Crisis in Egypt: Government Says Treasures Safe; Others Disagree

Is government trying to minimize looting to look good?

Feb. 4, 2011 — -- 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.

"It's a little surreal being here, knowing what's going on in Cairo. There are troops around the major landmarks -- our hotel, the Winter Palace, would be a good target for vandals -- but you go out, you wave at them and they wave back."

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"We're scared. We don't know what will happen," said Nancy Al Hakegh, who has been a tour guide in Egypt for 25 years. "I know tourism is going to stop for some time. God only knows how long.

"Whenever anything happens to a country, tourism is the first thing to be affected," she said in an interview with ABC News. "But we don't know how much it'll be affected, because we don't know what is going to happen. If everything calms down soon, the tourism industry will not be back and running normally until Christmas."

Egypt is caught between different currents -- a very modern conflict over how it should be governed, and a very ancient history threatened in the chaos.

"There have been some gangs," said Petty. "When you have a mob situation, it brings out the worst in people."

Brier said it is hard to get a clear overview of the damage.

"Everyone is worried," he said. "You can't repair a mummy. I'm sorry."

ABC News' Deena Sami contributed reporting for this story.