Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

AUC: A story to be remembered

The American University in Cairo and its President Francis Ricciardone have set a good example for institutions across the world by returning 5,000 artefacts to Egypt, writes Zahi Hawass


During my time as head of antiquities in Egypt, I was able to repatriate over 6,000 stolen artefacts to the country. I asked many museums abroad to return specific Egyptian artefacts they had in their collections, but none of them agreed, and in some cases there were battles that people still talk about.

This month, the American University in Cairo (AUC) and its President Francis Ricciardone donated 5,000 Egyptian artefacts that were in its possession to Egypt. No one could believe that an initiative like this could happen these days, but if you know Ricciardone you will understand the reason.

Ricciardone became the president of AUC a year ago. Before this, he was the ambassador of the United States to Egypt from 2005 to 2008. I believe that those four years that he spent in Egypt made him fall in love with this beautiful country. He also became good friends with many Egyptians.

He used to do things that I admired. For example, he would travel to Tanta to attend the Moulid of Al-Sayed Al-Badawi Festival celebrating an important Sufi saint. Ricciardone is truly a kind person, and I do believe that it is because of him that AUC has given all these objects to Egypt.

When I heard this story, I could not believe it at first, because it is so unusual for a museum or a university to make such a huge donation of artefacts. I received a telephone call one day from Ricciardone inviting me for Iftar during Ramadan to meet two old friends, Elias Hebeka and his wonderful wife Barbara. But there was also a surprise waiting for me: Hebeka’s son had got married, and he had had a son he had named Zahi. I was so happy to meet the new Zahi, who is now nine years old.

During the Iftar, I kept talking about the gift that AUC had given to Egypt. Ricciardone said to me that “the reason is very simple: why do we have antiquities in storage that no one can see?” He added that “I thought that those objects could be better shown in a museum, and I was very happy to see that all our objects are going to be displayed at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.”

I told him that what he had done could be a good example for others too. I was also astonished that the public did not know the story of this great initiative, since AUC was waiting for the Ministry of Antiquities to announce it to the public. Khaled El-Enany, the minister of antiquities, gave instructions to the ministry’s press office to make a public statement and it was published in the press.

Now, the question is how did the AUC own Egyptian antiquities in the first place? The answer will be a surprise to everyone. Antiquities Law 215/1951 gave foreign expeditions excavating Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic or Islamic sites the right to take 50 per cent of the finds they discovered. The division (also known as partage) used to take place at the Cairo Museum, and during this time Abdel-Moemen Abu Bakr, professor of Egyptology at Cairo University, used to supervise it.

The AUC was working in Fustat later, and the head of the expedition was George Scanlon who taught Islamic art and archaeology at AUC. The 5,000 objects that AUC had in its collection were thus legally owned by the university, not stolen.

During the 25 January Revolution, some people tried to break open the boxes that contained the objects, which were stored inside the old campus of AUC in Tahrir Square. As we know, Tahrir Square was the theatre of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011. The press began to talk about the objects at AUC, but no one really knew the story behind them.

One ignorant reporter even invented a scenario in which there was an underground tunnel from the Cairo Museum to the AUC building through which people transported thousands of artefacts to AUC. People believed this story, and another idiot went to the attorney-general and filed an accusation against both Cairo Museum and AUC personnel.

Tarek Al-Awadi was the director of the Cairo Museum at that time, and he used to go to the office of the district attorney everyday to tell them that there were no tunnels and that no artefacts had ever left the Cairo Museum in this way. Al-Awadi told me the story, and as I was the minister of antiquities at that time I gave instructions to one of my assistants to advise the AUC authorities to move the boxes to the new AUC campus in the Fifth Settlement outside Cairo.

As I mentioned above, all the objects owned by AUC were recorded as belonging legally to the university. The 5,000 objects consisted of lamps, wooden masks, amulets, pottery, prehistoric flints, terracotta statuettes and different types of Islamic and Coptic objects. In preparation for the move, the Ministry of Antiquities appointed a committee to record every piece and to take photographs of each object and prepare all the necessary legal documents.

Afterwards, AUC decided, completely voluntarily, to give all these objects as a gift to the Ministry of Antiquities. The objects were moved to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat, which will tell the story of Egypt from prehistory until the present day. This is especially appropriate since most of the objects that were donated by AUC came from Fustat. Through their display at the new museum, the objects will be able to tell us the great Islamic history of Fustat.

I wrote this story in my column in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper because I would like our friends and young people to learn from this story that if they ever have the opportunity to do something useful for our country they should go ahead and do it. Ricciardone should be remembered as the one who taught us this lesson.

I do hope that when the objects are displayed at the Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, the labels will give credit to AUC to encourage other institutions to do the same. This story should be an example to museums all over the world that buy artefacts knowing that they are stolen. Egyptologists working in those museums know the history of such Egyptian artefacts.

I know that some museums still do this, although reputable museums do not. Pressure should also be put on other museums that sell their artefacts for money for renovations, such as the Northampton Museum in the UK that recently sold an Old Kingdom statue of Sekhem-ka for 16 million pounds sterling. The Toledo Museum in Spain did something similar.

I do not think that these museums have the right to sell such artefacts, as it is against all ethical guidelines. How can we explain to our children that a foreign museum has sold our Egyptian artefacts? Museums should preserve the heritage of the world, not sell it. AUC and Francis Ricciardone, its president, have set a good example for institutions and museums across the world, making this a story to be remembered.

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