Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 March 2011
Issue No. 1040
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Guardians of guards

The position of Egypt's minister of state for antiquities affairs has been placed on hold until further notice. As Nevine El-Aref writes, the consequences could be dire

Click to view caption
From left: the Sphinx; the Egyptian Museum; the Civilisation Museum

The massive restructuring of ministerial positions in post-revolutionary Egypt has left several important departments drifting afloat with no one at the helm.

Many are asking what will be the fate of the Ministry of State for Antiquities? Is the ministry, which was hastily formed by Hosni Mubarak during the first phase of the revolution, still a ministerial body, or is an Antiquities Authority, or even a Supreme Council of Antiquities as it was before?

Why has Prime Minister Essam Sharaf still not appointed a minister for antiquities, despite the promise made two weeks ago to archaeologists picketing the cabinet building demanding that Egypt's antiquities be kept as an independent body affiliated to the cabinet? Even the nomination last week of Alaa Shahin, dean of the faculty of archaeology at Cairo University, has so far led to nothing. Meanwhile, with the lack of police presence to safeguard archaeological sites, looters continue to break into and damage the storehouses of several archaeological sites in Lower and Upper Egypt. Although some objects have been restituted, several are still missing. Meanwhile, building encroachments on the safe zones around sites are pressing ahead unchecked.

The most recent looting attempt was a few days ago on Luxor's west bank, when an armed gang of 10 members attacked the warehouse of the European-Egyptian excavation mission of Amenhotep III's temple. The gang members, clearly well-prepared, administered anesthetic shots to the guards, tied them up and entered the warehouse with ease. They stole a 59cm-tall granite bust of the lioness goddess Sekhmet, deity of war, and a 37-cm-tall, half smashed granite head of another ancient Egyptian god. While escaping they destroyed several of the stored statues.

Mansour Boreik, supervisor of Luxor's monuments, said that police came immediately to the site and after comprehensive investigations succeeded in arresting the head of the gang and three other members in less than 24 hours.

Boreik says police investigations revealed that the gang leader, a sculptor who carves ancient Egyptian replica statues and sells them in his shop in the west bank village of Gourna, planned to rob the warehouse with the help of his 21- year-old nephew who was working as a labourer with the excavation mission. They organised the gang and succeeded in breaking the huge iron gate of the warehouse after tying up the guards. Both statues were found hidden in the sculptor's house, along with a number of genuine clay vessels.

Meanwhile, residents of the villages of Abusir, Saqqara and Mit Rahina have intruded into antiquities land and built a new cemetery for their deceased. Similar encroachments have been reported elsewhere.

Such recent shocking events have raise archaeologists' concerns and fears that Egypt's priceless heritage could be threatened.

"Egypt's antiquities are in great danger," Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, director of the central administration for antiquities in Alexandria and Lower Egypt, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the attacks and robbery attempts on archaeological sites were exceeding all expectations, and said the lack of police protection was being felt on all ancient sites. This was compounded by the absence of a minister or even a head of the antiquities department to take control, further encouraging looters and traders to break into storehouses and steal goods for the antiquities market.

What had happened in Luxor, Abdel-Maqsoud pointed out, could have devastating consequences as it could hold up foreign archaeological expeditions in Egypt, which now number more than 200 missions all over the country.

"How can we safeguard the Luxor monuments when we have 600 guards, but only 35 of them carry guns?" he asked. "It is a real catastrophe."

Abdel-Maqsoud admitted that since the beginning of the revolution the state of antiquities department had gone from bad to worse. When Sharaf took office two weeks ago, he annulled the new Ministry of Antiquities and recombined it with the Ministry of Culture as part of his restructuring of ministerial positions. Following protests by archaeologists, Sharaf agreed to keep it as an independent body affiliated to the cabinet. However, he has not yet appointed a minister or director for the antiquities department, regardless of whether the position is that of an actual minister of state or an independent authority affiliated to the government.

"No one is responsible for Egypt's antiquities, and this has led to the absence of security and administration. These have been halted as there is no leader to take decisions on antiquities or to continue working," Abdel-Maqsoud told the Weekly.

"The case is really critical and needs an immediate solution and a quick decision from the prime minister to appoint an antiquities leader."

The problem is not just which individual will take the post. The problem is appointing a head of antiquities who will put an end to the chaos. Archaeologists from the Ministry of Antiquities and those at Cairo University are currently engaging in a war of words, and rumours are flying. The two sides are fighting over who will win the post. Little attention is being paid at present to the worsening state of antiquities.

