An Egyptian soldier stands guard outside Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

In such tumultuous days for modern Egypt, does it matter what happens to the legacy of ancient Egypt? The answer surely has to be yes. There is no defence for the criminal acts of whoever damaged artefacts in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo , nor should it be seen as somehow detracting from the democratic cause to stress the world importance of these relics.

I will confine myself to pointing out why this museum matters so much. This central Cairo museum houses the greatest collection of ancient Egyptian art and antiquities in the world. This is something of a miracle, given that from the time of Napoleon onwards Europeans tried to get hold of as much Egyptian treasure as possible. Colossal statues were dragged on to ships, mummy cases became must-have curios. The reason so many great objects stayed in Egypt is that idealists fought to keep them in the country – and modern Egypt maintains its heritage supremely well. An attack on the Cairo collection is therefore an attack on today’s Egypt, as well as that of Rameses the Great.


Jonathan Jones