Crisis in Egypt: Government Says Treasures Safe; Others Disagree

VIDEO: Officials concerned about looting of precious Egyptian artifacts.
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The great Sphinx of Giza still stands, far removed from the tumult in Cairo. The famed pyramids are surrounded by metal gates. The government of President Hosni Mubarak is telling the world that Egypt's great archaeological treasures are well-protected.

But independent information is hard to come by, and anxiety runs deep. On Egyptian state television, newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman said a million tourists had left the country since the unrest began last week, costing the national economy about $1 billion so far.

"I want everyone to relax," said Zahi Hawass, just promoted by Mubarak to be minister for cultural affairs. "I want people to know that after nine days of protests, the monuments are safe. Why? Because the Egyptian people are protecting them."

Hawass appears often in television documentaries about Egyptian archaeology, and if you have seen him, you know he is rarely relaxed. But today, in a blog post widely read by Western archaeologists, he said the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo has been protected from looters and fires, even though it was in sight of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

Hawass said about 70 artifacts at the Cairo museum had been damaged by looters but could be repaired. He also confirmed a break-in at a storage facility for artifacts at Qantara, in the Sinai Desert. It was unclear how much had been taken.

"I am the only source of continuing truth concerning antiquities, and these rumors are aimed at making the Egyptian people look bad," he wrote. "If anything happens to the museum, I would bravely tell everyone all over the world, because I am a man of honor, and I would never hide anything from you."

For Complete Coverage of the Crisis in Egypt, Featuring Exclusive Reporting From Christiane Amanpour, Click Here

Archaeologists elsewhere took little comfort, concerned that Hawass was, as one put it, "minimizing everything." He is, after all, part of the Mubarak government.

"The antiquities of Egypt are in peril," said Robert Brier, an Egyptologist at Long Island University and a contributing editor to Archeology magazine. "When people are throwing Molotov cocktails 200 feet from the museum in Cairo, those artifacts are not safe."

Other archaeologists are routing information to Brier, who is considered a leader in the field, and he shared an e-mail from a Czech colleague, Miroslav Barta:

"Magazines [storage facilities for artifacts] of Mit Rahineh badly looted, so were the magazines of El-Arish and Saqqara. Tombs at Saqqara and Abusir entered repeatedly by the robbers," Barta wrote. "There are roaming gangs of 50-80 people in the desert carrying out illicit excavations."

"We will work on the damages for years," he said.

"It's so sad to watch," said Bill Petty, a tour organizer from Littleton, Colo., who spoke by phone to ABC News from his hotel in Luxor, not far from the famed Valley of the Kings. "Luxor just depends on tourism. They've lost a year's worth of business."

Petty said Luxor, a city 400 miles down the Nile from Cairo, was quiet, and he did not fear for his safety. But he and his wife, Linda, arranged for all the American tourists with them to head home -- and now that everyone is gone, Petty and his wife will be leaving too.

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