Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 December 2007
Issue No. 876
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egyptians in Egyptology

Jill Kamil. Labib Habachi: The Life and Legacy of an Egyptologist. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007. Pp. 344. ISBN 978 977 416 061. LE120

Click to view caption
From top: panorama of excavation on Elephantine in 1946; Habachi with Sir Alan Gardiner; with Mrs Moss (left) and Ahmed Fakhry (right); President Sukarno of Indonesia (with Nasser behind him); Habachi with the sultan of Yemen

An important development in cultural history during recent years has been the recognition of the long exclusion of Egyptians from their nationís ancient past. For most of the two centuries or so that Egyptology has been a recognized field, ancient Egypt has been considered the intellectual property of the West. University syllabi presented ancient Egypt as one of the foundations of Western civilization, but one with little pertinence to the subsequent history of Egypt or the Middle East. Western collectors plundered the material riches of the ancient land for decades following Napoleon's epochal Egyptian expedition in 1798-1801, filling the galleries of European museums and adorning the shelves and walls of foreign homes, and doing so without compunction.

Even the study of ancient Egypt was denied to Egyptians. A school to teach Egyptology to promising Egyptian students was opened in Bulaq in 1869, but it was closed five years later by Auguste Mariette, the director of the French-dominated Antiquities Service. Mariette's successor, Gaston Maspero denied excavation permits to Egyptians because, he asserted, they were motivated only by the desire to find treasure, not by "scientific passion". Lord Cromer put it more crudely around the turn of the century when he stated that Egyptians were not "civilized enough" to look after their antiquities. The situation had not improved much by 1923 when Ahmad Kamal, the first Egyptian to be a fully qualified as both an Egyptologist and an archaeologist, proposed comprehensive training for Egyptian Egyptologists. Pierre Lacau, then director-general of the Antiquities Service, countered that few Egyptians had shown interest in their ancient past. "Ah, M. Lacau," Kamal responded, "in the sixty-five years you French have directed the Service, what opportunities have you given us?" As a result of Ahmad Kamal's efforts, the newly independent Egyptian government took steps to establish a school of Egyptology. Labib Habachi was one of its first students.

When native Egyptian Egyptology finally took lasting root in Egypt, its practitioners did not receive the same level of encouragement and support as their Western counterparts, nor were they accorded international recognition. The first edition of the biographical guide to Egyptologists, Who Was Who in Egyptology, did not even have an entry for Ahmad Kamal when it was published in 1951. That omission was partially addressed in the subsequent editions of that indispensable reference work in 1972 and 1995, but much remained to be done, as Donald M. Reid demonstrated in his ground-breaking 2002 book, Whose Pharaohs?, a wide-ranging study of institutional archaeology in Egypt from Napoleon's expedition to the beginning of the First World War.

Reid's work provided the first comprehensive overview of the development of Egyptian Egyptology. The logical next step was case studies of individual Egyptian scholars. That step has now been taken by Jill Kamil with her Labib Habachi: The Life and Legacy of an Egyptologist. Drawing on intense documentary research, wide reading, extensive interviews, and a long personal acquaintance with her subject, Kamil presents the story of the person who "was unquestionably Egypt's most productive and internationally recognized Egyptologist of the twentieth century". And what a story it is, originating with youthful ambition, continuing to battles lost and won against daunting adversity, and moving on to final success.

Labib Habachi was born in a village near Mansura in the eastern Delta in 1906 and came of age during the exhilarating years when Egypt was gaining its independence. In 1923, the year after Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutakhamun, Habachi entered Fuad I University (now Cairo University) just as the Department of Egyptology was established there. He promptly transferred from his original choice of mathematics into the new programme which was taught to an eager cohort of students by a staff of distinguished European scholars. "The students, filled with enthusiasm, were given personal attention," Kamil writes, "and Habachi felt a strong sense of belonging." He scored well in his courses, and when he graduated in 1928, he had great hopes for the future, expecting a prompt appointment in the Antiquities Service that would lead to steady advancement. In fact, most of his career would be marked by institutional neglect and obstructionism that would have caused a less motivated man to give up in despair.

