Egypt’s Antiquities Officially Under Attack as Dr. Zahi Hawass resigns

UPDATE 3rd March 11pm: unsubstantiated, leaked list of objects missing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (EDITED)
UPDATE 6th March 2pm: Dr. Hawass on his resignation; magazine in Tell el Fara’in robbed as Qantara East’s antiquities moved to Cairo for safekeeping; a petition urging protection of sites; a new Minister of Culture & Antiquities?
UPDATE 7th March 11:20pm: Egypt to keep separate Ministry of Antiquities after protests by archaeologists; more on the new Minister of Culture and potential Minister of Antiquities; sign a petition urging the protection of sites in Egypt
UPDATE 9th March 11am: detailed photographic list of missing Egyptian objects
UPDATE 7th March 2:15pm: open letter from Egyptian archaeologists petitions the Prime Minster to protect sites
UPDATE 7th March 10pm: CNN video from the Egyptian Museum; protestors and activists being held in the museum

Today, tragic confirmation came of the extensive looting that has been feared since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, but was consistently downplayed by the Ministry of Antiquities. Dr. Zahi Hawass has now released a long list of magazines, archaeological sites, tombs, objects, and Islamic sites that have been looted, damaged, illicitly dug, or destroyed. Some sites, such as Saqqara, are said to have been attacked repeatedly.

However, what role Dr. Hawass will play in further attempts to protect the antiquities under threat is now uncertain since the Minister of Antiquities has now resigned from his post along with the rest of the Egyptian cabinet. In a telephone interview with the New York Times’ Kate Taylor, ‘Hawass said he was happy that he had made the “right decision” in resigning and lashed out at colleagues who have criticized him, including one who has accused him of smuggling antiquities’. There is still debate about whether Dr. Hawass will continue to hold the position of head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. My understanding was that the SCA had become the Ministry of Antiquities rather than being created as a separate entity, meaning it would no longer exist nor have a Secretary General.

In the early days of the revolution, someone asked me what my worst fears for the antiquities were. I hadn’t dared think about it too much, but the image that first sprang into my head was that of blank walls: hacked out, ragged, blank walls of tombs, their once exquisite reliefs completely destroyed. Sadly that is now the horrible fate of the tomb of Kenamun at Tell el Maskhuta, a unique example of a Ramesside tomb in Lower Egypt, and one that has not yet been published. Rossella Lorenzi, reporting on the discovery of the tomb, described it as ‘beautifully decorated, the tomb features scenes from the Book of the Dead, culminating with the famous vignettes from Chapter 125, which depict the critical judgment ceremony… Other important scenes in the tomb include a depiction of the goddess Hathor in the shape of a cow, as she emerges from the Delta marshes, as well as a scene of the four sons of Horus’. It was a fairly recent discovery of an SCA excavation announced only just last year. Hopefully the excavators will have more unpublished data that can be released in future, but the extent of the tomb’s study will have been relatively limited compared to others that have been known and visited for many years by numerous scholars.

A scene from the now destroyed tomb of Kenamun
A scene from the now destroyed tomb of Kenamun

And that is one of the things that I fear for most now, for that which we may never even know we have lost: the archaeology and objects that have never been properly recorded before being destroyed forever. Illicit digging at at least eight different sites across the country may prove in the end to be the worst casualty. According to Hawass, ‘looters have attacked Abydos nearly every night; illegal excavations and trenches, some as deep as five meters, have damaged the site’.

As of yet, there is very little information on what has been taken, apart from the objects already cited from the Egyptian Museum and the tombs of Hetepka and Ptahshepses at Saqqara and Abusir. As it has been confirmed that we are dealing with a potentially extensive number of unknown objects, it may prove even more important now to place government-enforced restrictions on the movement and trade of Egyptian antiquities.

Hawass says that the guards at the Selim Hassan magazine in Saqqara were forced to surrender to armed robbers, suggesting increasingly violent attacks at sites with insufficient protection. Whether army involvement in site protection could be boosted enough to deal with the situation is uncertain, as Dr. Hawass himself has despaired of protecting the sites, and the army is now heavily involved in governance, not just their usual military role. There is now a petition on Facebook urging the transitional government to provide improved site security. Perhaps even the numerous unemployed archaeologists who were recently involved in protests outside the Ministry of Antiquities could be recruited in protection efforts. Whether outside help will be called in from international organizations such as UNESCO or Blue Shield remains to be seen.
According to Sarah Parcak on the Restore + Save Facebook group, ‘Blue Shield, UNESCO, the Carabinieri, etc have all offered their help, publicly and privately…They are all waiting and standing by to give whatever assistance is needed. Until that happens, they can only stand by’. Whatever action is taken by the transitional Egyptian government clearly cannot come too soon.

Many of the Egyptian people have made an outstanding effort in recent days to protect their cultural heritage, freely and willingly putting themselves in dangerous situations to stand between would-be looters, sometimes armed, and threatened archaeological sites and museums. A revolution anywhere in the world would be sure to destabilize cultural protection measures, and the old regime certainly contributed to the conditions that have prompted looting, such as poverty, lack of education, and lack of disaster planning. Any outside assistance need not detract from Egypt’s achievements. The huge changes happening in Egypt today, brought about by its brave citizens’ desire for freedom to create a better world for themselves and their country, will hopefully be the best way to safeguard its heritage in the future.