Abdel-Maqsoud says that a UNESCO delegation is in Egypt to help recover objects looted since the revolution and to inspect the current situation regarding the nation's antiquities.

Professor of Egyptology at Cairo University and former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Abdel-Halim Noureddin is cautious about the UNESCO visit, and especially about its timing.

"Why is the delegation coming just now, during this transitional period, is not clear. Could it be to inspect the Egyptian Museum after the break-in? Or to collect information about archaeological sites that are susceptible to looting? Who invited the delegation to come to Egypt? Or is UNESCO, by this visit, making a statement that it is coming to protect Egypt's antiquities?" Noureddin asks.

He continued that if the delegate was coming to check up on the Egyptian Museum, that was not its responsibility, but rather the task of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM). "We are keen on our heritage and we are totally able to protect our monuments, and we don't need curatorship from anyone," Noureddin said.

However, he continued, if the UNESCO delegate was coming to help Egypt to recover looted artefacts then their help was more than welcome.

Meanwhile, Abdel-Maqsoud declared his appreciation for the UNESCO visit and did not see it as contradicting Egypt's role in protecting its heritage. He justified his view by saying that Egypt was among the countries that founded UNESCO, as well as being a member of the World Heritage Organisation (WHO), a branch of UNESCO. He said the UNESCO delegation was indeed coming to help Egypt to recuperate looted artefacts in the aftermath of the revolution by publishing a list of the missing objects in case any appeared in the antiquities trade market.

Abdel-Maqsoud said the visit in no way undermined Egyptian authority or raised doubts about its capability to protect its monuments.

"We have to cooperate with UNESCO with a more transparent attitude, considering UNESCO is the international organisation dedicated to protecting human heritage," he added.

UNESCO has come to the aid and support of Egypt several times in the past. It was recently involved in the problem of the Ring Road, the highway that was meant to cross over the Giza plateau and which would have encroached on the famous area of the Giza pyramids.

"Protecting and safeguarding Egypt's monuments is an internal matter, and Egypt is more than capable of executing such a task," Abdel-Maqsoud said. Proof of that, he added, was that Egypt had openly announced the number of recent looting attempts and a list of missing objects to the press. Results of the inventories carried out on the Giza plateau and Sinai will soon be announced and reported to Egyptian security authorities and Interpol, which in turn will work to retrieve them.

Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities affairs, confirmed that he had been asked by UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture, Franceso Bandarin, to meet the delegation. Hawass said they would discuss the recent status of Egypt's antiquities and the number of break-ins and losses, as well as the means of repossessing objects in the case that they had been smuggled out of the country.

He made clear that on several other occasions he had rejected offers from UNESCO and other international organisations help protect Egypt's antiquities, calling the interference of any foreign country in the protection of Egypt's heritage "antiquities colonisation".

A top official in the ministry who requested anonymity told the Weekly that Hawass could not meet the UNESCO delegation officially as he was no longer a minister, although he could act as a professional archaeological expert in order to provide suggestions in the same way as the former director-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Gaballa Ali Gaballa, or any other archaeological expert.

Until the Weekly went to press it was not known who had escorted the UNESCO delegation. Leaked information suggested that the delegation had gone to several sites of its own accord and had met the person responsible for each location.

The Weekly learnt from Hussein Abdel-Bassir, director of the National Museum of Civilisation that if the cabinet did not appoint or assign a new minister or director of antiquities, archaeologists from all over the country would protest, next Sunday, at the cabinet building demanding that Sharaf declare the concrete body of the antiquities department; the immediate appointment of a new antiquities head; the safeguarding of the monuments and archaeological sites and the appointment of fresh-graduate archaeological students as promised by the government.

"If feeding the Egyptian people and keeping them safe are an important priority, then protecting Egypt's heritage should be on top of all priorities," Noureddin told the Weekly.

He explained that anything could be compensated except for the history and heritage of a country. "Once you have lost it, you can never get it back," he said.

Noureddin has a suggestion for solving the lack of security on archaeological sites. Police could, he says, be replaced by qualified unemployed archaeologists who could be trained to use a shotgun. Helicopters would be another security measure to follow up antiquities trafficking in the desert near Marsa Matrouh and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid, for example.

Noureddin agrees with Abdel-Maqsoud concerning the immediate appointment of a head of antiquities, no matter who, or from where he or she came. "Whether from the ministry or the university, the most important thing is Egypt's monuments," Noureddin said.

He is also calling on all archaeologists to stop blaming one another and spreading rumours and instead concentrate on protecting Egypt's heritage.

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