Some of Habachi's difficulty, of course, proceeded from being an Egyptian in a profession dominated by Europeans who undervalued the contributions of their Egyptian colleagues. Kamil writes how "many of his most perceptive archaeological observations, based on a deep understanding of ancient history and contemporary society, were rejected out of hand because they cast doubt on earlier, European conclusions". But the earliest and the most persistent difficulties were posed not by the European establishment but by his fellow Egyptians. Coming from an unremarkable Christian family in a Delta village, not from the landowning aristocracy or the urban elite, he had no particular credentials for an entre into Egypt's class-conscious society. His "character" was not considered proper. Nor was he a born operator who could insinuate himself among the "right sort" of people. As one of his friends remembered, "Labib was a field man, not a cocktail man. When pressed to put on a tie, he'd say, "I'll suffocate! He made no attempt to cultivate social grace". Frustrated, Habachi had to endure two years of waiting while all the other members of his graduating class and those from the one behind him received postings. Only after two humiliating years of delay did he begin a series of minor assignments and missed professional opportunities throughout Egypt and Nubia.

Habachi was demoralized at first, but Kamil documents his slow "transformation from a roving inspector into a perceptive Egyptologist". He made the most of his Wilderness Years, realizing that his university training could only take him so far and that there was much to be learned in the field of which he was seeing quite a bit, more than most of his colleagues who had been more favored in their initial postings. "While they spent years at one site, I shared a bit of everything". As he visited one project after another, he carefully studied experts like Guy Brunton, the brilliant apprentice of the legendary archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who taught Habachi the techniques of field archaeology. "When I was appointed inspector in Middle Egypt," Habachi remembered, "I joined his team whenever I could. I learned how to note the strata and record the objects in situ before removing them from the soil. Not enough attention was given to such things in university".

Those experiences served Habachi well when, after fifteen years of mostly itinerate inspecting, he was finally promoted and transferred to a desirable post at Aswan. There he soon made a major archaeological discovery, the Sanctuary of Heqaib. One of the mighty, semi-autonomous provincial officials at the end of the Old Kingdom, Heqaib was buried in one of the prominent tombs near the base of the hill of Qubbet al-Hawa. But that was not the end of the story. Three centuries later, during the Middle Kingdom, a cult grew up around Heqaib, and a temple was built to him on Elephantine Island. Generation of generation added successive shrines, leaving material remains to a wide span of pharaonic history. As Habachi excavated the complex and discovered its extent, he also recovered some 150 important artifacts, including some especially fine Middle Kingdom statues. It was the find of a lifetime.

After several years of digging and researching, Habachi was well aware of the significance of his discovery, but he was reluctant to publish his preliminary findings or even to file a routine report on them. Earlier experience had made him cautious. When he was working in the Delta and filed a report asserting - correctly, as it turned out - that the Hyksos capital was located not at Tanis, as European Egyptologists thought, but at Tell al-Daba, it had been ignored. His opinion counted for nothing against that of Western experts. Habachi did not intend to be ignored this time. He wanted to have everything ready and then spring his surprise on the world in all its full, irrefutable glory.

That was a big mistake. In 1949 the Belgian Egyptologist Constant de Wit presented Habachi's discovery to the International Congress of Orientalists in Paris. It was not exactly plagiarism, as Kamil explains. De Wit gave Habachi credit for discovery, but he was wrong to take from Habachi the right to announce it himself and revel in its reception. "De Wit's presentation of Habachi's discovery provides an explicit example of the condescending attitude of many western scholars to local archaeologists in the first half of the twentieth century. De Wit would never have treated one of his own students in such a manner, let alone a western colleague. With an Egyptian, it apparently caused him no disquiet. There was anguish in Habachi's voice when he said, 'He usurped my moment of glory'". Even so, Habachi continued to work on his manuscript book about the Sanctuary of Heqaib, which he completed in 1953 and submitted to the Antiquities Department for publication, only to have it disappear into the department's files. Because of the disruptions created by the Revolution the year before, publication was suspended indefinitely.

