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Egyptian Museum -- and King Tut's mask -- near focus of Cairo protests

January 29, 2011 | 11:12 am

Tut mask AP File Photo Fast-moving developments are bringing tens of thousands of anti-government protesters into Cairo's Tahrir Square, not far from the Egyptian Museum, where many of the nation's most treasured antiquities are stored. Plans have been underway for nearly 20 years to build a new museum outside the city near the site of the pyramids, partly because the overcrowded current structure -- more than 100 years old -- cannot adequately accommodate its fabled collection and partly to continue developing the cultural tourism on which the poor country's economy so heavily depends.

Conflicting reports out of Cairo, now in its fifth day of turmoil, say that either protesters or the military or both have largely secured the museum -- although in a chaotic situation such as this, the cultural treasure cannot be said to be out of the woods until the unrest finally settles. (Unconfirmed reports note damage to two mummies within the building, and CNN showed film Saturday morning of some shattered display cases.)

Baghdad's famed antiquities museum went unsecured during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and suffered considerable damage. How long the Egyptian Museum and its irreplaceable artifacts will be in danger remains to be seen.

The most famous object in the museum is of course the golden burial mask of the "Boy King," Tutankhamun. Artistically speaking, it might not be the greatest work in the collection, since Tut's brief era represented mostly a holding pattern in the long and often astounding history of Pharaonic art. But, ever since its startling discovery in the 1920s, Tut has grown in stature to become the literal face of Egypt on the world stage -- even more than the inscrutable (and crumbling) Great Sphinx of Giza, which once held that exalted position.

The process was accelerated by Egypt's government, which has shrewdly used Tut for political purposes. In 2005, when a controversial exhibition of Tut's artifacts came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I wrote about how the Boy King had been used first as an international cultural ambassador in the 1970s and then as a representative for a new era of global corporatism. Sooner or later, expect him to be pressed into service once more. In coming months and years, after Egypt's riveting current unrest settles, it will be interesting to see how King Tut is deployed on the world stage again, as he has been in the past.

My 2005 essay on Tut's recent history can be found here.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Burial mask of Tutankhamun. Credit: Assocaited Press

Comments () | Archives (11)

It is impossible to find a leader for the angry mobs in Egypt. He would have to hold a sword in hand, be pure of heart, and ready to drive the forces of evil from Egypt. Such a person can only come from the heavens because corruption lies in the hearts of all earthly men.

The treasures in the Egyptian Museum belong to the entire human race and all human history. Damage to anything there is a crime against the entire world. The stupid remarks in the article about the use of the mask are based on ignorance of culture, history and art, in their entirety. Passing political turmoil should not erase the most important artifacts of world history, which can never be replaced. A modern, profoundly ignorant and culturally incompetent world is inadequate to understand this.

It's criminal to say that the artifacts mentioned are the property of the human race when same cannot be said of America's great treasures. What if North Korea laid claim to the Statue of Liberty or the gold in Fort Knox (If there's any left)? American's would take that as an insult and would consider it a declaration of War. This idea of communal property of the human race only works if you do away with nationalism altogether. Then and only then can all of humanity lay claim to the treasures of the past without regard to boundaries.
Until that time the assets of Egypt are theirs alone and should be protected and exploited as the people of Egypt see fit. The mentality that you retain some type of ownership to something that does not belong to you is equivalent to privacy and colonialism. What's happening in the Middle East is long over due. It's time we focus on taking car of our own back yard and stop trying to clean up everyone else's mess.

In High School I worked in the Public Library
and this was one of my favorite studies along
with Italy. The huge books filled with photos
of King Tut just amazed me actually they dazzled
my mind! I hope no one touches this exhibit and
damages it in anyway!
I had a dream I went into a Pyramid and I was
looking at all the gold and little carved artifacts
and jewely and when I went to touch them they
burned my hand.

Dr. Reality Check? Really dude? You're living on another planet, where the air is so thin you are hallucinating. Not to mention spitting out cliches!!!

Uh, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France.

Also, the lapis lazuli inlays on the mask of King Tut would probably have been mined in modern Afghanistan. So does this part of the mask belong to Egypt or Afghanistan?

Both modern and ancient Egypt are and were multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies. Over its long history, Egyptians, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Mamluks (a caste composed of ethnic Albanians, Georgians, Circassians, and/or Slavs), French, Brits, Armenians, and more have all left their mark on this glorious land.

Modern Copts are the closest genetic descendants of the Ancient Egyptians; however, the Ancient Egyptians were certainly not Arab.

So, the larger question of to whom does the legacy of Ancient Egypt belong depends in part on whether Egyptians define this label of Egyptian as a national identity or an ethnic identity separate from Arab. This debate has existed among Egyptians for decades and continues.

The area with Tut's artifacts is in an enclosed room of its own and can be easily secured. The bigger danger is the artifacts in the rest of the museum, which is cluttered and harder to guard against things being accidentally damaged or destroyed.
The best hope is that the Egyptian people themselves are focused in their anger against Mubarak, not in a mood for general wanton destruction, especially against their own history as a nation.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift. It belongs to America. It's one of our national treasures.

It seems to me that the mask as a whole, regardless of where the materials came from, in the end belonged to the king or his heirs of the period and ultimately the property of the nation known today as Egypt.

Let's not forget that Egypt is an Arab speaking African nation.

How can people do this? I'm in tears!

So, it has come out that some of these priceless treasures were in fact damaged or looted- Wasn't it a few weeks back when Zahi Hawass condemned NY's treatment of an Egyptian obelisk....and that Egypt does a better job of securing and caring for its antiquities. It seems hardly the case now. Shame on the Egyptians, both for the damage, and for not securing these treasures better.

In my comment I mentioned that "A modern, profoundly ignorant and culturally incompetent world is inadequate to understand this." Thank for the comments that helped me prove this statement.


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