Saturday, 19 March 2011

More on Cairo Museum

I have just got back, footsore and weary, from another day poking around Cairo Museum, having travelled up from Luxor last night. The place is now full of tourist police and security people in plain clothes (probably about as many as bona fide visitors). Anyway, despite passing through three security checks (which is two more than a month ago), they did not discover the camera I sneaked in (despite one of them involving a rather half-hearted pat-down body search - I'm not letting on where I had it). Eventually I got the shot I wanted. Wholly against the rules, you can't (I was informed when I tried a month ago) buy a photographer's permit. You are supposed to give cameras in at the gate. Totally stupid, because many of the Egyptians in there were busy taking pictures with their mobile phones.

The security detail kept me waiting a while at the third checkpoint as they examined the archaeologist's pass issued by my employer the SCA. I was worried that this was because it was signed by Zahi Hawass, and of course he is no longer flavour of the month (yesterday colleagues were refused entry to a site in Asswan on those grounds), but actually the problem was that the Egyptian policeman had difficulty reading arabic (not the first time I have met this problem, understandable in oh-so-provincial Esna, less so in the capital. And the camera was beginning to chafe and I could feel it sliding... (A point of interest, the picture on the document in question is the figure of Akhenaton with the offering tray that was stolen and then recovered in rather odd circumstances)

Basically the museum is in about the same state as it was a month ago, except the blood stains have gone from the floor and showcase glass. Prompted by the new list of stolen objects, I extended my search for fresh lead seals and new glass and found another five cases, possibly a sixth that had recently had their glass replaced.

And here's a mystery - well, two in fact.
1) Now I look harder, I see the galleries have a full(ish) network of security cameras (and what appear to be motion detectors) - so why did it take a month for them to decide what the looters had taken when, if the cameras are working, they have a film of them doing it from several different angles?

2) More to the point, the galleries are full of stocky guys with stoney faces who pretend to be looking at the artefacts when they are watching something else. There was a white guy roaming round and round the galleries today, acting totally suspiciously. This guy was peering into the corners of the glass to see if there is old grime there, checking all the lead seals on all the cases on the second floor. When they were folded under, unbending the wire to see if the lead is oxidised or not. Then he was wandering round looking up at those dirty old skylights and photographing some of them with a concealed camera... I would say that to anyone who did not know what I was really doing (which the Museum would not anyway appreciate), it would have looked as if I was casing the joint. Now if I was on Cairo Museum's security team, after watching on the CCTV this guy do this for even less than than five minutes (and I was doing it in full view of most of their cameras for the best part of the afternoon), I'd have sent a big guy down there to find out what the hell he was doing - and what's he got in his pocket? So why didn't they, since they'd gone to all that trouble and expense to fill the museum with security men? Did they not see me on their cameras?

The fact that they did not react rather suggests to me that like another Cairo Museum, these cameras are switched off or do not work. (If they are reading this, they can prove me wrong by publishing a film or still from their CCTV of Paul Barford in his end-of-season poofy peach shirt acting suspiciously).

What I saw today modifies my original conclusions which I summarised here earlier a month ago (based on the incomplete information available at the time), though not wholly. Sadly I was unable to meet anyone from the Directorate who could answer my outstanding questions. This is because today is a public holiday connected with the referendum about Constitutional changes. So the mystery of the Mummy Heads remains.

I'll put something more up about this when I get home and get my head above water.

Larry Rothfield might be interested to know that the army guys now camped outside the museum with no sanitary facilities to speak of for more than six weeks now are apparently not the specialist antiquities squad, just average military police squaddies. They did not know where the antiquities men might be now, but had heard of them.

[Today a paradox struck me, as I joined the tourists photographing themselves with the tanks. The whole line of military vehicles outside the museum are camouflaged sand-yellow because of course they'd mostly be fighting in the desert. But the blokes manning them are camoflaged in green - eh? And if they are military police as most of these guys are now, they have bright red berets and armbands !]

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