Today, Zahi Hawass threatened to resign from his post as Egypt's minister of antiquities amid growing reports of looting at the country's myriad ancient sites. Some archaeologists fear his departure could lead to further damage to Egypt's immense cultural heritage.
His statement to several news organizations followed the appointment yesterday of a new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, a U.S.-educated civil engineer, to oversee the country during its transition from ousted President Hosni Mubarak to a new government. Hawass was named to the new position of antiquities minister in January by Mubarak.
Hawass cited his dismay at the lack of police protection to ancient sites and monuments as the reason he would not serve in the new Cabinet that Sharaf is organizing. In his daily blog, the archaeologist noted that nightly attacks continue at sites such as Abydos, the burial sites of Egypt's early rulers, where looters have dug illegal holes as deep as 5 meters in their search for treasure. As recently as 1 March, armed robbers overwhelmed guards at a storage room in Giza outside of Cairo. "The antiquities guards and security forces at sites are unarmed and this makes them easy targets for armed looters," he wrote. "The situation looks very difficult today and we are trying our best to ensure the police and army restore full protection to the cultural heritage of the country."
In recent weeks, some of his own employees have demonstrated for higher pay and accused their boss of allowing corruption within the organization, which now is a ministry. "I will be reviewing all of these new salaries, along with those that previously fell under the Supreme Council of Antiquities, to ensure that all salaries under the Ministry of Antiquities correspond with the duties and responsibilities of individual positions," he told ScienceInsider last week. That review was slated to be completed this week. He dismisses the corruption charges, noting that they lack specifics. And he adds that two of his in-house critics "are accused of theft and plagiarizing the dissertations of other scholars."
At least some Western archaeologists continue to work in Egypt, despite the looting and government upheaval. "Everything is okay here," says Mark Lehner, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based archaeologist digging at a settlement site in Giza. "We're working regularly, and we're also grateful that the work we're doing doesn't produce objects" with value on the antiquities market. He declined to comment on Hawass's possible departure.
Hawass was named chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2002, and foreign scientists like Lehner credit him with boosting the quality of research, increasing participation of a younger generation, and securing greater revenues for site protection. But he also has irritated many scientists with what they see as a dictatorial approach and a tendency to hog the limelight. One archaeologist says that there is no obvious successor if Hawass were to resign.