SAQQARA // The Egyptian military has stepped up security for the country's museums and archaeological sites in the wake of looting and vandalism that has hit some of the world's most renowned repositories of antiquities.
When police disappeared from Cairo's streets on Friday night, looters moved in and vandalised the famed Egyptian National Museum and other major heritage sites across the country, which are the backbone of Egypt's tourism industry.
At Saqqara, a vast complex of pyramids and pharaonic-era tombs south of Cairo, some 5,000-years-old, looters broke into at least a half-dozen storage facilities and stole or damaged some wall carvings and hieroglyphics that were under excavation, said Ragad Turkey, a site supervisor.
But thieves were unable to break into the main storage depot, which contains the site's most valuable items and is guarded by steel doors, Mr Turkey said. More than 40 other storage installations also were untouched, he said.
"We're happy with the protection of the military," he said. "I was here Friday night to lock the doors and put barricades in front, and I was the first to call them Saturday."
The scope of the theft and damage at Egypt's museums and archaeological sites since order broke down last week is unclear. But government and army officials, long sensitive to charges that authorities have failed to adequately preserve and protect the country's cultural heritage, insisted yesterday that reports had been exaggerated, at least in Saqqara.
"These things are untrue. We are in full control of this site," said Kamal Wahid, director of the government agency that oversees the site.
Elsewhere, however, there were reports of fresh attempts to loot some of the country's archaeological treasures.
Yesterday, half a dozen suspected thieves lay in a group on the floor of the entrance, their faces covered by a blanket. Guards said they were caught trying to enter. An unnamed military general at the museum said soldiers had arrested about 35 men trying to break into the building on Sunday, and another 15 yesterday. Last night, snipers were stationed on the roof of the building, and dozens of troops patrolled the grounds
At Saqqara, military officers yesterday led an impromptu tour of the security measures they have put in place. Since troops arrived on Sunday morning, steel doors have been welded shut, and soldiers have been deployed to guard the 10-square-kilometre site.
Each night, the soldiers chase off people who come to dig for relics, the officers said. But the site remains well guarded and most of the diggers are just local children, Mr Wahid said.
In the villages adjacent to the site, however, the fear of looters and highway bandits is high, even during daylight. Drivers paused every few miles to ask advice from other travellers about the road ahead, while groups of men formed neighbourhood watches to deter thugs who were rumoured to be roaming the area.
Up the road from Saqqara at Abu Sir, a small complex of pyramids, no security officers or soldiers could be seen. A man who refused to give his name but described himself as an Egyptologist said that the site was too dangerous to enter because gangs of men were still there, digging for antiquities.
They were unlikely to find anything valuable, he added, as all of the valuable artefacts had already been transferred to the storage facilities at Saqqara.
In contrast to Saqqara, the mood yesterday at the Egyptian National Museum, the jewel of Egypt's antiquities crown, was tense.
Looters broke into the museum on Friday, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging about 75 small artefacts after they failed to find gold, said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Before the army arrived early Saturday morning, young Egyptians, some armed with truncheons grabbed from police, created a human chain at the museum's front gate to ward off looters.
In the ancient city Luxor in southern Egypt, locals fended off a band of robbers who tried to break in and steal antiquities from the warehouse of the famed Karnak Temple on the east bank of the Nile.
The group clashed with the attackers who arrived at the temple carrying guns and knives in two cars around 3am yesterday, and arrested five of them, said a neighbourhood protection committee member, Ezz el Shafei.
The locals handed the five men to the army, which has posted a handful of soldiers at the vast temple's entrance.
Six boxes of small antiquities were looted from a storage facility in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, but there were no break-ins at the other 24 antiquities museums across Egypt, according to Mr Hawass.
Mr Hawass said that when it comes to its antiquities, Egypt should not be singled out for scorn.
"If you shut the lights in New York City for one hour, the people will rob everything in all the shops," Mr Hawass said. "What's happening is normal. Thankfully, all the damaged items can be restored."
He added: "If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe."
* Additional reporting from Reuters, Bloomberg and the Associated Press