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After the Revolution, Who Will Control Egypt's Monuments?
12 February 2011 5:44 pm
As Egypt struggles to lay the foundations of a new government in the wake of its revolution, archaeologists around the world are closely watching the fate of the nation's prized antiquities—as well as the fortunes of Zahi Hawass, long the face and voice of the country's ancient monuments. Hawass, who under Hosni Mubarak was recently named minister of antiquities, has been confronting an unusual uprising among his own staff as well as questions about his political future. And today, he reported a theft at a cemetery south of Cairo, as well as eight missing artifacts from the Egyptian Museum, located on Tahrir Square itself. Archaeologists are left wondering about the effects of the revolution on the dozens of excavations in the country, as well as on the next generation of homegrown researchers.
Hawass revealed 12 February in his blog that eight important objects are missing from the Egyptian Museum following the 29 January break-in by thieves. Those include two gilded statues of King Tutankhamen as well as a statue of Queen Nefertiti. An investigation is under way. He added that on 11 February looters emptied a storage area in Dashur, an important ancient necropolis in the southern part of the famous cemetery at Saqqara, which contained large blocks and small artifacts. "I am now concerned Egypt is not safe," he wrote. The thefts from the Egyptian Museum are likely to undermine Hawass's long-standing efforts to have important artifacts, such as a bust of Nefertiti now in Berlin, returned to Cairo (Science, 28 January, p. 382).
Meanwhile, Hawass faced other problems. On 10 February, dozens of museum workers protested for higher wages outside his office in the Cairo suburb of Zamalek, an unthinkable event in a country where, until January, the government kept a tight lid on criticism. And Hany Hanna, a senior conservator in the Supreme Council of Antiquities, urged Hawass in a widely circulated letter last week "to change the overall system of corruption and replace it with a professional scientific management." Hanna complained that party hacks riddle the council and prevent younger and more talented people from rising in the ranks. Hawass could not be reached for comment last week. But the Hany letter and Zamalek protests appear to be part of a wider move by Egyptians to air their opinions about the way their government has been run for the past 3 decades.
The 63-year-old Hawass has become an internationally known figure, sporting an Indiana Jones-style hat in television documentaries and ruling over Egypt's thousands of ancient sites with an iron hand (Science, 20 January 2006, p. 326). He is also one of archaeology's most controversial figures, winning praise from foreign archaeologists, who say he has done much to modernize an antiquated system, as well as scorn from those who say he claims credit for others' discoveries.
Hawass, who was secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities from 2002 until his promotion 2 weeks ago to the new position of minister of antiquities, has also been an outspoken supporter of the deposed president and close friend to Mubarak's wife, Suzanne. As recently as last week, he publicly expressed strong support for the former government. One Western archaeologist closely monitoring the situation gives him a "a 50-50 chance" of surviving. But others say that his international stature and importance to the Egyptian tourism business put the odds on his side. One U.S. commentator even suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that Hawass be promoted to prime minister, in part because of his international fame.
Mark Lehner, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based archaeologist who has known and worked with Hawass for decades, says, "I assume Zahi will be kept in charge." Lehner was on his way 11 February from the United States to Giza, where his team halted work for a week or so but is now continuing its efforts. Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, says, "I'd be surprised if [Hawass] doesn't survive" the government shakeup. She says there is widespread backing for the young ministry of antiquities, which could boost the profile of archaeology in a country highly dependent on tourism.
Until today, Hawass has made upbeat assessments of the state of Egypt's antiquities. For example, he has maintained that the cemeteries of Saqqara and Abu Sir south of Cairo were not damaged or looted during the chaos of the weekend of 28 January. A European team said in an e-mail that they witnessed damage to parts of the cemeteries, although early reports that the tomb of Maya, wet nurse to King Tutankhamen, had been seriously damaged have been discounted by many archaeologists, and the tomb's status remains unclear. It likely will be weeks before a clear picture emerges of the losses outside the Egyptian Museum.