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Cairo museum weighs up cost of protests

By Shahira Amin Video for CNN
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Preserving Egypt's treasured artifacts
  • Cairo's Egyptian Museum houses ancient treasures
  • Former minister of antiquities says looters caused minimal damage
  • Missing items include a jar used to hold internal organs of the dead before mummification

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Cairo's Egyptian Museum houses some of the world's greatest ancient treasures, but last month's unrest prompted fears over the fate of its historical artifacts.

Among the prized objects at the Egyptian Museum are towering statues of ancient pharaohs, a rare collection of royal mummies and intricately painted sarcophagi.

But it is perhaps King Tutankhamun's treasures that continue to draw the biggest crowds.

King Tut's golden mask, a collection of exquisite jewelry from his tomb, and two magnificent golden coffins are among the star attractions.

Zahi Hawass was Egypt's minister of antiquities before and during the revolution, but this week he announced on his website that he was resigning from the post.

In a statement on his website Hawass said that while the Egyptian Museum had been well protected during the recent revolution, heritage sites elsewhere in the country were now being attacked by criminals and thieves.

But Hawass says no harm came to King Tut's golden death mask during the revolution.

After an inspection tour with the museum's team of curators, he insists that damage caused to the museum by looters was minimal.

"We have more than 100,000 artifacts in the museum," Hawass said.

"When I came that day, 29th of January, and I saw through the monitor the golden mask, the famous masterpieces of Tanis, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, I said 'Cairo Museum is safe.'"

Hawass won't give an estimate of the total loss suffered by the museum in the looting. But other priceless artifacts are missing or were damaged by intruders who, according to museum director Tarek El Awady, broke into the museum through a glass window in the ceiling.

When they found out this is wood not solid gold they left it and it was found on the floor.
--Tarek El Awady, director, Egyptian Museum

"They broke the glass of this showcase and grabbed one of the artifacts," El Awady said. "When they found out it was wood not solid gold they left it and it was found on the floor."

One of the suspects was injured by broken glass, and spots of blood still stain the wooden floors and objects that he handled during the break-in.

A statue of a soldier dating back to the Middle Kingdom (around 2125 B.C. to 1650 B.C.) was damaged but it has since been restored.

El Awady says an ancient model of a boat has also been carefully put together again after being smashed by looters and is now back on display.

But a big relief for Egyptian archaeologists was retrieving a priceless statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

"King Akhenaten, he was a unique king, he was the one who called for one religion, worshipped one God and he had a revolution," El Awady said.

"His statue was taken during the revolution and it was back a few days after. This story will be told when we recover all our missing artifacts."

Hawass recalls how the prized statue was found. "Someone threw it in Tahrir Square," he said.

"A young boy aged 16 found it near a garbage can. He took it home and brought it back."

But several empty showcases in the museum indicate that the search for missing treasures in not over.

A collection of four canopic jars -- traditionally used by the ancient Egyptians as containers to hold the internal organs of the deceased before mummification -- is missing one jar.

Egyptian parents continue to bring their children to the museum to educate them about their past and encourage them to take pride in their rich ancient heritage -- one which is treasured by visitors from around the world.

"I flew in on Sunday and the first place I came to see was the Cairo museum," said British-born archaeologist Paul Barford.

Another visitor, photographer Karina Sutherland, said: "Without the museum and the antiquities there's no soul left in Egypt."

Preserving a glorious past well into the future is what they hope to do at the museum, one artifact at a time.