Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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A Diwan of contemporary life (317)

illustration by Makram HeneinPriceless Egyptian antiquities displayed in foreign museums or held by private collectors abroad were either stolen, smuggled, or foolishly given away to foreigners by Egyptians. One atrocious instance came in 1855 when Khedive Abbas I himself improvidently presented a visiting Austrian prince with the entire contents of an antiquities museum after the guest declined to accept a horse as a gift. Selim Hassan, one of Egypt's top archaeologists of the 20th century, shed light on the extent of the illegal acquisition of Egyptian antiquities in a series of articles published by Al-Ahram after he toured European museums in 1922. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * sums up Hassan's findings

A tale of theft and squander

If Ahmed Kamal Pasha, the author of the invaluable 16-volume "Ancient Egypt" and the ground breaker in an academic field dominated by foreigners, was "the father of Egyptian archeologists", Selim Bek Hassan stood in the vanguard of the second generation of graduates of the Egyptian faculty of antiquities.

In Egyptian Historical Annals of 1972, the late archaeologist Dr Gamal El-Din Mukhtar furnished a brief account of the life and career of this early 20th century Egyptian scholar. Born in 1886, Selim Hassan graduated in 1912 from the department of archeological studies, which Kamal Pasha had fought to introduce into the Royal College of Education. Kamal had not been so successful in his drive to ensure that graduates from this faculty could obtain work in their field, and notably in the Egyptian museum. As a result, Selim Hassan had no alternative but to join the government teaching corps, relocating several times between secondary schools in Cairo, Tanta and Assiut. It was not until 1922, 10 years after his graduation, that he was able to obtain a post as assistant curator in the Egyptian Museum, a success that was in large measure the product of Britain's recognition of Egyptian independence earlier that year and the consequent increase in the employment of Egyptian nationals in government departments that had long been European preserves.

Against the wishes of the French-run Egyptian Antiquities Authority, Selim Hassan accompanied Ahmed Kamal to France in 1922 in order to attend the centennial celebrations of Champollion's deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although they travelled on the same steamer to Italy, they parted ways upon arrival so that Hassan could tour the museums of Austria and Germany before meeting up with his mentor once again in Berlin. The result of Hassan's detour was "Egyptian antiquities in European Museums", a series of articles written for Al-Ahram, "uncovering the mystery behind the theft of Egyptian antiquities and exposing the role foreign archaeologists have played in this process".

Hassan's unique exposé on this important facet of the history of Egyptian antiquities must be seen against the backdrop of growing public and official consternation at the plundering of these valuable artefacts. A measure of the national indignation was fed by the frustration at what had been lost as a result of the ignorance of the value of these national treasures. An incident that occurred in 1855 stands out as a tragic example of how blithely even Egyptian officials helped to spirit many ancient relics out of the country. In that year, the Egyptian ruler Abbas I took the visiting Archduke Maximillian of Austria on a tour of the Royal Archives that Mohamed Ali Pasha had designated to house Egyptian artifacts. Hassan relates that following the visit, Abbas wanted to honour his guest with a special gift and selected for this purpose an Arabian stallion fitted out with a saddle encrusted in pure gold and studded with precious stones. The archduke modestly declined such generosity and asked instead for a simple ancient Egyptian artefact from the government stores. Not to have his magnanimity questioned, the Egyptian ruler presented his royal visitor with the entire contents of the museum. Certainly Maximillian must have found it difficult to believe his stroke of fortune as he watched his treasures being loaded on the ship that would take him back to Austria.

In all events, the general dismay over the squandering of ancient Egyptian artefacts was voiced by the Egyptian "National Defence Committee in Germany." In a lengthy statement published in Al-Ahram on 22 July 1922 it asked, "How long are we going to allow every plunderer unhampered access to the heritage bequeathed to us by our Pharaonic ancestors?" The statement came in response to a London Times article announcing that London University was sponsoring a display of the findings from Egypt's first dynasty uncovered during British archaeological excavations in Egypt. The National Defence Committee vehemently protested that were any other civilised nation to suffer the loss of its ancient artifacts "it would set off a continuous roar of remonstrations and protests until it secured the return of these treasures whatever the costs". Egypt, however, was another case altogether. "Foreigners have divided the spoils of the artefacts and relics of our Pharaonic ancestors and our precious heritage is scattered among the various museums of Europe. It is as though we have become strangers in our own country, deprived of the right to defend the great Pharaohs' legacy, which foreigners have claimed as their due in return for their research." The committee members stressed that it was not their contention that foreigners should be prevented from conducting excavations. "However, their research should not constitute grounds to help themselves to the property of the nation, which in reality is a blatant violation of the rights of the nation and its future generations."

