The night of Friday, 28 January 2011, passed slowly, and my hours were punctuated by waking nightmares and a single desperate thought regarding what state I would find the Egyptian Museum in the next morning [following a night of protests and the Egyptian police abandoning their guard posts outside the museum].
I woke up early to perform the morning Fajr prayers, rubbing the sleep from my eyes as if I had managed to drift off in the first place. Afterwards I sat behind my desk and tried to busy myself with anything until the car which had been arranged to take me to the Egyptian Museum arrived. Hours passed slowly, and I found myself reading a great book by American archaeologist and historian James Henry Breasted called “The Dawn of Conscience.” In this book, Breasted writes “Egypt laid the foundations of civilization and shaped the human conscience thousands of years ago. All sciences began there, in the place where the Nile flows and floods to form a great Delta; where the ancient Egyptians lived, invented writing and laid the foundations of knowledge and civilization. They were the first to come together to form a village, which later grew to become a city and then the first unified state and political system in the world”
I dressed and left the house at around 8 am, travelling quickly to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Looking out of the car window on the journey to the centre of Cairo I saw a country different than the one that I was used to seeing, with cars and people walking in all different directions without the presence of a single police or traffic officer to direct the scene. As we drew closer to Tahrir Square, I saw burnt-out vehicles and other remnants of a ferocious battle, and the scenes of chaos said it all. I saw flames and smoke ascending from the tall building that housed several organizations and societies and which is only separated from the Egyptian Museum by the western garden wall. I heaved a deep sigh of relief and thanked God that the Museum was still standing and that the fire from the adjacent building had not spread to it. All that remained now was to make sure that the antiquities held within the museum were similarly unharmed.
The garden surrounding the Egyptian Museum was completely take up with tanks and armoured vehicles belonging to the Egyptian armed forces. A state of deadly silence hung over the entire place and despite the heightened activity of the heavily armed troops, everyone was moving in silence. I headed in through the main entrance of the Museum and made for the administration office which is situated at the far right of building. Here I was receive by the new director of the Egyptian Museum, a young man of about 40 years of age, who had only been appointed to this position around 40 days earlier. Next to him stood the Chief of the Egyptian Museum’s Board of Trustees, the Museum’s Chief of Security, and other security officers, as well as 4 members of the Egyptian tourism police in civilian attire. In addition to this group, there was a group of the Egyptian armed forces that specializes in protecting the museum, and this group was led by a young officer whose facial features took me back thousands of years. Indeed, this officer’s stern visage reminded me of statues and busts of a number of Egypt’s ancient rulers, such as King Menes, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh credited with having united Upper and Lower Egypt, and the founder of the first dynasty, as well as King Ahmose I, who completed the conquest and expulsion of the Hyksos. In addition to this, he also reminded me of Thutmose III who created the largest empire Egypt had ever seen, and Ramses II, the greatest military commander who signed the earlier known peace treat in the world, with the Hittites.
I sat with this group and listened to the grim details of the criminal attack that took place on the Egyptian Museum on Friday night, 28 January 2011. I was furnished with the other side of the story which until then was not known to me and was not broadcast by the different terrestrial and satellite TV channels which mainly focused on the fire in the building adjacent to the Museum and on the looting that occurred to some banks and institutes in the area amidst this unprecedented state of utter lawlessness. That day marked the unfolding of a new chapter in Egypt’s history; a chapter that began with a group of Egyptian youth taking to the streets to demand for freedom; a chapter whose end is yet to be written.