Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 August - 1 September 2004
Issue No. 705
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A man with a mission

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Statue of Auguste Mariette in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square

When Auguste Mariette, the celebrated founder of modern archaeological excavations and preserver of Egypt's monuments, made his remarkable discovery of the rock- hewn tombs of the sacred Apis bulls at Saqqara in 1851, his activities were watched over by Egyptian government officials.

In those days there was no restriction on the excavation of monuments for exportation abroad. Indeed, Mohamed Ali actually used ancient treasures as bargaining tools in return for foreign expertise. However, his grandson Abbas Pasha liked to keep a closer eye on things. He instructed guards to take up quarters on the Saqqara necropolis and watch what was going on. It was not that he was concerned about antiquities so much as he had little confidence in the French in general.

When Mohamed Ali sought to detach himself from the Ottoman Empire, he realised that this could only be achieved if Egypt were economically and militarily strong. Consequently he developed a strategy based on agricultural expansion and industrial development with the aid of foreign (at first mostly French and some Italian) expertise. Over time, however, the equipment imported from France had fallen into such a state of disrepair that they had to be closed. The officials responsible for maintaining them were deported.

If when Abbas took over leadership he harboured a distrust of the French, it was because of their record of irresponsibility. He discouraged French traders from working in Egypt because their merchandise was frequently of inferior quality, he rejected the proposal by Ferdinand de Lesseps to build the Suez Canal and ordered officials to keep an eye on Mariette's archaeological activities.

Mariette's first exposure to Ancient Egypt had been in 1827, when he was only six years old. The precocious boy with a natural talent for language was quick to learn hieroglyphics, demotic and Coptic. Indeed, at the tender age of 12 he could decipher Coptic texts. In 1839 the Louvre, aware of his talent, sent him to Egypt to acquire Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian manuscripts to add to their growing collection, and the story of how he became distracted from the aim of his mission and ended up excavating an avenue of sphinxes at Saqqara that led to his remarkable discovery of the Apis tombs is legendary.

Recognising that an avenue of sphinxes on the necropolis bore a resemblance to those described by classical scholars as leading to the tombs of the Apis bulls, he re-traced their course, located the tombs, dug through the rock-hewn galleries, exposed chambers containing vast granite sarcophagi of an average weight of 65 tonnes, and actually used dynamite to dislodge the cover of the single intact sarcophagus that had not been pillaged by grave robbers. From it he extracted a solid gold statue of a bull which he despatched to the Louvre.

Having completed his excavations at Saqqara, Mariette moved on briefly to Giza where he excavated the valley temple of Khafre before his funds ran out and he returned to France. There he was appointed curator in the Egyptian section of the Louvre, visiting Berlin and Turin (where in 1857 he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences).

His future might have taken a different turn had not a fortuitous meeting with Ferdinand de Lesseps, still touting for the Suez Canal concession, linked his career decisively to Egypt. De Lesseps was fascinated by Mariette's story of his Saqqara discovery, and even more by his enthusiasm to preserve Egyptian monuments as part of a national heritage and his ideas as to how this could be achieved.

De Lesseps arranged a meeting between Mariette and Said Pasha, great-grandson of Mohamed Ali and successor of Abbas. Said was impressed. As Mariette waxed lyrical about the country's unique monuments, the extent of vandalism by tourists, treasure hunters, antiquities dealers and by the activities of the sebakhi (farmers digging for the rich refuse deposits of ancient urban settlement sites with which to fertilise their fields), the pasha began to realise the loss taking place as a result of indiscriminate excavation, looting and pillage. Mariette explained that not all excavations were adequately published, and stressed the importance of implementing a system to achieve this.

During successive meetings, the pasha's respect and admiration for the Frenchman grew and developed into a warm friendship. Said eventually decided that use could be made of Mariette's expertise, and he offered him the post of conservator (later director) of Egyptian monuments. Mariette listed his requirements, which Said accepted, and in 1858 the French scholar was appointed to a position that today would amount to that of director- general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Interesting confirmation of Said's support of Mariette comes in the original journal of Count Michal Tyszkiewicz which was discovered in 1972. Little is known about Tyszkiewicz except that he came from a wealthy Lithuanian-Polish family. He recorded his travels throughout Egypt and Nubia to collect and study antiquities, and wrote that he met Ferdinand de Lesseps and "Mohamed Said Pasha" (whom described as of rather short stature and corpulent, with a large and red beard divided into two golden rays). Tyszkiewicz himself was given a firman -- an open letter of reference addressed to state officials to assist in his travels and excavations, and mentioned that Said helped archaeologists. He wrote that he was given permission to excavate on the east bank of the Nile at Luxor but was refused access to the Theban necropolis, which was "absolutely and entirely reserved for Mariette".

With the approval of the pasha and with extraordinary energy, Auguste Mariette embarked on a vast programme of excavation at no fewer than 35 different sites throughout Egypt, employing a reputed 7,280 workmen for the task. He gradually built up a supervisory body of inspectors and wardens of monuments covering the whole of Egypt, thus bringing to an end "the age of the consuls" and curbing, to some extent, the activities of collectors whose search for objects had already caused substantial damage to ancient monuments. Said Pasha showed good judgment in placing so competent a professional in charge of the country's ancient heritage.