After the Revolution, Habachi was made chief inspector of Upper Egypt and stationed in the fabulously rich archaeological site of Luxor. Most of his time was taken by administrative duties. As one visitor noted: "Egyptian civil service is not planned for delegation authority, so that Labib has to supervise, sign, and arrange everything himself. His life is one of constant interruption by a host of secretaries or assistants, and his only relief is to walk down the street to Chicago House to use the library and stay for a peaceful cup of tea". Despite such distractions, Habachi conducted a number of important projects such as clearing the first court of Karnak Temple and re-erecting the statue of the High Priest of Amun, Panedjem I, the ruler of Upper Egypt when the kingdom divided in two at the beginning of the Late Period.

But Habachi's attention was drawn to Nubia, destined to be flooded by the lake that would be created by construction of the new High Dam at Aswan. Because of his intimate knowledge of Nubia and its monuments, gained during his early years as an inspector, he confidently expected to be appointed to the committees to plan salvage archaeology and preservation; instead, he was studiously excluded. "He didnít stand a chance," the Egyptologist Gamal Mokhtar explained. "Not only did he lack academic rating . . . he was not part of the inner clique". Even his close rapport with President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whom he accompanied on a visit to Nubia, was insufficient to bring Habachi into the inner circles.

Meanwhile, he found himself programmatically marginalized within the Egyptian Egyptological establishment. Discoveries by other Egyptian archaeologists like Zaki Saad and Zakaria Goneim were given great play in the local press, while work of at least equal importance by Habachi was ignored. When the government selected Egyptian Egyptologists to tour the United States and publicize recent developments in Egyptian archaeology, they chose not Habachi, whose international reputation was already well established, but two men who were virtually unknown outside of Egypt. Habachi was not jealous of those people, but the exclusion hurt. When he was made head of excavations in Egypt in 1958, he realized that he was really being pushed even further from the center of activity. "They appointed me to get me out of the way," he said, leaving him to brood: "While world attention was focused on saving the monuments of Nubia, I was left to pick up my old career, moving from one archaeological site to another, mostly in the Delta. They never let me remain in any one place for any length of time. I was moved around like a pawn on a chessboard. And a ban was put on publication of my manuscript on Heqaib." Habachi was now well into his 50s. His career appeared fatally sidetracked.

Rescue came in the form of a strong-willed, ebullient woman, Atteya Kamel Ayad, a Western- educated native of Alexandria whom he married in 1961. Atteya turned Habachi's life around. If he lacked social graces and connections, she had them in abundance. They moved into an apartment in a fashionable section of Heliopolis where Atteya "entertained royally", in the words of one friend. Habachi was no longer a social outsider. Kamil explains, "With Atteya Hanem Ayad at his side, hanem being a Turkish word used under the monarchy and adopted after the revolution for a lady of society, Labib Habachi acquired the social recognition that had eluded him for so long. He began to give regular lectures and, always nimble- witted and a past master at artfully embellishing facts to amuse an audience, he gave exceptional, insightful presentations". He and Atteya became an extremely popular couple, regularly invited to dinners, receptions, and banquets. As social doors opened to Habachi, so did professional opportunities.

One of the joys of Kamil's biography of Habachi is her characterization of Atteya. Just as their marriage facilitated Habachi's career, it opened opportunities for Atteya, who had never held salaried employment. Soon after the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) was founded in 1961, she became its public relations secretary and served until her retirement in 1982, providing continuity through six different directors. To assuage her husband's depression over continuing exclusion from the sensational work in Nubia, about which Atteya kept him fully informed from her strategic post at ARCE, Habachi used his international connections to arrange an extended, highly successful lecture tour of the United States in 1966, the first of many such tours that reached large, popular audiences as well as professional colleagues. Toward the end of the tour, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from New York University. Other international accolades came his way during the following years, including the Italian Order of Merit, the French Legion of Honor, and the Austrian Order of Merit.

