Protecting Egypt's Heritage Post-Revolution

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Replicas of the pyramids in a Cairo workshop. Denis Dailleux / Agence VU-Aurora

“There’s the Great Pyramid. Since you are new here, please go over to the entrance and try to bribe the guard to let you spend the night in the King’s Chamber.” This was my first encounter as a student Egyptologist with Zahi Hawass, 34 years ago. He wanted to test the loyalty of the pyramid police (fortunately, they showed not the slightest interest in my “offer”). Even back then, as a young antiquities inspector at Giza, Hawass had a concern for protecting Egypt’s monuments, a concern that only grew in the past decade with his meteoric rise as the most famous (some would say infamous) face of Egyptian archeology. What a whirlwind these last few months have been, as he, like many of us, was caught off guard by the Egyptian revolution. Hawass’s status and that of the ancient sites and monuments have swayed somewhat precariously since January; both could be metaphors for the tumultuous and uncertain birth of a new and, it’s hoped, democratic era for all Egyptians. If the culture of despair, fear, and inequality can truly be lifted, then the world might witness the vast potential of the Egyptian people.

How do Egyptologists view these events through the lens of Egypt’s millennia-old civilization? As the playing field has turned upside down, some of us might remember the admonitions of an ancient Egyptian sage named Ipuwer. Some of his phrases almost seem aimed at Hosni Mubarak himself: “We do not know what will happen throughout the land…Indeed, the laws of the council chamber are thrown out…See, things have been done which have not happened for a long time past; the king has been deposed by the rabble. You have deceived the whole populace. It seems that [your] heart prefers to ignore [the problems]. Have you done that which will make them happy? Have you given life to the people? They cover their faces in fear of the morning.”

Most Egyptians never lost their dignity and graciousness in the face of a crushing system that favored only the uppermost echelons and seemed to tighten its chokehold on basic aspirations with each passing year. Corruption, cronyism, surveillance, and wanton arrests under a 30-year-old emergency law cowed most segments of the population. The regime stifled open political debate, and economic opportunities were denied to all but the lucky and the well connected.

What role will Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage play in the post revolutionary era? When will tourism revive and economic recovery kick in? What about the calls for repatriation of Egypt’s cultural legacy, including Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin and other key masterpieces abroad? Many writers, both inside and outside the country, have hijacked these issues in light of the revolution to serve their own agendas, proving once again that archeology and politics can seldom be separated.

As I write this, the Egyptians themselves are mapping out what should change in the new regime regarding their policies toward antiquities. It has not been easy so far. In the space of a few short weeks, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) broke away from the Ministry of Culture to become its own ministry; then Mubarak was toppled, the police disappeared, and some sites, including the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo, were looted. Hawass stepped down to protest the looting; the SCA temporarily lost its independent ministry status; and the new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, could not choose a successor to fill the power vacuum. This created an unfortunate window of opportunity at some sites for armed criminals to overpower the unarmed guards and break into antiquities-storage magazines. SCA officials are still assessing the damage. In other cases, villagers have seized the opportunity to expand out onto antiquities sites with new construction, or even to establish new cemeteries right on top of ancient ones.

In late March, the new prime minister reinstated Hawass to head the Ministry of Antiquities. While Hawass has his detractors, it seems clear that few others could fill the post at this delicate time. What the public may not know about him is that, behind all the onscreen bluster, aggrandizing press releases, and saber-rattling at intransigent museum directors around the world, he has worked tirelessly for decades to secure the monuments, implement site-management plans, construct new provincial museums and storage magazines, modernize -collections-management systems, improve the standards of Egyptian scholarly publications, and provide health insurance, training, and employment opportunities for the next generation of Egyptian Egyptologists. In addition to standing up for Egypt’s cultural heritage and the recovery of stolen artifacts, Hawass and the SCA have also supported scores of foreign expeditions working all over the country. This is a delicate balancing act, for the national and international pressures of the job are immense. What’s more, they are often diametrically opposed to each other.

Hawass is, of course, not alone in promoting renewed Egyptian pride and awareness for the country’s ancient and distinguished history. One might see a manifestation of these collective efforts in the “human chain” of ordinary Egyptians who protected the Cairo museum during some of the most violent days and nights of the January revolution. While thefts, damage, and pilfering commanded the international headlines, there are true Egyptian heroes all up and down the Nile who in recent weeks have selflessly guarded the ancient sites, sometimes at great personal risk, in the absence of police protection. Their stories are the ones we should be reading; they deserve the gratitude of all who care for Egypt’s pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic heritage.

Egypt faces major challenges on all fronts as its nascent democracy gets underway. We will have to wait and see how it all plays out. But for those in the West, let us try to allay our fears for the antiquities sites. Egypt’s cultural heritage will not go the way of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, no matter how religious in flavor the new government might become. Egyptians are doing more, with their native expertise, to claim their heritage than ever before. I am optimistic that the pharaonic past will be in good hands under the next generation. But the challenge will lie in allowing that generation to flourish, without sabotage by the old guard, and with enough logistical, financial, and infrastructure support—and that’s where the world community can help.

Much will change, but much remains constant on the ancient front. Tombs and temples will still require care and conservation. Destructive elements—time, pollution, overpopulation, ignorance, vandalism, and the antiquities trade—are oblivious to political parties, constitutional reform, or multiparty elections. Our hope is for a gradual return to stability and protection for the vast open-air museum that is Egypt. The international community, for its part, might refrain from lecturing the Egyptians on what to do with their heritage, and instead offer assistance in those areas not already covered by native know-how. If we work together, it should be possible to safeguard the monuments and serve the needs of tourism at the same time.

Peter Der Manuelian is Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard University.