Egyptian Antiquities - Not Well Looked After.

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Egyptian Antiquities - Not Well Looked After.

Post by Hafiz »

Its easy to be negative and take cheap shots from the boundary line. I’m to blame more than most. However its also true that there is a lot that is obviously wrong and that the average Egyptian has been badly served by its (always authoritarian) government and that, with simple practical reforms, things could be better. Egypt is going backwards and there is no evidence of wise small reform.

The unstated conclusion of a lot of what we write is that Egypt will face an Armageddon of sorts and that this will happen sooner rather than later. The level of dysfunction is serious and the average Egyptian is going backwards.Gradual positive reform and improvement is not obvious. The current seems to be going the other way.

From a distance, and ignorance, I try to urge clear headed careful, slow reform. Simple projects based on a frank view that things are not well and could easily be made better. Fool me.

Here is another view, one which I wish I could deny, which says that Egypt is eating its own children. What I mean by that is that it is destroying its own natural advantages. I hope I am wrong and that there will be hundreds of posts to prove me wrong. My point is that Egypt is destroying or being careless with its own antiquities, that it has been doing this for several generations, that there is no evidence that it has learnt from previous mistakes, that it regards all criticism as a national insult, that the best international intentions are rejected, and that there is little to celebrate from national control from 1952.

Here is my impression of the single thing which Egypt has to sell to the world and the care of the heritage which makes Egyptians feel special. Its antiquities. They have not been well looked after.

(An aside: I find it odd that the boosters announce new tomb openings, the Chicago eminences etc and never wonder about the failure of Egypt to produce the skills to explore its own past)

Lots gets said about the need to reform tourism, government and industry but the Supreme Council of Antiquities and its ministerial parent the Ministry of Antiquities don’t get much attention. The Egyptian media and international diggers are reluctant to criticize. The antiquities are central to tourism, have been extravagantly funded for centuries by overseas governments and NGO’s, and more recently by UNESCO and UNDP, so there should be a good result. The evidence is that things have got worse.

Here are a couple of articles which might be of interest to those who have puzzled over the work of the Ministry of Antiquities, the delays on the two new museums, did Madame really get lots of antique presents, why did Djoser fall down or was there any substance to Harawass/Harawas etc.

Key points are:

The Ministry and SCA employs more that 44,000 staff. The Scientific American in 2011 says that total staffing might be 55,000.
The Ministry is funded in a non-serious way and reliant on variable fees from tourists.
The Ministry also operates major discretionary off budget funds, which are not accounted for in published budgets.
These funds are often used to award major non-compete contracts to insiders.
By insiders I don’t mean civilians.
An apparently reformist Minister was removed earlier this year.
The new Minister is a trained Egyptologist but with a teaching career in tourism and hotel management.
Bureaucracy hamstrings a lot of archaeological work.
Practical archaeology training of locals was, until very recently, abysmal.
Egyptian university training is mainly theoretical; therefore there is a shortage of conservators and restorers.
Antiquities in Egypt usually means Pharonic and the rest get pretty short shrift.
Our friend, Genena, the recently removed ‘chief auditor’ appears in this story.
There is a long history of failed attempts to establish an inventory of holdings in museums. Working out what is missing or stolen is therefore hard.
The Ministry is big on half thought out new museums (22 new ones under Harwass) but not so good on the knitting or completing projects begun in haste.
The Ministry and SCA are badly managed and have never worked out whether they are in the tourism, public relations or antiquities business.
There is no Egyptian based scholarly journal although the SCA is mandated to do this – the last short lived attempt SCA ceased in 2010. Here is a list of 259 open access journals on archeology, in various languages – I can find no Egyptian based journal - ... -journals/ The same is true of the Islamic period. An alphabetical list of several hundred journals on the middle east produces the same result: ... ccess.html. The Egyptians have no status in the study of their own history. There is something wrong with this.

Some quotes:
“The level of efficiency with which the SCA is run today erupted in comical form earlier this year (2015) after the beard attached to Tutankhamun’s burial mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was found damaged and broke off during routine cleaning. Rather than being renovated and preserved, the artefact was kept on display, its beard having simply been glued back on using basic adhesives. Some might draw a correlation between the apparent theft and corruption plaguing this fund and shoddy work when it came to preserving Tutankhamun’s burial mask.”
“Yet despite its power and potential, the ministry – like many Egyptian institutions – is often accused of being a quagmire of paperwork. Foreign archaeologists complain they sometimes can’t import the equipment they need, or export rock samples for analysis. Taking such samples to foreign laboratories is banned and, as a result, local digs are overlooked by international donors, who prioritise projects with access to the latest research techniques. “Bureaucracy is such a monster in Egypt,” said Giulio Lucarini, an archaeology professor whose digs are among those affected by the ban based in Cambridge.”

