Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 December 2011 - 4 January 2012
Issue No. 1078
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Under the Pharaohs' spell

This year, archaeological sites and museums in Egypt, and even its antiquities council, were hit by the Pharaohs' curse, writes Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: military soldiers inspecting and guarding the Giza plateau; Hawass announcing the recovery of some objects reported missing from the Egyptian Museum and a skull found scattered at the garden of the Egyptian Museum

This year, 2011, was indeed different for Egypt. A few days after the revolution broke out on 25 January, eventually toppling president Hosni Mubarak and his autocratic regime, the corrupt police force faded into the background and many of Egypt's most important monuments and archaeological sites were left vulnerable to attacks by vandals, thugs and thieves. The first victim of the turmoil was the Egyptian Museum on the rim of the revolutionary hotspot, Tahrir Square. On Friday 28 January thieves broke into the museum through a skylight and removed 48 artefacts from their showcases. By good fortune, 29 of the missing items were recovered soon afterwards, many of them handed in by members of the public.

Many storage places all over Egypt suffered break-ins, among them the Qantara East storehouse in Sinai, which houses artefacts belonging to the planned Port Said Museum and the Suez, Sharm El-Sheikh and Taba museums as well as objects returned from Israel under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Looters broke into the storehouse and stole several boxes of objects containing up to 800 items, although to date 292 of these have been returned. Meanwhile, people have encroached on monument buffer zones, building houses or carrying out illegal night-time excavations. Reports of illegal construction have come in from near the Pyramid of Merenre and at the Mastaba Faraun near Saqqara. Many sites, including some in Alexandria, Ismailia, Saqqara, Beheira, Sharqiya, Abusir and Dahshour, have reported illegal excavating, very often at night. At Saqqara the padlocks of many tombs have been smashed, and inscribed blocks and parts of the false door have been stolen from the tomb of Hetepka. A storehouse belonging to an archaeological expedition run by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in Dahshour, known as the De Morgan storehouse, was attacked twice by looters who overpowered and tied up guards. Looters broke into the storehouse of a Czech expedition in Abusir. In Giza looters carrying guns broke into the Selim Hassan storehouse and forced the unarmed site guards to surrender. Storehouses at Tel Al-Basta and Wadi Al-Feiran near Sharm El-Sheikh were also broken into.

Several other ancient Egyptian sites were also subjected to vandalism and looting. The only known 19th-Dynasty tomb in Lower Egypt, that of Ken-Amun at Tel Al-Maskhuta near Ismailia, was completely destroyed, as was the Old Kingdom tomb of Impy near the Sphinx on the Giza Plateau. Inscribed blocks were taken from the tomb of Ptahshepses in Abusir. Guards at sites in Nekhen, north of Edfu in Upper Egypt, managed to catch several thieves. In Aswan, looters attempted to steal a statue of Ramses II, but were apprehended by archaeologists and guards at the site. Looters have attacked Abydos nearly every night during the recent turmoil, carrying out illegal excavations and digging trenches, some as deep as five metres, damaging the site.

In Al-Muezz Street in mediaeval Cairo the situation was dire. The Historic Cairo Rehabilitation Project (HCRP), under which LE850-million has been spent on restoring 34 listed buildings in the street and a further 67 Islamic edifices in neighbouring alleyways, was placed under threat. Peddlars, fruit vendors and grocers moved in to spread their wares all over the street, even on the monuments themselves. The street was used as a shortcut for vehicles, and the open courtyards of the Fatimid and Ottoman mosques were used as parking lots. The open court in front of the Ibn Barquq Mosque, which is in the monument safe zone, has been turned into a folkloric food court where colourful wooden hand carts laden with koshari (a rice and macaroni dish), liver, brains and hummus (chick-pea paste) serve pedestrians and workers in the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the empty space between the Beit Al-Suheimi, one of the area's most beautiful and historic houses, and the house next door has metamorphosed into an oriental coffee shop with a dozen small tables. About 50 armed thugs broke into the Khan Al-Zeraksha, a recently restored group of dwellings, and forced security guards to leave. Squatters are still occupying the site.