In an introduction to his series, "Egyptian antiquities in European Museums", Hassan explains that he had three purposes in undertaking this tour at his own expense. The first was to describe and catalogue the ancient Egyptian acquisitions in these museums. The second was to photograph those unique items that have no parallel in the Egyptian museum and to turn these photographs into slides that could be projected before Egyptian audiences upon his return to Egypt. His third objective was "to inform European scientists specialising in Egyptian antiquities that Egypt, too, has a corps of similar scientists engaged in the study of the history and artifacts of their ancestors and that these scientists will persist in their endeavors regardless of the difficulties they encounter."

Champollion, right, unravelled the mystery of the famed Rosetta stone, right;
Selim Hassan, left

Selim Bek began his tour in Vienna, whose museum of antiquities, itself, was a sight to behold. "It is an enormous, imposing edifice against which the Egyptian museum dwindles in terms of space, elegance, workmanship and harmony of proportion." He was equally taken aback by the token entrance fee: the equivalent to a twentieth of a piastre!

He wasted no time in seeing the museum curator, Herr Junker, in order to explain the purpose of his visit, after which he toured the Egyptian exhibit. He was immediately struck by the amount of space accorded to the Egyptian section and also by the numbers of visitors in it. "It would be no exaggeration to say that three quarters of the museum's visitors were touring the exhibit rooms of the Egyptian section," he wrote.

The Vienna museum's Egyptian acquisitions were classified by archaeologists according to their method of procurement. The most notorious, of course, was the Maximillian collection. In reference to Abbas' improvident magnanimity to the Austrian archduke, Hassan caustically reiterated the well-known quip uttered by the 19th century French Egyptologist, Maspero: "If you want to see Egypt's first museum go to Vienna." The young Egyptian archaeologist was saddened by the fact that the Maximillian collection contained artefacts the likes of which could no longer be found in Egypt. Of these, two drew his attention. The first was an enormous, exquisitely carved elephant. The second was a colossus that the Austrians dubbed "the fat man of Vienna". Hassan explained that the ancient Egyptian sculptor had rendered the statue so large in order to depict the intricate details of his subject's clothing.

The second category of acquisitions consisted of those objects purchased by Austrian consuls during their postings in Egypt, "in the days when the Antiquities Authority was for all practical purposes nonexistent". Hassan was somewhat baffled to find in this collection three enormous granite columns, each of which was 30 feet high and 10 feet wide and topped with a lotus flower capital. One dated from the reign of Thatmose IV, a second to the reign of Meneptah and a third to the reign of Seti II. Certainly such colossi could not have been transported without the connivance of the Egyptian government. One suspects that the Khedive Ismail simply looked the other way when Herr Antoine Ludwick, the Austrian consul in Cairo transported these columns to Vienna in order to present them as a gift to Kaiser Franz Joseph in 1869.

The third category consisted of artefacts uncovered by Austrian excavating teams. Again, Hassan was stunned to discover numerous items not to be found in the Egyptian museum. There were petrified loaves of bread, an artificial nipple for nursing infants and a marble plate so smooth and fine as to be virtually translucent. On the latter item, Hassan comments enthusiastically, "The plate, which was originally discovered in shards and then expertly glued together, dates from before the dynastic period and is at least 6,500 years old!"

Evidently Hassan was so impressed by the warmth with which he was received by Herr Junker and his colleagues that he decided to return to Vienna later to obtain his doctorate. He eventually fulfilled this ambition and completed his doctorate there in 1935.

