Egyptian public’s reaction to what was happening in Tahrir Square, and I witnessed nightmarish scenes of violence, of excessive force being used against the Egyptian youth who had raised the banners of freedom, justice and democracy. We saw a state of utter chaos prevailing in the country, particularly after the General Security forces disappeared from the streets, forcing the Egyptian army to appear. However what most concerned me was the image of a building adjacent to the Egyptian Museum on fire, and one youth who appeared on screen shouting “Save the Egyptian Museum!”
I was horrified at the thought of the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts and exhibits being in danger, although I was still unaware that there was another threat to the Egyptian Museum other than fire, namely the threat of its security being breached!
I immediately put on my clothes and left the house, deaf to my family’s pleas not to risk my life during such a chaotic time. How could I remain safe at home and watch the efforts of thousands of archeologists from all across the world – who uncovered Egypt’s antiquities and entrusted them to the beautifully constructed Egyptian museum – go up in smoke?
I cannot tell you how afraid I was that I would find the Egyptian Museum as nothing more than a pile of smoking ashes, this was the nightmare that gripped my mind! However the streets were completely empty, I could not find any means of transport or even a single human being, the entire area was eerily silent. It was as if the entire country had left and gone to Tahrir Square!
I had no choice but to return home, I could not believe what was happening and could think of nothing but the safety of the Egyptian Museum. I dialed the Fire Brigade and begged them to go and save the Egyptian Museum, and I prayed that this Friday night would pass quickly so that I could visit Tahrir Square and see what happened to the Egyptian Museum for myself!