In Tanta in the Nile Delta region, the sabil (fountain-school) of Ali Bey Al-Kabir was broken into and three original windows, furniture and the modern iron gate were stolen. Some pieces of the windows were later found in the possession of street merchants. The Kom Al-Nadoura site near Alexandria suffered some damage to doors and furniture. In Kafr Al-Sheikh, some 40 armed thieves attacked the antiquities warehouse of Tel Al-Farain. Luckily, some of the attackers were caught red-handed but others are still at large. Last week, amid ongoing protests against the military regime in front of the Cabinet Building in Qasr Al-Aini Street in Downtown Cairo, the Egyptian Science Institute (ESI), which preserved the nation's history for five centuries, is now little more than ashes and the culprits remain unidentified. The fire raged for two hours within the walls, bringing down magnificent ceilings in the two-storey building and destroying ornate woodwork and a large number of precious books, documents and manuscripts.

Among the priceless items lost in the conflagration was an original copy of La D³İscription de L'Egypte compiled by the scientists and historians travelling with Napoleon Bonaparte as a record of what they found and saw in Egypt.

The ESI also housed about 40,000 rare books and manuscripts that predated the French expedition, including 1,635 books and maps. It held drawings of bridges, aqueducts and dams; the D³İscription published in 1809 in 24 volumes; and 18th-century periodicals published by organisations that no longer exist. Among the invaluable items are an atlas of ancient Indian arts; a German atlas of Egypt and Ethiopia published in 1842; and Egypt: Mother of the World written in 1753.

Now the MSA in collaboration with the army is engineering section and the Arab Contractor are drawing a comprehensive restoration plan of such an exquisite building.

On the employment level, protesters picketed the Zamalek offices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which soon after the outbreak of the revolution was renamed the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). Many of those involved in the protests were archaeologists and restorers campaigning for employment within the newly-created body. Some of them claimed they had been unemployed for years, while others demanded permanent appointments, better pay and equality. Frustrated at the situation of the country's antiquities, Zahi Hawass, previously the SCA general-secretary and by then the minister of antiquities, resigned as minister, citing his inability to protect the nation's treasures. Hawass himself was also a target -- some said a victim -- of the disorder after becoming the subject of a campaign, believed to be led by two disgruntled antiquities employees, accusing him of smuggling Egyptian heirlooms out of the country on behalf of the family of former president Hosni Mubarak, as well as of enabling suspected Zionist organisations to enter the Egyptian Museum eight years ago and mishandle ancient Egyptian antiquities. Hawass has asked Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud to conduct investigations into the allegations, telling Al-Ahram Weekly that they were "unfounded and nonsensical" and that there was no evidence to support the claims. When former prime minister Essam Sharaf appointed his cabinet he reunited the MSA with the Ministry of Culture. However, this did not suit many archaeologists, who protested in front of the cabinet building the day after the announcement was made to demand an independent ministry for antiquities. Sharaf then agreed to make the MSA an independent body under the direct control of the cabinet. He assigned Hawass to the post, but archaeologists restarted their protest to topple him. A few months later Hawass was sacked and the MSA reverted to the SCA. Two secretary-generals followed in quick succession, but resigned following protests. Two months ago Mustafa Amin was appointed SCA secretary-general and promised to solve all the employees' problems including salary increases, appointment to the SCA's permanent staff, and appointment for fresh graduates within the SCA's echelon. When Amin assumed his post but failed to meet the protesters' requirements, they renewed their action. However, with the resignation of the cabinet and appointment of Kamal El-Ganzouri as the new prime minister, the SCA once again became the MSA and Mohamed Ibrahim, a professor of archaeology at Ain Shams University, was given the antiquities portfolio and became the MSA's new minister. Since he took office, Ibrahim has embarked on a number of inspection tours of archaeological sites and museums. He has visited the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir, the planned Grand Egyptian Museum, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, the Salaheddin Citadel, the Giza Plateau and Luxor. He has promised to review all the MSA's projects and to work hard to meet all the protesters' demands and spruce up archaeological work. He has also met the head of the Antiquities and Tourism Police to agree on plans to tighten security measures at archaeological sites. Al-Muezz Street was the first site to be rescued from encroachment as the police guard returned to duty and the police station reopened, and similar improvements have been seen at other sites.

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