CAIRO: Dozens of foreign tourists braved the revolution in Egypt on Sunday to visit the world’s greatest collection of Pharaonic treasures and were welcomed with roses, as craftsmen meticulously mended artifacts damaged by looting.
The usually busy galleries of the Egyptian Museum, which houses the golden death mask of boy king Tutankhamun, were virtually deserted when doors opened for the first time since the early days of a revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
"It was very important for us to open the museum to stop the rumors like ‘the mask of King Tutankhamun was stolen’ or there had been an orgy of looting … This is a chance for visitors to see for themselves," Museum Director Tarek El Awady said.
Egyptian soldiers patrolled inside the galleries.
There was concern amongst Egyptologists when it became clear that some artifacts, including parts of a gilded wooden statue of Tutankhamun and a statue of Nefertiti making offerings, had been stolen during the mayhem of the revolution. The museum is situated on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, focal point of the uprising.
Army units secured the museum on Jan. 28 after a day of violence when looters ran amok damaging artifacts. Some of the robbers ransacked the gift shop, mistaking it for the museum. At one point Mubarak supporters threw petrol bombs that exploded close by.
"No plan b"
"The tour operators said it was safe for us to go, so we gambled. We didn’t know the museum would be open," said Dutch tourist Sandra de Rooij, a supermarket worker.
Despite warnings from some travel agencies about unrest, tourists from the Netherlands, Canada and Japan said their curiosity to see the new Egypt had overcome any fears.
"It is a fine moment for Egypt, and I feel absolutely safe here … the sound of freedom lulled me to sleep," said Canadian tourist Barbara Bonkowsky, who said she had cried for joy when Mubarak stepped down.
"I didn’t know the museum would open … I was determined to come and see the museum in a new Egypt," she said.
An Egyptian couple from the south of the country made the journey to Cairo to visit the museum for the first time once they heard it would reopen on state television.
"I came to be assured about the museum and to show those working in tourism that we’re with them, even if foreign tourists are absent," said lawyer Emad Mohamed.
In one hall exhibiting heart scarabs and sarcophagi, five young Egyptian women dressed in the national colors of red, white, and black waved flags and handed out roses.
"Once we heard the news of the museum opening, we immediately formed a Facebook group and decided we’d welcome tourists by handing out flags and flowers," said Maha Atteya, an antiquities student at Cairo University.
While the museum’s halls were mostly quiet, a conservation room on the first floor was busy with the air full of sawdust as workmen struggled to save important pieces.
"It took me 10 days to reassemble this piece and will take another whole week to stick in the scraped off parts," said Hamdi Abdel-Baki, one of a team of conservators, as he carefully gathered tiny fragments of gold and black paint with tweezers to put them back on a statue of Tutankhamun standing on a panther.
The Egyptian Museum was built in 1897 during the reign of Khedive Abbas Helmi II and opened in 1902. It is able to display just a fraction of its ancient artefacts, and 40 companies have been vying to build a bigger $550 million museum by the Giza Pyramids.