As Habachi's international reputation soared, he became more of an embarrassment to the Antiquities Department where a scheme was hatched to retire him early on the grounds that he was "unproductive". That was clearly preposterous, but Habachi had had enough. He decided to take the initiative and resign in order to be free to present himself as a consultant to one of the foreign missions that were working in Nubia. He joined the team of the Oriental Institute of Chicago and spent a happy, productive time working on the temple of Beit al-Wali, now re-sited just south of the Aswan High Dam, above the waters of Lake Nasser. When the Chicago team moved on to other places in Nubia, Habachi eventually fell out with the site manager - he was not one to handle confrontations tactfully - and he did no further Nubian work, but the diplomatic Atteya helped him patch up the disagreement, ensuring that his relations with the University of Chicagoís Epigraphic Survey remained excellent. Atteya spoke of its Luxor headquarters, Chicago House, as her "second home".

By this time, Habachi had amassed a formidable publication record that established him as Egypt's foremost Egyptologist, surpassing his close friend and contemporary Ahmed Fakhry, famous for his books on the Western Desert, who was removed by his comparatively early death. Kamil's bibliography of Habichi's works extends across ten pages and contains 154 entries. Habachi's publications included a genuine best-seller, The Obelisks of Egypt: Skyscrapers of the Past (1977), which made him well-known among general readers as well as professional Egyptologists. Translated into French and German, The Obelisks of Egypt sold widely and was frequently reprinted. He talked to Kamil about writing his autobiography. "It will be a popular work," he told her. "Many Egyptologists have written about their experiences, but this would be the first autobiography by an Egyptian". Many of his autobiographical notes are included in Kamil's biography.

The publication that was uppermost in Habachi's mind, though, was his manuscript about the Sanctuary of Heqaib, locked away in the Antiquities Department for more than twenty years. Only after years of persistent effort was the manuscript finally returned to him in 1975. By then, it was far out of date. He had matured as a writer, the field had moved on, and he could see that new examinations of the site was necessary, although when he returned to Aswan for more work, he was denied entry to the monument on grounds of "security". That concern turned out to be profoundly misplaced, for when Habachi was finally admitted, he found that a number of fine pieces had been stolen from the storeroom, including one of the best pieces of statuary. That prompted him to deliver a scathing paper about recent damages and thefts of Egyptian monuments at the first International Congress of Egyptology in 1976, much to the dismay of some of his colleagues. Recognizing that time was limited, Habachi published some of the Heqaib material in articles during the early 1980s, but the main volume, The Sanctuary of Heqaib, did not appear until 1985, the year after his death.

Habachi's last years continued to be eventful - perhaps too eventful, considering his declining health as he suffered two heart attacks. The details of those, and of so many other aspects of his life, are best left to the pages of Jill Kamil's outstanding book. One of the things that makes its final chapters so meaningful and moving is her delineation of her friendship with Habachi which began in 1979 when they started working together on matters of mutual literary and scholarly interest. "I was witness over successive years to many sides of Labib Habachiís character," Kamil writes. "A proud and ambitious man with an enormous capacity for work, his eventful career was marked by disputes, rivalries, patronization from foreign experts, and academic and social discrimination on the local scene. I was particularly moved by his kindness, compassion, and generosity. Peasant farmers and workers were as welcome in his home as professionals and friends. Young and old savored the time he gave them. The pulse of his magnetism affected people". A skillful writer, Kamil presents the insights from her personal knowledge of Habachi in such a fresh, piquant manner that it sometimes seems like he is standing in the same room, talking to us.

Jill Kamil's Labib Habachi will go far toward rescuing Habachi and many of his colleagues from the relative obscurity that still cloaks the lives and works of twentieth-century Egyptian Egyptologists. Her book also proves once again that while the history of ancient Egypt is fascinating, the history of Egyptology is often no less so.

Reviewed by Jason Thompson, author of the definitive biography of the Egyptologist Sir Gardner Wilkinson, and a biography of Edward William Lan.e

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