Egypt riots
Egypt riotsAssociated Press

By now, rioting, looting and general unrest have spread to nearly every corner of Egypt, and areas that were until now relatively calm have, since the weekend, erupted. With the Egyptian government trying to maintain its hold on power, however, the military has been doing its best to keep the media from reporting too much about events in the country. And while that strategy is impractical for a metropolis like Cairo, which has hundreds of thousands of Western tourists and residents, it has been more effective in other parts of the country.

Thus, Western media on Friday learned of the terrible destruction by a mob of looters of Cairo's National Egyptian Museum, which contains artifacts going back thousands of years, including ancient mummies from the era of the pharaohs. Less reported, however, have been the mob ravages at museums, pyramids, and archaeological sites around the rest of the country – with witnesses reporting the utter destruction of many irreplaceable historic items and entire sites, as hungry mobs pick over loot, seeking something they can use or sell. Meanwhile, UNESCO, the UN's watchdog organization that is supposed to protect world heritage sites and artifacts, has been nowhere to be found.

Arabic news websites in the past few days have related tales of large groups of impoverished Egyptians who have stripped museums bare – carrying off what they could, and destroying the rest. Lost in the rubble have been many works of art and historical artifacts, and in several cases mobs have burned down museums and archaeological sites. One report said that the museum at Qantara, which held statues and works of art from the Roman and Byzantine periods, had been totally laid waste, after the government had spent millions to upgrade it in recent years.

Other reports said that a principal museum near the pyramids had been looted. A worker at the museum said that the mob had demanded that he show them where the gold was stored; finding gold fabled to have been hidden away in sarcophagi and ancient vessels seems to have been their main motivation, he said. After much effort, and risk to his life, he finally was able to convince them that there was no gold – upon which the mob took out its anger and frustration on the thousands of years old artifacts and mummies. In some cases, security guards were able to keep the mob out of museums and antiquity sites – so, instead, looters stripped bare the souvenir stores attached to them.

In an interview, Muhammad Abed al-Maksoud, curator of the Egyptian Museum, told the tale of the looting of the museum, and the destruction of mummies – possibly the grandparents of King Tutankhamun, according to experts. “There is a feeling of total chaos. The thieves were sure they could find artifacts they could sell, but each item is numbered and cataloged, and if they try to sell them they will get caught – so we have hope of catching the culprits and bring them to justice,” he said.

Speaking in an interview on CBS news this week, Tarek Saadawi, the former Egyptian Minister of Telecommunications, demanded that the UN intervene and calm the situation in the country – and that UNESCO do something to stop the looting. “These treasures must be returned back and the law must be enforced here," said Saadawi, "the U.N. and UNESCO should dedicate resources to identify and return these lost treasures.” There was no comment from UNESCO officials.