Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egyptians bearing gifts

Did former presidentHosni Mubarak offer a segment of Egypt's archaeological heritage to foreign countries for political purposes? Nevine El-Aref looks for answers

Click to view caption
The Concorde Square in Paris where the Ramses II obelisk decorates the foyer

Early this week the Shura Council asked the government to issue new regulations to protect more Egypt's archaeological heritage from illicit theft, smuggling and encroachment. The request came during a periodical meeting between the council and the Committee of Culture, Tourism and Media (CCTM).

Sobhi Atiya, dean of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels at Mansoura University, told the members of the CCTM that former presidents used Egypt's archaeological heritage for political purposes, and that Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak offered various ancient artefacts from the Egyptian Museum to their counterparts abroad. The recipients included former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and United States president Richard Nixon.

Atiya also noted that Mubarak followed in the steps of his ancestors by offering authentic pieces to foreign presidents. "If they admired any artefact on display in the Egyptian Museum, it disappeared from its showcase," he said.

He referred to what is perhaps the most notorious case of such gifts, which was the disappearance of a collection of 48 artefacts from the museum. Despite a media gala, an investigation was closed without it emerging where, when and how it disappeared.

Atiya told the Middle East News Agency (MENA) that the case had 100 question marks. He also mentioned the artefacts that were stolen from the museum on 28 January 2011, when the museum was broken into by thugs and vandals during last year's revolution.

The university dean suggested that guides from the Tourism and Hotel Faculty be assigned to the Egyptian Museum and archaeological sites. They would be given a six-month training course at the Police Academy.

How true are Atiya's claims?

"Regrettably, part of his statement is true," Judge Achraf Al-Achmawi told Al-Ahram Weekly. Al-Achmawi, formerly a legal consultant at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), went on to say that all laws and regulations made in Egypt concerning the country's archaeological heritage and antiquities passed before Law 117/1982, and its modification by the new antiquities Law 3/2010, encouraged antiquities trafficking, offering and sharing.

The Ottoman viceroy Mohamed Ali, he said, encouraged the offering of Egypt's antiquities, while the division law issued during the reign of Khedive Tawfik, as illicit excavations and antiquities trafficking reached their zenith, stipulated that all repeated and common spoils of any new discovery would be split between the Egyptian antiquities authority and the foreign mission concerned. Unique and distinguished artefacts must however be placed in the Egyptian share.

This law, Al-Achmawi said, gave foreigners whether scientific institutions, universities, or even individuals official licence to dig up Egypt searching for treasured ancient Egyptian, Islamic or Coptic objects.

"The division law, in fact, opened a large new gate to official antiquities trading, which in its turn helped extend most of the antiquities museums abroad such as those in New York, Barcelona, Paris and London," Al-Achmawi claimed. Before the law was passed, he said, these museums exhibited very few Egyptian antiquities that had been offered to them by the Egyptian government or officially exchanged for other items.

In his book Sarikat Mashroua (Legal Robberies), Al-Achmawi noted that antiquities trading flourished between 1912 and 1951 under Law 14/1912, which approved the division law and legalised antiquities trading. As a result there were several licensed auction halls and antiquities galleries all over the country buying and selling artefacts. In mid-20th century, the Egyptian government took its share in the antiquities trading business, Al-Achmawi wrote. Room 56 on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum was an official auction hall.

The situation continued, Al-Achmawi said, until Law 117/1983 was issued. This prohibited antiquities trading and approved the division of only 10 per cent of a newly-discovered collection rather than all of it. It also gave the Egypt Antiquities Authority the right to make the first selection from any discoveries. In 1988, he continued, former minister of culture Farouk Hosni issued a ministerial decree that prohibited any division. The modified new antiquities Law 3/2010, which Al-Achmawi masterminded along with Hosni and former MSA minister Zahi Hawass, prohibited the division and the tracking and imposed stiffer penalties.

