Yasmin el Shazly, an Egyptologist, last gave a VIP tour through the Egyptian Museum two years ago, before the uprising just outside the museum doors in Tahrir Square led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Before that, el Shazly once lectured Paris Hilton and Charlize Theron about the world’s greatest collection of Egyptian artifacts. Now the museum is an empty monument to a nation shunned by tourists and unwilling, or perhaps unable, to preserve its history, both recent and ancient.
As el Shazly prepared to return to work after a 15-month maternity leave, she stopped by her office and discovered a museum all but abandoned since the ouster July 3 of former President Mohammed Morsi, a development that officials say killed the last vestiges of tourism here.
Shocked by the emptiness of the world’s oldest museum building, el Shazly offered to give her friends a VIP tour earlier this week. As she spoke about the artifacts, she and her friends discovered that even Egypt’s rich history, which gave rise to modern civilization, hasn’t been spared from today’s volatility: Ten army tanks and long strings of barbed wire lined the streets to protect the already-once-looted building and its collection, a visual reminder of where Egypt’s past and present collide.
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El Shazly’s tour included stories of artifacts recovered outside in trash cans during the 2011 looting of the museum and the painstaking effort to fix damaged pieces, including an exhibit of King Tut statues that now included a petri dish of pieces that couldn’t be put back onto the smashed artifacts.
As she gave the tour, she, like many Egyptians, looked for answers in the country’s past that would offer solutions to a nation that’s wracked by instability and too polarized to embrace a sense of nationalism. Even now, some Egyptians are attempting to forget their most recent history, trying to all but eliminate from the collective memory Morsi’s yearlong presidency and the free election that had brought him to power.
It’s a situation repeated throughout Egypt’s cultural icons. At the Great Pyramids, tourism is so low that residents jump on taxis that approach the site and beat them with sticks in an effort to lure the few visitors into their shops.
Since Morsi’s ouster, tour guides at the pyramids said, no more than three buses come each week. So empty is the only-still-intact place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that the nearby residents who once harassed visitors to take photos with their camels and horses no longer stake out the site.
At the museum, there’s no longer any money to care for the building or the artifacts it houses. Employees shell out their own money for materials they need to do their jobs. One woman was so disturbed by the dirt on the window-paned roof – the same roof the looters climbed through during the 2011 uprising to steal 54 artifacts – that she climbed up herself to clean it.
El Shazly sent out a call to friends on Facebook for her tour. The only price was a willingness to buy an admission ticket to the building. As her friends gathered, the tour guides stared at her group of nine with jealousy: It was the largest of the day.
El Shazly paid 75 Egyptian pounds, about $11 – the rate non-Egyptians once paid to visit the museum – and asked her friends to do the same. The lonely man at the ticket counter thanked each visitor for purchasing a ticket.
El Shazly began the tour at the Namer Palette, which dates to 3100 B.C. and contains one of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions, describing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
“It was always someone from Upper Egypt who reunited Upper and Lower Egypt, so we should find someone like that now,” el Shazly said. “One of the most important duties of a king was to maintain the unity of the country.”
“Morsi was not from Upper Egypt,” a friend chimed in, referring to the former president’s divisive tenure.
At the time of Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt was building a new museum near the pyramids so that more artifacts could be displayed. El Shazly estimated that at least half the museum’s artifacts are in storage.
“I work here, and I have not seen everything,” she said.
As she walked her friends through the Old, then the Middle and New kingdoms, one friend asked how officials could transfer the objects to the new site safely, in light of the rampant violence and some attempts to loot the artifacts.
“The army will have to escort everything,” el Shazly explained. “People could try to steal things. They will have to be careful.”
Another friend asked whether the new museum would be air-conditioned to better preserve the artifacts. The current museum is not, and the objects are displayed behind glass. El Shazly didn’t know.
“Everything should be climate-controlled, but there is no money, especially now,” she said. “There is no money, and working in the museum is a challenge.”
Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt for 17 years in the 14th century B.C., attempted to change how Egyptians practiced religion. He eliminated polytheism and called for the worship of Aten, the sun, instead. Like Morsi’s, who tried three millennia later to infuse Egyptian politics with the beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood, Akhenaten’s efforts triggered a backlash.
“Some think (Akhenaten) wanted to reduce the power of the high priests,” el Shazly explained. “He is not idealized at all. After he died, he became taboo and his name was chiseled out of a lot of artifacts.”
Nearby was a limestone statue of Akhenaten holding an offering tray. The statue was one of 25 artifacts that were recovered after the looters stormed the museum during the uprising. Protesters at nearby Tahrir Square found it in a trash can, el Shazly said. The tray had been smashed on the museum floor, and el Shazly’s colleagues rebuilt it.
“It was the most important piece stolen,” she told her friends, a look of sadness coming over her.
In 1922, Howard Carter uncovered King Tut’s tomb, the largest discovery of an undisturbed Egyptian burial site. A huge part of the museum’s second floor is devoted to the find, including a gleaming mask made of 24 pounds of gold. Visitors once lined up by the hundreds for a glimpse of the famous mask, but during el Shazly’s tour only a dozen came by.
Nearby, two statues sat in a simple glass case, a petri dish of shards nearby. Looters left the two pieces behind, museum officials think, when they realized that the wooden statues were only gold-plated. But the damage was done, and the shards are a reminder of the impossibility of repairing it.
El Shazly’s love of Egyptian history came through as she walked the exhibits. “I love these,” she often began as she explained an artifact. She talked of the celebrities she’d once guided through the museum.
With tourism money so low, el Shazly has started a “Friends of the Egyptian Museum” group on Facebook, so that those who love the works as much as she does may help preserve them. She hopes that one day people will sponsor the protection of particular artifacts, such as the 3-inch statue of Khufu, who ruled Egypt around 2850 B.C. and for whom the largest of the Great Pyramids was built.
“For our future, we must protect our history,” she said.