Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2005
Issue No. 766
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Muhammad Ali (1805-2005) is a special series published fortnightly by Al-Ahram Weekly in anticipation of the international symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Muhammad Ali Pasha's acendancy to power, to be held in Egypt on 10 November. Contributions, proposals and letters on the subject should be addressed to the series editor Amina Elbendary or faxed to +202 578 6089.

Previous instalments: Muhammad Ali (1805-2005)

Treasures for the taking

Egyptian antiquities were often the price paid for building modern Egypt, writes Jill Kamil

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Muhammad Ali used antiquities as a diplomatic lever. His ambitious plan to modernise Egypt required foreign expertise, and sensitive as he was to Western fascination with the country's ancient monuments, he charmed professionals to Egypt by offering them a free hand to collect whatever they wished. It was no difficult task to gather beautiful objects in those days -- statues or parts of statues, painted reliefs from collapsed walls of tombs and temples lay all over the place, and the desert winds revealed burial grounds that could be dug up for mummies, sarcophagi and funerary objects.

This uncultured Albanian, who rose to powerful command in the Ottoman army in Egypt through sheer ability, had no interest in "blocks of stone". He assembled a small personal collection of antiquities, not because he appreciated them but in order to have a supply at hand to pay for foreign expertise or hand out bribes. He ordered one of his officials, Youssef Diya, to find a suitable location in which to store the treasures, and when they outgrew the space afforded them in a small building in Ezbekieh, they were transferred to a hall at the Citadel.

French, British and other European diplomats maintained a presence in Cairo and Alexandria at the beginning of the 19th century. Among them was Bernardino Drovetti who had a successful military career under Napoleon and was consul general of France in Egypt from 1803. When Muhammad Ali was persuaded by a French engineer that the future of Egypt lay in agricultural development, especially in the cultivation of cotton, he called on Drovetti to recruit engineers to improve and develop the irrigation system and construct a barrage at the apex of the Delta. In return for establishing a network of irrigation canals by which the flood was controlled and the water diverted into basins from which outlying land could be irrigated, Drovetti received a firman, a special permit from the Pasha allowing him to freely excavate sites and build up a collection of antiquities in France. His first horde comprised 169 papyri and manuscripts, 485 metal artefacts, 2400 scarabs and amulets, and 102 mummies. It was offered to, and rejected by France, and subsequently bought by the king of Sardinia in 1824; it forms the principal part of the great collection of Turin.

Drovetti was a powerful personality who influenced Muhammad Ali in matters of government policy and who also enjoyed prestige with Egyptians. His service to the state enabled him to amass a second collection, which included three beautifully preserved and wonderfully decorated sarcophagi, 10 granite stelae, 60 limestone stelae, 500 manuscripts, 2 mummies and 80 gold objects, now in the Louvre. His third collection, equally important, is in the Berlin Museum.

A chance meeting in Alexandria between Drovetti and Frederic Cailliaud, a French geologist and mineralogist from Nantes, resulted in the life of another learned and talented man to become bound to Egypt. During his first short visit in 1815 to seek out new rocks and minerals for his collection, Cailliaud made numerous journeys up the Nile and into the deserts over a period of five years. The two men were delighted to find many common interests and determined to become fellow travellers.

Drovetti introduced Cailliaud to Muhammad Ali and the geologist soon found himself on a government assignment. The Pasha commissioned him to search for ancient emerald mines in the Eastern Desert, which were operational under the Ptolemaic kings but had subsequently disappeared without trace. Familiar as he was with the geology of the Eastern Desert, Cailliaud rapidly made his way to the mountain of Gabal Zabara where, as expected, he collected numerous emeralds without too much difficulty. He returned to Cairo, handed the stones over to the Pasha in triumph, and expected that to be the end of his government mission.

But Muhammad Ali had other plans for him. Emeralds were an economic asset, and Cailliaud was promptly dispatched on another mission to find more mines. Hardly in a position to refuse, the French geologist equipped himself for a long excursion. This time he travelled beyond Gabal Zabara to Gabal Sikeit where he successfully collected a large number of rough-cut stones -- certainly enough to satisfy the Pasha. But this time he did not rush back to Cairo. He set off to explore the Arabian (Eastern) and Libyan (Western) deserts, where he collected more rare stones and minerals for is personal collection before he headed back to Cairo

European countries were then forming national museums as repositories for their own culture, and that of other nations, and there was fierce rivalry for antiquities when their consuls in Egypt were ordered to set about collecting objects. In the bitter struggle for the possession of museum- worthy objects, the chief contenders were Drovetti and the British consul Henry Salt (whose acquisitions are in the British Museum), followed by the Swedish and Norwegian consul Giovanni Anastasi (whose collections were later dispersed to various museums in London, Paris, Stockholm and the Netherlands), and the Austrian consul Giuseppe Acerbi.

