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Egypt’s antiquities fall victim to political chaos
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CAIRO: The home of Egypt’s mummies and King Tutankhamun’s treasures is trying to make the best out of the worst times of political turmoil. But the Egyptian Museum is taking a hammering – from riots on its doorstep to funding so meager it can’t keep up paper clip supplies for its staff. The museum has long been one of the centerpieces of Egypt’s tourism, but the constant instability since 2011 has dried up the industry, slashing a key source of revenue. Moreover, political backbiting and attempts to stop corruption have had a knock-on effect of bringing a de facto ban on sending antiquities on tours to museums abroad, cutting off what was once a major source of state funding.

Optimistically looking ahead, the museum is trying to turn its fortunes around with a renovation of the 111-year-old salmon-colored building

The repeated eruption of protests in Tahrir Square, where the museum is located, has also scared away visitors. Over the summer, there were the giant rallies that led to the July 3 military coup ousting Islamist President Mohammad Morsi. In recent weeks, protesters have returned to Tahrir, now venting their anger at the military-backed government that took his place.

“Tahrir Square is considered the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution,” said Sayed Amer, the director of the Egyptian Museum, in a recent AP interview, “and the museum is like a thermometer. It gets affected by the political situation at the square.”

The antiquities minister, Mohammad Ibrahim, tried to put a brave face, saying at least the museum remains open.

“Sometimes the square is closed,” he said, “but we keep the museum open.”

On recent visits, AP found only a handful of foreign visitors, and none at its most-prized exhibits of mummies and King Tut’s treasures.

The palatial museum is trying to make the most of the dry times. The decor will get a makeover, and lighting and security systems will be upgraded in an overhaul, in cooperation with Germany, costing more than $4.3 million.

Plans are also being drawn up to demolish the neighboring high-rise that housed the former headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party – burned during the uprising – to create an open-air, Nile-side exhibition garden for the museum.

King Tut’s treasures will be moved to a new Grand Egyptian Museum under construction near the Giza pyramids, due to be finished in 2015. The plan reflects in part the embarrassment of riches Egypt enjoys in Pharaonic artifacts. Tahrir’s Egyptian Museum is so overflowing with objects that more than half its collection sits in storage in its basement – in less than ideal conditions – meaning there’s plenty to draw visitors to both museums.

Amid the budget crunch, staffers are trying to find other revenue.

Yasmin al-Shazly, the head of the Documentation Department that tracks the museum’s 200,000 items, set up an independent fundraising mechanism to bring in donations.

Donations collected by the Friends of the Egyptian Museum group will help fund academic research in the museum, raise awareness of its projects and empower Egyptian experts and its staff, who have gone without salaries for months.

“We don’t even have the money to buy office supplies like paper clips and pens and pay for computer maintenance,” Shazly said. “It’s always been difficult because the money generated by the museum went to the state and rarely came back to us. But now, with no money coming from tourism, it’s worse than ever.”

Ministry revenues, Ibrahim said, including the entrance fees from tourist sites, fell from 111 million Egyptian pounds ($16 million) in October 2010 to 7 million Egyptian pounds in October 2013.

More detrimental, few if any of Egypt’s precious antiquities are touring abroad.

An October visit by a team of experts from the British Museum resulted only in words of hope for a renewed cooperation in the future and some training opportunities for Egyptian staff in London. Japanese exhibition organizers interested in a tour exhibit for objects from the King Tut collection left Egypt with no deal.

A lucrative revenue source, such foreign tours virtually ground to a halt after Egypt’s chief archaeologist during Mubarak’s rule, Zahi Hawass, was forced to resign in 2011 on corruption allegations. Hawass denied the allegations and was not charged.

Last year, Morsi’s government cut short a Cleopatra-themed exhibit on tour in the U.S. after a Cairo court ruled that some of its pieces had to return immediately.

Antiquities officials are now reluctant to sign any deals with exhibitions abroad for fear of being accused of corruption or of being unpatriotic for sending Egypt’s patrimony abroad amid the nationalist wave sweeping Egypt following the July coup.

The Cleopatra exhibition included artifacts ranging from tiny gold coins to a pair of towering 8-ton granite figures, raised by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio from submerged ruins off Alexandria.

Ordering it home lost Egypt millions of dollars, said Lotfi Gazy, the museum’s antiquities affairs director.

Egypt was earning $450,000 from each city the exhibition traveled to, plus $1 million for every 100,000 visitors and a 10 percent cut from merchandising sales, Gazy said.

“It was a disaster for us,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 06, 2013, on page 16.
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