It took 21 hours for Selim Hassan to reach Berlin, the bustling capital of the Weimar Republic. Again, he was taken aback by the entrance fee of the city's famous museum of antiquities, this time because he found it too high. In a report that was much more exhaustive than his account of the Vienna museum he notes that the establishment of the Berlin Museum preceded the unification of Germany under Bismarck (1864-1871). Over the course of the 19th century the Kaisers of Prussia were avid collectors of Egyptian antiquities, most of which were put on public display in the Castle of Monbijos. A portion of these acquisitions had been purchased from an Italian antiquities merchant called Beliori, and were displayed as a collection bearing his name. Others were donations from the Prussian ruling house, the Hohenzollern

Yet a third portion of the antiquities had been purchased from some of the early explorers of the pyramids. Hassan relates that the Mentouli collection was named after the Italian explorer who had opened the Step Pyramid in Sakkara. As the ship bearing the recently unearthed finds from Sakkara was making its way back to Germany, it sank in the Elbe. No more than half of the contents were salvaged.

Students of modern Egyptian history may know that Drovetti, originally from Italy, was the French consul in Egypt from 1820 to 1829. Lesser-known is this diplomat's sideline as one of the biggest antiquities merchants of his time and that many of his valuable wares ended up in Prussia. It was after him that the Drovetti collection in the Berlin museum was named.

Starting in the 1840s the Germans began to cut out the middlemen and to engage directly in archaeological excavations of their own. The first German archaeological expedition to Egypt was headed by the noted German scholar Lepsius, who was able to bring back to his homeland, among other things, four statues of Queen Hatshepsut, a limestone panel from the interior of the Zoser Pyramid and a magnificent stele upon which had been depicted a plethora of birds and beasts being presented to Menofer, a fifth dynasty prince. Such became the Germans' fervour for Egyptology that they became intimately associated with the teaching of archaeology in Egypt. The German scholar Brugsch, who headed an exploratory expedition to Egypt in 1892, founded the first school of Egyptian antiquities in Cairo. Of course, most of his own findings found their way to the Berlin museum.

Perhaps the most renowned Egyptian collection in the Berlin museum is its findings from Tel Amarna, the capital city of Akhenaten. Hassan relates that from 1908 to 1911 the Germans mounted such a successful expedition in the area that they sent out another expedition headed by the famous Richard Burchardt which brought to light spectacular results. Among the finds Burchardt unearthed in Tel Amarna was the burial chamber of the great architect Tamtamis, where he discovered burial masks "so precise as to be almost lifelike". He also made important discoveries about ancient domestic architecture and urban planning, having unearthed entire house-lined streets. In fact, Hassan recounts, Burchardt reconstructed one of the ancient Pharaonic dwellings and lived in it during the time he was engaged in excavations. He adds, "It would be no exaggeration to say that for all the elegance of modern western urban architecture the West has not surpassed the salubrious design and refined taste that went into the construction of the homes of the ancient Egyptians."

Hassan covered other German museums during his tour. They included the museum of Kaiser Fredrick and the Leipzig Museum where he found little to merit his interest. To another, however, he gave considerable attention. The museum of Hildesheim located in the vicinity of Hanover was founded by the amateur Egyptologist Pelizaeus and is held by Egyptologists to be the best museum of its kind in Europe. Hassan's account of the self-made founder of the museum illustrates one of the common ways ancient Egyptian artefacts made their way to Europe.

Hassan relates that Pelizaeus was only twenty when he came to Egypt, "where he entered into employ in certain commercial establishments in Alexandria and then in Cairo. After a short time he found that he had sufficiently established a reputation for trustworthiness and exactitude in work to be able to participate in major financial, commercial and construction enterprises. He took part in the construction of some of the railway lines in the Delta and it was he who built the railway line from Assiut to Luxor. He was also one of the founders of the National Bank and the Komombo Company. During this period he began to build up a collection of unique antiquities with which he filled his home in Cairo. Most of his pieces he acquired from merchants during his travels all over the country, although many pieces had been given to him as gifts."

True to the European tradition, in 1909 Pelizaeus took his possessions home with him to Hildesheim where he established the core of a museum that would gradually burgeon as other collectors competed to present him with donations. One reason for the Hildesheim museum's repute, Hassan notes, is that it is not merely a display, but also "a centre for the study of ancient Egyptian antiquities". He continues, "Not only are lectures offered to the public on specified days of the week, but one of its stated aims is to serve as an institute for teaching the language of the ancient Egyptians. A special room has been allocated for this purpose. In it one finds a luxurious desk from behind which professors deliver their lectures every week."

