Archaeology and Cultural Heritage in Egypt after Mubarak

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, Antiquities Market, Archaeology and Politics, Conservation, Cultural Heritage and Property
Tags: Antiquities market & looting, archaeology & politics, archaeology news, cultural heritage and patrimony, Egypt, preservation
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ANET1_WILLIAMSFig1By: Greg Williams

Egypt’s January 25th revolution was originally seen as part of the larger “Arab Spring” across the Middle East where old political regimes were overthrown by popular protests and replaced by representative democracies. But on January 28th 2011, as chaos reigned in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, reports began circulating around the globe claiming that antiquities on display in the Egyptian Museum had been stolen. Zahi Hawass, the famous face of Egyptian archaeology, Mubarak regime insider, and then head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), was immediately embroiled in the situation. Many outside of Egypt believed that the political volatility and economic crisis engulfing the capital and the rest of the country had claimed some of the most precious artifacts of Egypt’s over 5,000 year history which would be lost forever. Egyptians of all social classes converged on the museum to protect it, sparking hopes that a new era in the relationship between Egyptians and their past had begun. 

The damage to the museum was less than originally feared but Egypt and Egyptian archaeology have been forever changed. Some changes have been obvious. President Hosni Mubarak was toppled and replaced in 2012 by Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s trial on charges that he ordered the killing of unarmed protestors resulted in a death penalty which is now being appealed. Though seen as part of a larger Islamist takeover, in May 2012 the country still witnessed what may have been the fairest presidential elections in its history. Hawass is long gone from his post as well, along with a number of other SCA personnel. Long accused of corruption and negligence, protests at major tourist sites all over the country forced a re-shuffling of the council but left these sites sadly exposed to theft and destruction. Now, with the economy once again in a tailspin and frustration mounting on the street, a new constitution hopes to get Egypt back on track. But despite all these changes, repeatedly highlighted in European and American media as fundamental regional shifts, much with regard to archaeology and heritage has stayed the same.

Archaeology and Egypt’s cultural heritage in general were affected by the events of the January 25th revolution, from Egyptologists who had devoted their academic careers and lives to Egypt, to employees of all levels of the SCA, to foreign tourists simply interested in visiting the Pyramids at Giza. After almost two years the country’s tourism industry is still stalling. The economy is again going off the deep end, and how exactly cultural heritage, not just Egypt’s ancient past but also its rich Coptic and Islamic history and sites, will be dealt with politically is still very much up in the air. Recently, President Morsi has advocated a return to fostering tourism and welcoming foreign visitors in an attempt to revive the faltering Egyptian economy. The Salafist Nour party has similarly insisted that anything that may jeopardize this vital part of Egypt’s economy should be prohibited. In fact, the tourism industry in Egypt is far from dead. According to Ahram Online, the country brought in a record $12.5 billion from tourism in 2010 and in 2012 Egypt still made about $9.4 billion, up from 2011’s numbers. Anyone who has spent less than $1 on a handful of sandwiches from a street vendor near an archaeological site knows several billion can go a long way in Egypt. Much of the SCA’s financial problems are related to major museum projects that are designed to bring in a new wave of foreign tourists.

In terms of excavations, the January 25th revolution and re-organization of Egyptian antiquities departments cost archaeologists precious time in the field, not to mention the wide-ranging problems of looting and destruction of sites. But permits began to be issued again by the fall of 2011, and 2012 has seen a great number of excavations take place all over the country. Despite occasional demonstrations and general political unrest, foreign archaeological institutes in Cairo continue to support projects and host lectures, seminars, and talks for the public. Still, the issues that archaeology and cultural heritage in Egypt face now are perhaps more severe than getting tourism back up to 2010 numbers or the investment and involvement of outside projects.

Traditionally, antiquities and cultural heritage sites have been treated differently in terms of legislation. High fines and harsh punishments targeted those dealing in illegal trading and looting of artifacts. Some see the political changes in the last two years as evidence of a break-down in the system, where lack of security has led to a loss of important finds or illegal digging operations. There has been widespread looting at sites like El-Hibeh, Luxor and even Giza, and a number of museums and storehouses have been ransacked. But others argue that the deteriorating security situation exposed the great concern of most Egyptians regarding their own heritage. Regardless of the legislation in place and despite the political and economic instability, many sites and precious artifacts were protected surprisingly well because of everyday, conscientious Egyptians.