Naturally Mariette could not supervise personally all the sites marked for excavation, so he appointed overseers. This earned him strong criticism from foreign archaeologists, notably the British, who accused him of conducting unprofessional excavations and monopolising activities in his own interests.

The accusations were not entirely unjustified. Mariette did control many of the most important sites and, as is clear from the exhibition at Lille entitled "Goddesses -- Tombs -- The World of Egypt", not all the objects Mariette excavated in Egypt ended up in the first Egyptian Museum of antiquities in Bulaq.

Lacking sufficient funds to set up a museum, Said at first provided Mariette with space for artefacts in an old mosque near the Citadel. When the Austrian Duke Maximilian saw the collection he showed such enthusiasm and interest that Said gave him the whole lot as a gesture of goodwill. It would appear that at this stage he was no more concerned in ancient treasures than was his great-grandfather Mohamed Ali had been, despite a growing sense of national identity during his reign.

Later Egypt's first national museum was founded in a building that originally belonged to an overland transport company, near today's Television Building. It was stripped and re-modelled by an Italian construction company, and provided with spacious exhibition halls. The objects on display, collected from various storerooms around Egypt, were organised for show. They could not be placed in historical sequence because they had been collected haphazardly. Some of the objects could be professionally identified and given details and provenance, and Mariette himself wrote a museum guidebook.

Thanks to Mariette, Egypt's ancient history was for the first time arranged in an organised and accessible form. It was Mariette who cleared the temples of Edfu, Karnak and Dendera from encroaching sand so that they could be seen in their former grandeur. To him also must go credit for conserving the treasures of Tanis, the Pyramid Plateau at Giza, Saqqara's Old Kingdom mastabas, and the necropolis of Meidum. The great temples of Abydos, Deir Al-Bahri, Medinet Habu, Esna and Edfu were also protected from further ruthless excavation and pillage.

Mariette's greatest achievement was developing a worldwide conscience about the destruction, expropriation, and proper care and conservation of Egyptian antiquities. He prepared the way for the foundation of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, and Said's successor Ismail Pasha protected his, and Mariette's, interests.

A series of firmanat (khedieval laws) dated 21 April 1863 were addressed to inspectors of antiquities (who were at that time no more than civil servants), stipulating that all the demands of "Mariette Bey" to facilitate his excavations in Upper Egypt must be met; that workers on sites should be adequately paid; that they must forbid the destruction of monuments or their demolition, or use of the stones from monuments for erecting government or private buildings, "because the antiquities in Egypt are the strongest means to perpetuate the history of the kingdom, and the conservation of these monuments is one of our dearest wishes". There is no doubt that in the rules of Abbas, Said and Ismail, thanks to Mariette, Egyptians began to discover their country's national heritage as distinct from the Ottoman Empire's.

Ismail's law also stipulated that any antiquities chanced upon by the inhabitants of the villages should automatically become part of the Antiquities Service. "These relics," the firman stipulated, "should be examined on the spot if they are huge and remain where they are found, but if their size is small they must be carried to the Antiquities Service. Bearing in mind that the inhabitants of Luxor are in the habit of searching for and appropriating pieces of antiquities, using the stones for the construction of their dwellings, you are invested with the authority to stop them, making certain that such things should not take place," he wrote, adding: "You must give instructions to the moudirs (governors) to realise the demands of Mariette Bey, director of antiquities, supplying him with camels, horses, boats, wood [other] material, and take any necessary steps for the conservation and transport of antiquities."

When the Bulaq Museum was swamped by a particularly high annual flood in 1878, the objects in the garden stood in water, the basement was inundated, and showcases holding precious mummies and other objects had rapidly to be salvaged. They were placed in temporary storage until the Khedive Ismail's Giza Palace was made ready to accommodate them. There they remained until the huge, neo-classical-style building in Midan Al-Tahrir in central Cairo was officially opened in 1902. This elegant two-storey building had more than a hundred chambers arranged around a central atrium which today displays some 150,000 artefacts.

Auguste Mariette expressed the wish that his body should lie near the artefacts he struggled all his life to collect, protect and place on show. When he died in 1881 it was first laid in the Bulaq Museum garden. It was transferred to the Giza Palace in 1891, and to the garden of the Egyptian Museum in 1904. There his bronze statue, above his mausoleum, shows him in casual stance with folded arms, an upward tilt of chin and expression that bespeaks a certain haughtiness. Overconfident he might have been, but not undeserving. Mariette did more to help Egypt preserve its Pharaonic heritage and draw attention to the ruthless pillage of monuments than any other single scholar of his generation. A month before he died he managed to extract a cabinet resolution that, "hereafter no Egyptian monument shall be given to any power not forming a part of the Egyptian territory". He set a tradition that continued through to the Egyptian revolution in the 1950s and the basis of which is still in operation today.

One point that needs to be mentioned is that although the Khedive Ismail was anxious for Egyptians to be trained to work professionally alongside Europeans in the field of Egyptology, to benefit from their expertise, and eventually to take responsibility for their own monuments, both Mariette and his successor Gaston Maspero were opposed to the idea. Egypt in their time was still very much a Western-dominated sphere of influence.

Statue of Auguste Mariette in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square

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