Egypt: Pyramids, King Tut and Museums Caught in Crisis

Egypt's greatest treasures caught in crisis.

Feb. 1, 2011 — -- Ask your friends what they think of when you mention Egypt and they'll probably say "the pyramids," or "King Tut," or perhaps "Cleopatra."

Egypt's great historical treasures -- the artifacts of its early civilization -- are caught in the crossfire as demonstrators challenge the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Anxiety over them continued even after Mubarak announced he would not seek reelection.

"There has been some attempted vandalism, and, frankly, it makes no sense," said Bill Petty, who, with his wife, Linda, leads American tour groups to Egypt's great archeological sites. "They didn't go for any gold, they broke some statues. It's mindless."

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

Petty spoke to ABC News by phone from a hotel in Luxor, on the Nile River, not far from the famed Valley of the Kings. He said the city was quiet, and he did not fear for his safety, but he and his wife had made arrangements for all their guests to leave the country -- and when they were gone, the Pettys would follow State Department directions and leave as well.

"It's not the people with a political agenda who are doing the damage, it's criminals," he said. "The army has done a great job of protecting the major things, but there aren't enough of them."

Four hundred miles to the north, at the Egyptian National Museum, Zahi Hawass walked the darkened halls and expressed calm. If you have watched a documentary or a news story about Egyptology in the last 10 years, you have probably seen Hawass -- the flamboyant, larger-than-life director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities -- and you know that he is rarely calm.

"If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe," Hawass said to an Associated Press reporter following him.

Soldiers ring the museum. Even in crisis, Egypt's government -- and the protesters who would bring it down -- know the country depends heavily on the tourists who crowd here in calmer times, marveling at the mummies and their tombs.

Today, as masses of demonstrators filled downtown Cairo, a banner was spotted on the Al-Jazeera cable network.

"Dear Tourists, please do not leave. We will protect you," it said in Arabic.

Hawass said about 50 looters had broken into the National Museum on Friday and damaged two mummies -- but he assured reporters that little of historical value was damaged.

Robert Brier, an Egyptologist at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and a contributing editor to Archeology magazine, was hearing differently.

"Almost all the things they went after were gilded," he said. "Perhaps they thought they were gold, and smashed them."

He said the artifacts were not, in fact, made of gold, just painted to look that way. The mummy of Tuya, the great-grandmother of King Tutankhamen, appeared in one news photo with its breast plate removed.

King Tut in the Crossfire: Egypt's Crisis Affects Historic Treasures

"I'm not worried about the pyramids," Brier said. "But the network of treasures there is so vast."

Since the crisis began, archeologists in the United States, Europe and elsewhere who study ancient Egypt have been anxiously sharing what information they have online.

"The bad news is that there is antiquities damage at the Giza Pyramids," reported archeologist Gerry Scott, director of the American Research Center in Egypt, on a blog called Unreported Heritage News. Giza is the site of the Great Sphinx, as well as Egypt's grandest pyramids.

"I've heard that the team lost some equipment and that there was some damage to the antiquities but I do not know the extent of that at this point," Scott said. He added that the Egyptian army was now guarding the pyramids and access has been restricted.

That is not very reassuring to tourists whose home governments have urged them to get out of Egypt -- and their mass departure is big trouble for the nation's economy. Egypt is a nation of grandeur mixed with rampant poverty, and visitors' money makes a big difference.

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

"There have been some gangs," said Bill Petty, the tour director, as he packed to go home to Littleton, Colo. "When you have a mob situation, it brings out the worse in people."

One archeologist who asked not to be named said he hoped the army and the Egyptian police would protect the antiquities.

"These aren't just Egypt's," he said. "These are the world's heritage, and they're important."

ABC News' Deena Sami and Sarah Wali contributed reporting for this story. Additional information from The Associated Press.