The other side of Egyptian cultural heritage legislation traditionally deals with sites, and in many cases these, whether archaeological zones or specific monuments, have been left to fall apart. In the summer of 2012 Roland-Pierre Gayraud, the long-time director of IFAO excavations in Istabl ‘Antar, south of central Cairo, expressed his discontent with the handling of his site by officials and lamented the potential situation of losing this site to urban development and negligence. Built by Yemeni tribes and occupied from the 7th through the 12 centuries, Istabl ‘Antar is part of the larger archaeological zone of Fustat, one of the most important sites in Egypt and in Islamic history in general. Much of Istabl ‘Antar was bulldozed and subdivided for building, apparently by neighbors, before the government intervened.

Close to a quarter of Egypt’s population lives in Cairo. If the monuments within the city cannot be protected, nothing will be. Even monuments from Egypt’s recent history from the 1930’s to 1960’s have been torn down. For example, important heritage sites in the major cities of Port Said and Alexandria have recently been destroyed. Many more are threatened.

In recent years, projects under the Aga Khan Trust for Culture have constructed Al-Azhar Park, providing much needed green space in Cairo, and have worked with local communities to restore historic monuments while attempting to revitalize the local neighborhood. It is by no means an easy process, but many more foreign projects need to work towards creating a local appreciation for cultural heritage, whether the monuments are ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Islamic, or 20th century buildings. The local interest is there and the wealth of sites and cultural heritage is obvious. But the legislation, whether under the Mubarak regime, or now under the new leadership, has not supported this type of approach, and there have been few incentives for officials to enforce vague laws. Big museums might bring more tourists and the Egyptian economy could certainly use the money, but museums out in Giza or down in Luxor, don’t help restore the funerary complexes in Darb al-Ahmar, don’t maintain the neglected 20th century architecture that gave Cairo the nickname “Paris on the Nile,” and don’t provide sustainable solutions for impoverished communities or develop local businesses.

President Morsi’s new constitution was recently approved in a poorly overseen referendum accused of being rife with corruption and manipulation of ballot results. Unfortunately, the constitution does not present any creative or new ways to deal with a site like Fustat, historic monuments in Cairo, or the rich past present all over the country. Two articles (11 and 46) vaguely address the ideas of cultural heritage and promoting awareness, not unlike previous legislation that was designed to deal specifically with heritage monuments and archaeological sites. The constitution also creates a Supreme Council for Heritage Conservation, to come into effect immediately. But what kind of power this new organization will actually have to make meaningful changes is not specified.

For all the changes and fears of parliaments and governments dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, their policies have yet to improve the traditionally poor care of cultural heritage in Egypt. If trash collection and traffic in Cairo is any indication, their policies have not really changed things. For those who fear the destruction of ancient Egyptian statues by radical Islamist groups bent on erasing a “pagan” past or insist only foreign tourists in Egypt will save the economy, they are missing the point. The government of Egypt needs to foster and support local initiatives that aim to promote Egyptian history and heritage of all periods for Egyptians and the outside world alike. But it seems with so much “change” simply comes more of the same.

 Greg Williams is a graduate student in the Arab and Islamic Civilizations Department at the American University in Cairo focusing on Islamic Art and Architecture.

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1 Comments for : Archaeology and Cultural Heritage in Egypt after Mubarak
    • Simon
    • April 9, 2013

    Saying "Close to a quarter of Egypt’s population lives in Cairo. If the monuments within the city cannot be protected, nothing will be" is the wrong way to frame the problem. It is precisely because close to a quarter of the population lives in Cairo, and wants to keep living in Cairo, and has ever-growing families, and there is no mechanism for enforcing the law, that the problem is so bad.

    The illegal construction in Darb al-Ahmar, the site of the Aga Khan Trust's greatest investment in sustainable living, is among the worst in Cairo. If people have to choose between trying to improve their lives and preserving monuments, their choice will be obvious - whether in Egypt, Italy, France, or the USA.

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