Egypt: Archaeology vs. Politics?
In August, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s first appearance in court was televised. The world was shocked to see the long-time ruler of Egypt lying on a stretcher in the cage in which defendants in Egyptian courts are held while on trial. A judge has since banned TV cameras from the courtroom and Egypt has held its first democratic elections, with a strong showing for the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s trial continues this week with his lawyers seeking to prove that he is “neither a tyrant or a bloodthirsty man” but a “clean man” who did not give orders to shoot protesters. Mubarak, they say, did not intervene to stop the killings because he was “unaware” they were occurring. To contradict such claims, prosecutors have offered evidence in the form of autopsy reports with details of protesters who died from bullet wounds.
Meanwhile, the country’s economy is struggling. Tourism revenue in Egypt was $8.8 billion last year, a marked decline from $12.5 billion in 2010. Those who wish to travel to Egypt, where political unrest has been ongoing since the uprising a year ago, had best be “resilient,” says the Financial Times. The top visitors to Egypt in 2011 were Russians who are “far less daunted than others by the upheavals in the country” and have been filling beach resorts. British and German tourists have also still been traveling to Egypt. Tourism in the capital of Cairo and the Upper Egyptian towns of Luxor and Aswan has, though, been “a pathetic 10-15 per cent.”
Burned Books and Protesters Shot By Security Forces
With many still protesting against the interim military government, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) — and with riot police cracking down with beatings and live ammunition — tourists have shied away from Egypt. In late December, 16 Egyptians died and hundreds were injured in clashes, and the historical archive of the Egyptian Scientific Institute was destroyed when the building caught fire. Twelve out of twenty volumes of the original Description d’Egypte — a multi-volumed, encyclopedic work with maps and illustrations assembled over 20 years by scholars accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign — have been lost. Abdel Wahed El Nabawy, chairman of the National Archives, estimates that it could take ten years and $7 million to restore the charred remains of the collection.
But even as an international outcry arose over the burning of the books, activists pointed out that, in some cases, more attention was cast on the loss of the Scientific Institute than those killed, injured and arrested. This conflict between preserving Egypt’s past (the country is home to about a third of the world’s antiquities) and focusing on the very pressing needs for education and work for its 80 million inhabitants can be seen as one of archaeology and politics.
Archaeology, Politics and Zahi Hawass
Archaeologists, many of whom are from outside Egypt, say they have lost a year in the race to save partially excavated sites not only from exposure to the elements but from looters.
Writes Jo Marchant in Nature:
Egyptian officials have said that their reluctance to allow work to restart stems from security concerns; they are now starting to grant permits for excavations. But a broader problem is that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which coordinates all conservation and excavation activities in the country, has been mostly paralysed since the departure of its charismatic but controversial leader, Zahi Hawass. An ally of Egypt’s deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, Hawass was forced to leave office in July. Since then, the agency has gained and lost three heads in quick succession, with the latest secretary-general, Mustafa Amin, appointed at the start of October.
Hawass became the secretary-general of the SCA in 2002 and brought tourists and millions of dollars to Egypt, thanks in large part to revenue from traveling exhibitions of Tutankhamun’s treasures. He consorted with celebrities including the late Princess Diana; had his own reality TV show, Chasing Mummies; raised thousands of dollars for museums in Egypt.
But Hawass was also controversial and seen as seeking “mainly to boost his own fame at the expense of other researchers and of high-quality science.” Researchers found him “intolerant of opposition,” with those whose theories differed from his finding their excavation permits blocked.
Protecting Egypt’s Archeological Heritage in the Wake of a Revolution
Then came the revolution in January of last year:
Hawass’s hold on power started to slip when he denied, incorrectly, that any objects were missing after Cairo’s Egyptian Museum was looted on 28 January. It was further eroded when he underestimated the extent of looting at important sites, despite reports that it was severe, and repeatedly voiced support for Mubarak. When Mubarak fell, Hawass’s days were numbered. After resigning and being reappointed in March, Hawass finally left office in July.
He has barely appeared in public since, and has been under investigation by the Office of the Attorney General for a range of alleged offenses including stealing artefacts and diverting money from a touring Tutankhamun exhibition to a private charity owned by Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne.
While such charges have been deemed ridiculous, Hawass’ predicament is in some ways emblematic of the challenges for his country, as far as preserving Egypt’s archaeological past — certainly a huge drawing point for tourists and their dollars — and meeting the economic and other demands of Egyptians.
As Tarek El Awady, director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, notes, looting at Egypt’s sites and museums is still going on but “the most serious challenge is illegal building, with locals trying to claim archaeological land at several sites,” due to their lack of “appreciat[ion for] the importance of the country’s archaeological heritage.” Megan Rowland of the University of Cambridge counters that Hawass’ focus “on foreign audiences… left local people with no sense of ownership of their own antiquities” while El Awady says that Hawass did build up local people’s “knowledge of Egyptian heritage.”
Indeed, Hawass, who cannot leave Egypt while being investigated by the Office of the Attorney General, still says that only he can bring the tourists back. But hasn’t Egypt’s own very recent history shown the dangers of consolidating too much power in the hands of one man?
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Photo of the Tomb of Panehsy in Amarna by kairoinfo4u