Egypt's young Egyptologist could not forgo this opportunity to drive home an important point. "How can foreigners be more interested in the heritage of your country and in promoting the study of the language of your ancestors than you are... To my knowledge, throughout the length and breadth of this country there is only one individual who has demonstrated at least equal concern for the study of our ancient legacy, a man whose name will be commemorated when the light of knowledge shines in our country and people begin to appreciate the great works it has produced. This man is Khashaba Pasha who founded the Egyptian museum of antiquities in Assiut and who filled the museums of Tanta and Minia with the valuable findings he discovered during his excavations in the vicinity of Assiut. May God guide our wealthy and great men to devote to the antiquities of our forefathers at least that degree of enthusiasm that foreigners evince for this legacy."

Hassan's criticism prompted a response from one of Al-Ahram's readers whose letter to the newspaper appeared on 29 August, 1922, under the headline, "Are we not their sons?" The problem in Egypt, the writer argued, dated back to the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Selim I who took with him 40,000 scientists and craftsmen back to Istanbul. "Since that date Egypt has been incapacitated because that was when it lost its independence, and all arts, crafts and sciences stagnated because the country and its people had been divested of their will." The lack of interest in Pharaonic antiquities was very much related to this phenomenon. He points to Europe and says, "The European enlightenment could only begin when their minds were freed from servitude and the chains of bondage... It is the law of nature that when man is free and learns that he is the master of his fate, he will strive to achieve all manner of noble endeavor."

Al-Ahram of 4 October 1922 could be dubbed the Louvre edition. Out of the newspaper's four pages, Hassan's article on this museum occupied the first three. As was the case with the other museums on his tour, the ancient Egyptian section of the Louvre had the greatest allure for French and foreign visitors alike. "The rooms in which the Egyptian exhibits are displayed attract crowds every day of the week. But on Sundays there is such a throng that one would have to actually visit this museum to believe it." The Egyptian collection was so large and popular that it was located on two floors of the enormous palace. On the first floor one found a grand hall lined with 60-metre-tall Pharaonic columns. On the second floor exhibits occupied five successive rooms.

The French obsession with Egyptian antiquities began with the Napoleonic campaign, one of the products of which was the famous Description D'Egypte, published in 1809, generating widespread interest in the artefacts and history of this ancient civilisation. Champollion was an officer in the French expedition and his success in deciphering the famous Rosetta stone compounded the fascination. But it is not generally known that Champollion did more than unravel the mysteries of the ancient hieroglyphs. He also sought to collect as many antiquities as possible, "in spite of his shortage of funds, for that was a period when France was suffering a severe financial crisis". However, Champollion succeeded in securing the financial backing of the royal family which had been restored to power in 1815 and was, therefore, able to purchase a collection of items from an Italian merchant from Livorno. Hassan remarks that Champollion purchased the entire collection for 250,000 Francs, "or for less than the value of a single piece in this precious collection". With this addition, the Louvre's ancient Egyptian acquisitions numbered 4,000 pieces. Not content with that, Champollion travelled again to Egypt in 1828 in order to obtain more of its rare treasures.

Nor would the Louvre's acquisitions stop there. When the French were given charge of the administration of the Egyptian antiquities authority they found themselves in a position to have first pickings. Marriette, who came to Egypt in 1849 and discovered the Serapeum burial place of sacred bulls in Sakkara, returned to France in 1852, taking with him, among many other treasures, "the famous fifth dynasty scribe which has come to be known as the Louvre scribe". This statue, Hassan goes on to say, "indicates that the Egyptian sculptor of thousands of years ago attained a level of perfection unequalled in the entire epoch of antiquity. Indeed, he could vie with the greatest of our contemporary sculptors, for as one French artist remarked, 'the scribe would speak were it not so modest'."

Maspero, who succeeded Marriette Pasha as the head of the antiquities authority, learned that such was the market for Egyptian artefacts that fellahin were breaking off pieces of engraved walls and selling them to antiquities merchants for virtually nothing.

Such were the means by which the Louvre and other European museums accumulated their stores of ancient Egyptian monuments. It cannot be denied that these artefacts are Egypt's permanent ambassador abroad. However, Selim Hassan himself said, "We still have considerable cause to seek redress for that massive scale of plunder of our national heritage."

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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