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The Egyptian Museum: protecting the past in revolutionary times

Zahi Hawwas was blamed when the Egyptian Museum was looted in January. But did he deserve it?

Army special forces stand next to the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun is seen in its glass case in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Army special forces stand next to the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun is seen in its glass case in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Just after midnight on January 29, the Egyptian Museum was caught between two fires. On its eastern side, protesters fought a pitched battle with pro-Mubarak assailants, with fire bombs flying only feet away. On its western side, a huge fire devoured the National Democratic Party’s headquarters, built on what used to be part of the garden of the 110-year-old museum.

It was a turning point for the country. It was a turning point for Egypt’s chief archaeologist; the flamboyant, cantankerous, and camera-savvy Zahi Hawwas. And it was a good night for stealing antiquities.

A small band of men, seven or eight perhaps, chose that particular night to rob the museum. Theirs was a daring act, albeit poorly executed. They stumbled around in the dark, smashing window displays and grabbing objects seemingly at random. One of them fell on a glass box, badly hurt his back, and was abandoned by his less-than-loyal colleagues, who left the scene in a considerable hurry, dropping a few pieces on their way out.

Arriving on the scene the next day, Hawwas told reporters that the museum was “safe”, and that nothing was stolen. It was a comment he would live to regret.

In fact, the thieves had grabbed 58 pieces but dropped four on their way out, which left the museum short of 54 pieces. Seven weeks later, police agents disguised as smugglers were able to arrange a rendezvous with some of the robbers, seize 12 of the missing pieces, and make some arrests. Currently, only 32 items remain missing from a museum that boasts a collection of nearly 100,000 pieces.

For all the fuss about the Egyptian Museum, it actually fared better than other heritage sites in the country.

In February and March, numerous museums and archaeological sites were attacked. In Saqqara, Luxor, Aswan, and Kafr al-Sheikh, sentries guarding tombs were overpowered by bands of machine-gun-toting robbers. Sometimes the attackers numbered 20 to 40 men. Those were not sneaky acts conducted in the middle of the night. These were bold attacks, often in broad daylight. Tombs were opened and reliefs were ripped out from walls. In Luxor, thieves got so brazen they tried to haul out a half-ton statue from a warehouse operated by a German archaeological team.

Within five weeks of the museum heist, Hawwas resigned. “If I cannot protect Egyptian antiquities, then I can’t remain in this job,” he said. He had been the state minister of antiquities for nine weeks, and the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities for the nine years before that.

During his nine-year tenure as archaeologist in chief, Hawwas has retrieved 5,000 Egyptian artefacts from museums abroad, and often boasted about it. He was even trying to get the famous Nefertiti’s head back from the Germans, irritating them endlessly with remarkable doggedness. They stood fast, and after the museum heist, he received letters ridiculing him for being so blatant. If you can’t protect your own stuff, stop asking for the artefacts that are being looked after properly by others, the letters suggested.

This is exactly what he feared when he first went to the museum on January 29 and dismissed the possibility of theft. He didn’t want foreigners to gloat. He didn’t want his image as the great protector of everything archaeological to be shaken.

Was there a cover-up by Hawwas?

Many would like the answer to be yes. His critics want to chip away at the larger-than-life persona that Hawwas has built for himself over the years. But in this particular case, while Hawwas may have misspoken, it seems to me that he didn’t intentionally lie.

The story of the museum is one of reality mimicking conspiracy. It is a case of truth revealing itself piecemeal and in slow motion.

The specialists involved in subsequent fact-finding tell a story of a tediously choreographed and meticulously guarded investigation. Here is their account of what happened in the museum following the theft.

Ramadan Badry Hussein, a senior official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, arrived at the Egyptian Museum in the morning of Saturday, January 29, only hours after the robbery took place. He was part of a three-man team detailed to inspect the damage.

When Hussein arrived at the scene, the doors were still closed. A man was chained to one of the doors, from the inside. Abandoned by the other robbers and wounded, this man was crying in pain when the army officers standing outside heard him. They lured him to a door, promising to give him something to drink, and then grabbed him through the metal grille and handcuffed him. The injured thief was the only person inside the building. The army officers stayed outside, waiting for the museum officials to open the doors. They didn’t want to enter the building until Hussein and his colleagues arrived.

From then on, the army would impose draconian security precautions on the building.

“Everyone was searched going in and out. You couldn’t go to the bathroom without permission,” Hussein recalls.