And another: “Hawass managed to antagonize many constituencies. Preservationists said that he “Disneyfied” ancient sites such as Luxor and Saqqara by renovating them with inappropriately modern materials, including cement, brick, wood and metal”
Read more: ... Y352QtD.99

And another: “An international survey was conducted in 2011 by ICCROM and UNESCO [ICCROM-UNESCO International Storage Survey. 2011], ...Most of the Egyptian and archaeological sites have poor unsecured spaces for storage of high-value antiquities. Storage spaces in Egypt suffer from the lack of storage units and space where the antiquities, in some areas, are mounted on the floor and directly in contact with dirt, pests and uncontrolled surrounded environment. I have witnessed the decomposition of two unknown mummies, mounted on the floor, in museum storage rooms where the mummies lost the top half due to the active biological infection. “ ... naggar.pdf

and lastly: Egypt’s cultural system is not only notoriously corrupt, but also strikingly neglectful of the millions of antiquities in the nation. The former head of the DHS ICE HSI Art and Antiquity Investigations program, James McAndrew, has described how on a mission to return antiquities seized in the US to Egypt, he insisted on bringing the pieces to their actual final destination. There, he found not even the most basic of museum storage facilities, but a filthy shed with a broken, unlocked door and floor cluttered with debris. Such disregard for the antiquities that Egypt invariably describes as “treasures,” is unfortunately all too common.
… February 2, 2016. The Egyptian press has questioned Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty’s denial that a restoration project of Cairo’s exotic Baron Empain Palace was given to a company specializing in concrete and not architecture. ... ntiquities+

The work on Djoser’s pyramid is hotly contested and one Ministry employee is currently up on criminal charges for ‘spreading false news’ on the renovation. The fear of prosecution must limit speaking out as does the fear of expulsion for those archaeological NGO’s that may be critical in private. What no one has denied is that the Ministry gave the contract to a company with no track record in anything but modern building, that the company has a track record of uncompleted contracts and that, during the restoration, there was a major collapse of the structure. On the positive side its now open and the punters are happy. Only time will tell.

If anyone is interested in reading further - and I wonder about this - here are a few:

A London Review of Books blog on the secret funds: ... t-gardens/
An Egyptian newspaper article on the slush funds generally and Hawass’s ‘difficulties’ whilst supreme antiquity: ... interview/
A NYT 2011 article on the management of the SCA by the hatted one: ... awass.html
A 2014 Guardian article on the poor state of local training, bad Ministry decision making and recent positive international efforts: ... n-pyramids
A local ‘cheer squad’ body announcing ‘the first nationwide inventory of all known antiquities in Egypt’ in 2014. Can’t find any information that it was ever finished. (Hawass was quoted 2008 book that there had been no full inventory for 50 years and that only about 15% of the holdings of the Egyptian Museum were inventoried) ... tnerships/ A January 2016 iteration of this project, this time with different partners and with no mention of the two years of work from the local hearties, (if you have a good project then why not launch it several times and worry later about actually doing it) Again no finish date.

A related 2011 American Research Centre in Egypt article about their work with the Egyptian Museum beginning in 2005 to establish inventories and digital images of holdings. As at 2014, and after nine years of work, the inventory does not seem complete: ... Registrars. No finish date either. Their work on digital images has been wasted because, unbelievably, the (Tahir) Museum has no official web-site. Not to be underwhelmed the you-bewt new Grand Egyptian Museum has not taken advantage of 14 years of planning to establish even a small selection of digital images on its microscopic web-site. Maybe the digital image project got lost: ... urants.htm

An al Ahram puff piece on the appointment of the new Minister and his tourism and hotels experience: ... ws-to.aspx

The web-site of the architects for the new Grand Egyptian Museum, heneghan, peng of Dublin. Years after winning the giant Egyptian gig they have yet to land any other fish remotely of this scale: What is it about the Ministry and the Egyptian government in general which leads them to give contracts to people with no track record? At the time they won the Egyptian gig they, unbelievably, had only three staff:

This is all a bit negative and I’m sure that the Ministry/SCA have done good things, you just don’t hear about them. On the other hand maybe they don’t have any achievements to announce and the evidence for this is their own web site which says that the last stolen item they retrieved was seven years ago, their last lecture five years ago and their last breaking news (their term) six years ago.

Maybe most that is useful is done by international organizations or via international funding - they are happy to announce their completed work and the costs - which raises the issue of what those 44,000 are doing. Unfortunately this opinion is not fashionable and now regarded as imperialist.

By way of contrast the Alexandria Library seems to run without scandal and uses technology well: ... oteca.html but then it is not run by the Ministry or SCA but by an international board with an outstanding qualified Egyptian chief executive. It might be a shocking white elephant with not much money to buy books but it at least has a catalogue, preserves its holdings and has a huge program of activities. They also host international conferences and even publish an (flowery and long winded) annual report with a KPMG auditor’s statement. Can anyone remember international conferences in Egypt on archaeology or of the Greek/Roman or Islamic period?

Most of this has been about Pharonic antiquities. The SCA handling of renovation of Islamic monuments in Old Cairo in the past decades, with oceans of international money, raises all the same issues of unclear objectives, poor strategy, bad implementation and waste. If there are any good stories then hit me with them. Good news in this space used to be Harawas touring exhibitions, After reading about a four meter cut out of his image at a US exhibition around 2000 I start to wonder what the long term strategy of the adults was.

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