Egypt's Antiquities Caught in the Revolution

By Joffe, Alexander H. | Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Egypt's Antiquities Caught in the Revolution


Joffe, Alexander H., Middle East Quarterly


The initial spasm of images from the Cairo Museum shocked observers. As tens of thousands of demonstrators confronted the security forces in what quickly evolved into the first popular revolution in Egypt's history, the museum was ransacked in a scene reminiscent of the looted tombs of ancient Egyptian kings. A statue of Tutankhamun astride a panther was ripped from its base but then cast to the floor when thieves discovered it was gilded and not solid gold. A boat model from a tomb was smashed, the figures huddled in the boathouse pulverized but the navigator at the bow still pointing sadly forward. Two mummies were beheaded, mouths agape; it was rumored that they were Tut's grandparents.

The extent of the chaos was unknown but ominous. Egypt's antiquities were suddenly caught up in a revolution. But those antiquities have always been both a tool to create Egypt and Egyptians in the present as well as a telling map of Egyptian society.

CONFLICTING NARRATIVES

A second narrative quickly appeared. In this one, the police, military, and most importantly "everyday Egyptians," joined together to protect museums and sites. Farid Saad, a 40-yearold engineer, was quoted as saying, "I'm standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure."1 The nation was united in protection of its past.

For his part, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, reacted with characteristic histrionics, which for once might have been justified: "Of course, I was so worried. I have been protecting antiquities all my life. I felt if the Cairo Museum is robbed, Egypt will never be able to get up again."2 Hawass's ego is perpetually on display; every television documentary about ancient Egypt appears contractually bound to feature him in his full braggadocio, and he has long been the absolute master of which archaeologist does and does not work in Egypt.

But after forty-eight hours, his assessment of the situation changed. Hawass, appointed Mubarak's minister for antiquities after the eruption of chaos, now reported that nothing much had been stolen or destroyed, that all the museums were safe, that the people stood united against the looters, and that even the looted objects had been restored. "People are asking me, 'Do you think Egypt will be like Afghanistan?'" he recounted. "And I say, 'No, Egyptians are different - they love me because I protect antiquities.'"3

After seventy-two hours, Hawass was even more resolute:

I am the only source of continuing truth concerning antiquities, and these rumors are aimed at making the Egyptian people look bad. If anything happens to the museum, I would bravely tell everyone all over the world because I am a man of honor, and I would never hide anything from you. It is from my heart that I tell people everywhere that I am the guardian of these monuments that belong to the whole world.4

Now Egypt's monuments belonged to the world, but the source of all truth was made clear. The identification of Egypt's antiquities with a single man is not simply supremely egotistic but telling of a tradition where rulers point to monuments and demand respect, legitimacy, and obedience. It is only one of many apparent constants in Egyptian history.

Whether or not Egyptians are different from their Iraqi or Afghan brethren, however, remains to be seen. As the Taliban came to power, the contents of the Afghan National Museum in Kabul were moved to safe locations.5 The museum itself was destroyed in 1994. Other antiquities, most notably the Buddhas of Bamiyan, were destroyed by the Taliban in a campaign of iconoclasm in 200 1 . The Baghdad Museum was looted in 2003 by local Iraqis and probably museum insiders and professional thieves during the U.S-led invasion.6 Though the site had been used as a firing position to attack U.S. forces, Washington was blamed for the looting and for failing to secure Iraq's thousands of archaeological sites, many of which were mined for antiquities that have disappeared, presumably onto world markets. …

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