Looting amid the chaos in Egypt

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Marco Werman: The protests in Egypt are cause for concern for another group, historians and archeologists. They worry about the fate of precious artifacts across the country. Today, the Egyptian government said the country's museums and ancient monuments are safe from looters, especially in the capital. Brian Vastag has been covering the story for the Washington Post. He says archeologists remain worried about historical sites that lie south of Cairo.

Brian Vastag: The Nile Valley goes on for a long ways and there's just hundreds and hundreds of archeological sites. And those sites are much less well protected than the actual museums and that's were concern is focused right now.

Werman: Right. And so we're talking about the sites like Saqqara. What antiquities are there?

Vastag: There is a huge range of antiquities going back to 3,000 B.C. There's just such a rich cultural history in Egypt, everything from pottery to jewelry, cuneiform tablets writing, the entire range of artifacts that you can imagine from Egypt.

Werman: We have heard reports about looters smashing windows on the roof of Cairo's museum of Egyptian antiquities and repelling by ropes into the museum. It does sound like a dire situation there.

Vastag: Yeah, exactly. That's what Dr. Zahi Hawass told me on Sunday. He is the ultimate authority for protecting antiquities in Egypt and, in fact, just yesterday, was promoted to the Minister of Archeology for the entire country.

Werman: Right.

Vastag: He told me that on Friday night, nine men smashed a window at the top of the Cairo museum, which is the world famous museum there on the Tahrir Square, and descended into the building were they smashed about 13 cases and broke or damaged maybe about 100 artifacts.

Werman: And apparently, also stole a lot of stuff from the gift shop.

Vastag: Yeah, the gift shop was pretty much cleared out, but fortunately, Dr. Hawass said that nothing was stolen from the museum itself.

Werman: Now, the extent of looting in Iraq's museums during the war there, was devastating to the country's cultural heritage, but some archeologists say it could be even more extreme in Egypt. How so?

Vastag: Well, the entire country is kind of a museum. There's just layers and layers and layers of history and artifacts and there are hundreds of international teams digging all over the country, continuing to tell the story of deep Egyptian history and so the potential for damage is huge and the archeology community, I would say, is almost in a panic right now, from the messages I've been getting.

Werman: How deep is the sense of history among the average Egyptian?

Vastag: That's a very good question. When I talked with Dr. Hawass, he said that there were a group of thugs or outlaws, that's how he characterized them, who were responsible for the damage and the vandalism. But then, at the same time, a lot of average people gathered around the museum in Cairo to protect it and there were reports that other museums, the same thing happened there. So, I would say that there's, obviously, a huge segment of the Egyptian public that understands that this is their cultural heritage and their trying to protect it right now.

Werman: Brian Vastag with the Washington Post thanks for talking with us.

Vastag: You're welcome.