The team inspected the damage, had a good idea of what went on, and must have guessed that some objects were stolen. But how many? Hussein couldn’t guess. No one else could at this point.

The antiquities authorities handed control of the museum over to the army a few hours later.

From that day, January 29, until February 6, no one was allowed into the building. This was a turbulent week for the country, a week in which prisons were opened and hundreds of gangsters roamed the streets, looting shops and intimidating the populace.

This may explain why Hawwas repeatedly denied any theft. Until the investigators resumed their work a week later, there was no way of confirming the theft or gauging its extent. For Hawwas, a small theft was no theft, until the figures were ready to be released.

By the time the figures started coming out, in small doses and late, Hawwas was being called a liar. It didn’t help his cause that only days earlier, he told reporters that Mubarak was the right man to lead the country back to stability. It was a political faux pas that would come back to haunt him.

Once the investigation resumed, Hawwas began releasing the real figures. But the investigation was proceeding at a snail’s pace, and as the figure of missing objects began to rise, his credibility began to dip.

The reason the investigation proceeded slowly was partly because the curators have a rather ponderous way of doing things. In normal times, they would have probably needed a week to finish the count. But with the army supervising them, procedures slowed.

Everyone involved in the investigation had to stay together, as if in the final scene of an Agatha Christie novel. For example, for the dozen or so people taking the inventory, if one person wanted to check a file in the basement, the rest of them had to accompany him. And when another person needed to check something on the roof, the whole team had to follow her. Work that could have been done in one hour took an entire day to finish. This explains why the information was slow in coming, so infuriatingly scant and incomplete.

Yasmine al-Shazli, the head of documentation at the museum, was one of the officials investigating the theft.

“The first time we were allowed into the museum was on February 6, a week after the robbery. Only one person from my office was allowed inside the building, so I alternated with a colleague, me going one day and she going the next. To inspect the scene, we all had to move in one group. We couldn’t split into smaller groups. We were not allowed to go individually into our offices.”

A simple “I don’t know” when asked about the theft could have saved Hawwas a lot of criticism, but he wasn’t a man used to “not-knowing”, much less a man willing to admit it.

After all, this was the man who was making “discoveries” all over Egypt continually. The “discoveries” of course were rarely his, but it was always him in front of the cameras. Everyone else, including the archaeologists who have been working for years on the site, had to recede into the shadows.

Hawwas had turned himself into the brand name for Egyptian archaeology, and had stepped on many toes doing so.

Writing in Al-Ahram Weekly, the Egyptologist Jill Kamel hinted at the resentment felt toward Hawwas in Egypt’s archaeological community.

“Anyone who has excavated in Egypt knows very well that no discoveries can be announced without authorisation by Zahi Hawwas, and woe betide anyone who violates the rule.”

Hawwas, an American archaeologist told me, has created a “cult of fear among archaeologists, especially foreigners, who live under the threat of never working in Egypt again.” The archaeologist asked, prudently perhaps, not to be named.

There is something unfair, however, in the museum affair.

Hawwas is guilty of a lot of things. By more than one account, he bullied archaeologists, spent a lot of money on mega projects instead of funding maintenance of museums and existing sites. He turned famous archaeological sites, such as those in Luxor, into “Disneyland” projects instead of community-based developments allowing for interaction between tourists and the original residents. All of this, and more, may be true.

But the one thing Hawwas didn’t neglect was security.

During his tenure, Hawwas made sure to build up-to-date storehouses, with steel doors and modern storage modalities. To his credit, only one of the 47 modern storehouses he built was broken into, and that was in Sinai (Qantara Sharq), where lawlessness was particularly acute.

Hawwas has also built walls around the most valuable archaeological sites, a practice that was often mocked by experts. The walls were not able to stop the robberies, but they did stop people from grabbing those sites and building on them. During the security vacuum, thousands of acres of land believed to contain valuable artefacts were seized by illegal developers who quickly built structures, including mosques, upon them to make it harder for the land to be retrieved.

Even when Hawwas disappeared, at least temporarily, from the scene, few dared to write his epitaph. With good reason.

During a recent visit by Unesco officials to the country, the antiquities sector failed to produce one convincing high-ranking official to brief the visitors. Hawwas, having resigned three weeks earlier, put on his trademark hat and went to greet them.

He had no official function, but he was ready to help. A few days later, on March 30, Hawwas joined the government of Essam Sharaf as the minister of antiquities. The speculation over who is to become Egypt’s next chief of antiquities, which was rife for all of three weeks, thus came to an abrupt end.

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