Egyptian antiquities were the craze. A monk visiting Egypt, Father Geramb, reputedly passed a remark to Muhammad Ali that "it would be hardly respectable, on one's return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other," and that the Pasha so much as said "help yourself."

Salt, who had skills as an Egyptologist and developed a keen interest in hieroglyphics, enjoyed special favour with Muhammad Ali and became another influential figure in Egyptian affairs. He and Drovetti entered into a rivalry, which became so intense that they reached a gentlemen's agreement to carve up the Nile valley into spheres of influence. On some occasions they ran into head-on collision.

One of the most famous cases of looting was the domed ceiling of Dendera, the spectacular Zodiac. When the French collector Sebastien Saulnier saw the drawing of it made for the Description de l'Egypte, he decided that such a remarkable piece should definitely belong to France, and he recruited a French engineer, Jean Lelorrain, for the job. It proved to be a formidable task. The dome of the shrine was carved on two huge blocks of stone nearly a metre thick, and gunpowder was used to dislodge it from the temple wall. After twenty days of sawing by a well-paid force of local workmen, the masterpiece was finally dragged on special wooden rollers towards a waiting boat. By the time it reached the edge of the Nile -- with many mishaps on the way -- the British had got heed of the activity and when Salt saw the Zodiac he interceded to claim it for Britain. He failed. The monument arrived in Paris and was sold to King Louis XVIII for 150,000 Francs. It was placed in the Bibliothèque Nationale and is now in the Louvre.

Giovanni Belzoni was a giant of a man of Italian birth, the "Patagonian Sampson" of Saddler's Wells in London, whose pumping machine designed to replace traditional saqqia waterwheels, had interested Muhammad Ali and he was commissioned to move ahead with the project. So when Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss scholar and linguist, came across a colossal granite head of extraordinary beauty lying abandoned in a temple on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, learned from local people that the French had tried to move it and failed, and contacted Belzoni with view to taking possession of it, he refused. He had no interest at the time. Only when his ambitions as a hydraulic engineer ended in failure, and he found himself in perilous financial conditions, did he contact Burckhardt to say that he was now more sympathetic to the idea of transporting the colossus to England but was not in a position to pay for the costs. The individual who could finance the endeavour, and who was more than willing to acquire the head, was Henry Salt. Muhammad Ali gave him the necessary firman and "the Young Memnon," (it was in fact Ramses II) is the focal point of a gallery at the British Museum.

Thus, at the very time that Champollion was deciphering hieroglyphics, hundreds of diplomats and tourists, traders and aristocrats, were despoiling the very civilisation that he and other scholars sought to understand. Yet the desecration did not stop there. Muhammad Ali himself ordered the destruction of ancient monuments. After all, the neglected temples of the pharaohs either stood on the floodplain and occupied valuable agricultural land, or at the edge of the desert where land could be reclaimed. They hindered development. Moreover, they provided raw material; there was no need to quarry fresh granite and limestone when large numbers of carefully cut and squared blocks were available for the taking from the ruins of disused temples. Much of modern Cairo was built from temples that were dismantled piecemeal by quarrymen and transported by barge upstream. Some standing temples were used for other purposes; that of Armant was turned into a sugar factory, and the temple of Hermopolis was reduced to lime for cement.

Clot Bey (Antoine B. Clot), a French surgeon, was another European professional who was recruited by Muhmmad Ali. He established a medical school, and laid the foundation of the Egyptian public health service. Needless to say, he was able to assemble a large collection of antiquities. For his services to the state he was able to send batches to the Louvre, in 1852 and 1853, and the British Museum purchased two papyri. The balance of Clot's collection was sold for a nominal sum to the municipality of Marseilles.

Muhammad Ali is not exceptional among the leaders in the world in trading works of art or ancient monuments for know-how and technology. Until today objects remain diplomatic playthings in the hands of politicians. What is remarkable is the sheer volume of Egypt's ancient treasure that made its way abroad. The loss to archaeology and ancient history is staggering.

As a grand gesture of goodwill, Muhammad Ali presented to King Louis XVIII the western (standing) obelisk at the entrance to Luxor temple, which was transported to Paris and erected in the Place de La Concorde in 1836. The obelisk of Thutmose III was later presented to King George IV of England as a mark of personal respect, and erected on the Thames embankment in 1878. Its twin was taken to New York in 1880 and today stands in Central Park.

Serious steps for the protection and conservation of Egypt's ancient heritage came only in the time of the Khedive Ismail. He forbade the desecration or demolition of monuments for whatever purpose, including "the use of the stone for erecting government or private buildings", because, as he wrote in a firman, "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."

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