"Although Egypt's archaeological heritage is the public possession of all Egyptians and not a private one for its rulers, the country's various rulers from 1800 to 1980 abused it and offered some of it to foreign countries for their own fame or political purposes," Al-Achmawi told the Weekly. "Egyptian rulers have neglected and overburdened the country's heritage by offering it up, while those who took it have protected it and saved these items for their population by displaying it in museums."

In his Legal Robberies, Al-Achmawi noted that Mohamed Ali offered a large number of Egypt's archaeological heritage pieces to foreign rulers. In 1829 he gave the Ramses II obelisk which stood at the entrance to his temple in Luxor. This obelisk is now on display in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The zodiac that once decorated the ceiling of the Hathor chapel in Dendara temple is now exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.

Khedive Abbas I offered Archduke Maximilian Joseph of Austria the furniture of a hall in a Mamluk palace, which was meant to be the location of the first antiquities museum in Egypt. As for Khedive Ismail, he offered 400 artefacts to kings, dukes and chancellors in France, Germany and Austria. King Fouad I gave Italy the funerary contents of a New Kingdom tomb on the Deir Al-Medina necropolis on Luxor's west bank. This collection belonged to an artisan named Kha, who helped build the temples, chapels and tombs of New Kingdom kings and queens as well as their tombs located in the Valley of Kings and Queens. It is now on display at the Egyptian museum in Turin.

After the 1952 Revolution Gamal Abdel-Nasser followed in the Mohamed Ali family's footsteps by offering Egyptian antiquities, but on a smaller scale.

Nasser gave some temples and artefacts to countries that helped in the salvage operation of the Nubia temples in the 1960s within the construction work of the High Dam. He also gave a dozen of authentic items to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The renowned journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who was formerly editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper and a confidant of Nasser, asserted in his book Kharif Al-Ghadab (Fall of Anger) that Nasser had repeatedly offered genuine objects to countries and institutes, and not individuals. He gave an ancient Egyptian alabaster vase from a Sakkara storehouse to the Central Committee of the Soviet Union and two similar ones to the National Museum of Tokyo and the Vatican.

According to official documents in the Egyptian Museum, gifts of antiquities to other countries flourished during the presidency of Sadat, Al-Achmawi claimed in his book.

in the 1970s, more than 100 small ancient Egyptian objects were taken from the Egyptian Museum and given to president Giscard d'Estaing, president Nixon, emperor Reza Pahlavi of Iran and US foreign affairs minister Henry Kissinger. Two bronze Ibis statuettes were given to both Yugoslav's President Tito as a present for his 80th birthday in 1972, and Sweden's King for his 90th birthday.

During his first visit to Egypt in 1974, Sadat gave Nixon a bronze Osiris statuette. In 1975, during his visit to the US, Sadat offered the UN headquarters in New York a bronze statuette of Ibis. He gave another one to president Nixon.

Sadat's wife Gihan Al-Sadat also had her share of giving way Egypt's antiquities. In 1976 she gave Imelda Markos, wife of the Philippine president, a bronze ibis statuette. She gave the wife of the Mexican emperor an agate stone necklace with an Osiris-shaped pendant during the celebrations of 2,500 years since the establishment of Mexico.

Al-Achmawi says Mubarak did not give away any part of Egypt's heritage to any foreign country during his 30 years in power. According to Egyptian Museum documents from May 1980 to February 2011, Al-Achmawi said, no gifts had been registered in the documents, nor had any objects been removed from the museum or any archaeological sites to be given to any kings, queens or presidents abroad.

Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim supports Al-Achmawi's view, and confirmed that there was no evidence to support the removal or departure of any object exhibited at the Egyptian Museum as a presidential present during Mubarak's tenure.

Ibrahim suggested that if anyone had any evidence of such an offer, he or she should present it to the prosecutor-general or investigation authorities. "Egypt's heritage is owned by all Egyptians," he said.

Fifty-four objects were stolen from the museum during the January Revolution, of which 25 were recovered and 29 are still missing. Ibrahim said the Tourism and Antiquities Police were exerting every effort to recover the items through security campaigns in various locations in Egypt. They are also collaborating with Interpol in case any of these items were smuggled abroad.

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