Egyptian antiquities suffering due to turmoil at the top

To paraphrase scholar and geographer Gamal Hemdan's masterpiece "The Personality of Egypt", antiquities from the Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman through to the Coptic and Islamic eras can be regarded as the country’s living memory.

This morning, Mohamed Abdel Maksood, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, warned that Egyptian antiquities are in a “dire state, deteriorating from bad to worse.”

This “deterioration”, according to Abdel Maksood, is due to the failure of the state to resolve the fate of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, by either keeping it as a governmentally supervised council or transforming it into a ministry with a separate budget.

The recent history of the antiquities authorities is indeed somewhat complicated. In a cabinet reshuffle at the end of January this year, former President Hosni Mubarak turned the Supreme Council of Antiquities, an affiliate of the Culture Ministry since its establishment in 1994, into the Ministry of State for Antiquities. Zahi Hawass, who had been secretary general of the antiquities council, was promoted to minister of state.

In March, after Ahmed Shafiq's cabinet was dissolved, Hawass was re-appointed to the ministerial post by Essam Sharaf. Then in early June, Hawass appointed Abdel Maksood as the new head of the council, which had continued to function alongside the new ministry.

Hawass finally resigned from the top job in July, but archaeologists rejected Abdel Fattah al-Banna – a restoration specialist – as his successor. The council, headed by Abdel Maksood, thereby became the sole authority governing antiquities, and assumed the role of an independent body affiliated with the cabinet. However, an official ministerial decision on the matter was never issued.

“Mechanisms enabling the secretary general to make executive decisions are absent,” says Abdel Maksood, adding that an official cabinet decision is needed to declare the council’s role.

But some of the current difficulties – both financial and technical – precede the recent restructuring. Since a 1994 presidential decree established the council, it has been the official national body overseeing the sector, and the body takes much of the blame for the sector's many woes.

Some of these problems even date back long before its establishment, with the rise of Egyptomania in the 19th century and Mohamed Ali's establishment of the first national antiquities authority in 1835. European explorers dominated the field of Egyptian archaeology, as well as the processes by which the items discovered were studied and displayed.

The authority's role was restricted to registering historical buildings and conserving valuable artifacts in the Azbakeyya Museum, the nucleus of what is now the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, overlooking Tahrir Square.

Almost two centuries later, the vision of the state for the antiquities sector has undergone little change. State inspectors are still assigned the task of supervising the work of foreign missions, registering newly discovered artifacts and securing antiquities storehouses. The excavations, however, remain dominated by foreign missions – mostly American and European teams, who have contributed greatly to the development of archaeological and historical knowledge.

Egyptian archaeological projects, on the other hand, are rare. Over the past few years, a few discoveries were made by the council's inspectors in Saqqara, Beni Suef and North Sinai. Still, Egypt’s contribution to archaeological research that is meant to fill in historical gaps remains minimal.

In previous statements to the press, former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass said, “Egyptian inspectors who accompanied foreign archaeological missions did little more than act as facilitators. They would buy supplies and expedite permits, yet 95 percent of them were unaware of the mechanics of scientific excavation.”

And although organizations like the American Research Center occasionally offer training in archaeological excavation techniques to the council’s inspectors, the council has rarely formed archaeological missions of its own that meet international standards.

"The council in its various formats from the 19th century has been able to oversee foreign work in Egypt. Local work, in some instances, could do with better funding and a more rigorous research system," said Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

With the recent restructuring of the council, hopes were raised among archaeologists that change would bring a redefinition of the council’s vision.

Abdel Maksood previously spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm of the new sectors he wants to add to the council. In addition to the existing three sectors responsible for the restoration of Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic antiquities, a museums sector and a projects sector, Abdel Maksood envisions adding one for securing antiquities in light of increased cases of theft and another for restoring historical buildings.

Developing internal excavation and research teams and tackling accessibility issues are still non-priorities. But now, even restoration projects, which were once the focus of the council’s work, are being put on hold due to a slowdown in tourism and hence revenue, “threatening the future of antiquities in Egypt,” says Abdel Maksood.

Improving the working conditions of the council’s staff was another area on which Abel Maksood planned that might be stalled.

Over the past few months, several protests have been staged across the country, and Facebook groups such as "Free Archaeologists" formed, demanding internal reforms and offering Egyptian archaeologists and researchers equal work opportunities with foreign researchers – many of whom enjoy permanent contracts.

"The council’s staff have come to suffer from apathy with very few incentives to engage with antiquities as cultural heritage. Pressured by weak salaries and bad employment conditions, they have lost any cultural interest in the value of antiquities and hence have little incentive to develop research or raise public awareness,” says Nora Shalaby, an archaeologist who has worked at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. 

In response, Abdel Maksood announced last month plans to hire 16,000 employees on permanent contracts over the next six months, with a minimum salary of LE600.

This morning, the secretary general warned, however, that despite the state-approved loan of LE350 million to support the council, most plans might be stalled due to financial problems.

"In 2002 [the year Hawass was appointed as the council's secretary general], the antiquities sector had bank deposits amounting to LE1.5 billion. About 70 percent of bank deposits were withdrawn due to the drop in revenues in addition to a LE1 billion in debt.”

The recent announcements about financial troubles surprised people, as the council is known to be one of the richest bodies in the government and has been the primary financer of the Culture Ministry's activities for years. Still, such financial issues can only be examined in relation to persistent problems in its structure and internal management system.

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