In the New York Times, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas P. Campbell, expressed alarm about continuing looting, calling it “a grave and tragic emergency”, saying:

The world cannot sit by and permit unchecked anarchy to jeopardize the cultural heritage of one of the world’s oldest, greatest and most inspiring civilizations. We echo the voices of all concerned citizens of the globe in imploring Egypt’s new government authorities, in building the nation’s future, to protect its precious past. Action needs to be taken immediately

A scene in the now destroyed tomb of Kenamun depicting the judgement scene from the Book of the Dead Ch 125
A scene in the now destroyed tomb of Kenamun depicting the judgement scene from the Book of the Dead Spell 125

UPDATE 3rd March 11pm:

Judith H. Dobrzynski has posted a leaked list of objects missing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo submitted by a supposedly reliable source from inside the museum (and I have also heard from other channels that the source is trustworthy).
**EDIT: An anonymous comment below argues that the anonymous source is not reliable. I did not receive the information firsthand myself, thus I cannot judge the veracity of any claims made by either side as to the source and their reliability or bias, but in the absence of any other information from the museum for the past few weeks, the list still seems worth noting.

UPDATE 6th March 2pm:

Dr. Zahi Hawass has commented on his resignation on his blog, which he says was prompted by an inability to protect the sites and allegations of wrongdoing by ‘crooks’, and he also outlines the conditions under which he would be willing to return. Andie Byrnes of Egyptology News has compiled and commented on an excellent collection of articles and interviews with Dr. Hawass, which I recommend reading.

In response to Hawass’ resignation, Karl von Habsburg, the president of the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield said: “I am terrified by the idea that this might be a sign to potential looters that now that last element of control is gone, and now we have a free hand to continue looting”.

Indeed, there has been more looting in the past couple of days, with Al Masry Al Youm reporting that a magazine in Tell el Fara’in (ancient Buto) was robbed in violent attack by 40 armed men. For more on the site of Tell el Fara’in, German Archaeological Institute website has a good summary of the history of the ancient site and modern excavations there.

However, there is also some indication of efforts to prevent against further looting. Ahram Online reports that the antiquities collection in the magazine at Qantara East, for fear of further looting, has been moved to the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

This petition urges Egypt’s transitional government to provide protection for the sites, magazines, and antiquities.

On Facebook, Nicole Hansen and Nigel Hetherington are reporting from Egypt, that Emad Abu Ghazi has been appointed as the new Minister of Tourism and Antiquities. Ahram Online has tweeted that he is the new Minister of Culture. An article in the United Arab Emirates newspaper the National, has some good background information on Abu Ghazi, who does not seem to have a background in antiquities but is in favour of the revolution and reform:

Emad Abou Ghazi has been general secretary of the Higher Council of Culture since 2009. Born in 1955, he studied history at Cairo University and received a master’s degree in medieval documents. Since 1983 he has been an assistant professor at Cairo University.

UPDATE 7th March 11:20pm:

Protests held today by archaeologists, professors, and students were able to convince the new Prime Minister of Egypt’s transitional government, Essam Sharaf, to keep a separate Ministry of Antiquities rather than reinstating it as a sub-division of the Ministry of Culture. Egyptologist Nicole Hansen reported on the protests from Cairo on the Restore + Save Facebook group:

We archaeologists gathered at the Egyptian Museum at 10 a.m. and then marched to the Council of Ministers and stayed outside protesting until the Prime Minister came down at about 1:30 p.m. and promised us the Ministry of Antiquities would stay an independent ministry.

Having a separate Ministry should give antiquities officials more control over their own department with a separate revenue stream reserved for development and protection of the country’s antiquities rather than potentially having it re-diverted to other cultural institutions.

As for who will lead the newly restored Ministry of Antiquities after Dr. Zahi Hawass’ resignation, earlier today on the Restore + Save Facebook group, Sarah Parcak reported that she had heard a rumour from a high ranking SCA official that it would probably be Dr. Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, and journalist Jo Marchant said that she had heard the same also. Dr. Abdel Maksoud is currently Head of the Central Administration of Lower Egyptian Antiquities. He has conducted excavations at a number of sites, such as the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty military town at Tell Dafna, a Ptolemaic site at Kom el Dikka, and a Sinai fortress town. Dr. Sabri Abdel Aziz, Head of the Pharaonic Sector, had also been mentioned as a possible candidate. Now, Sarah Parcak has noted:

The SCA is holding a referendum and electing the new Minister of Antiquities/Head of SCA on Friday March 18th. On the list are: Dr Nur al Din, Dr Ali radwan, Dr Sabry al Aziz, Dr. Ala Shahine, Dr. Mamdouh Amr, Dr mamdouh Amaty on the list—there are 7 in total. Arabic readers—FYI:
1-د.علاء شاهين
2-د.عبد الحليم نور الدين
3-د.صبري عبد العزيز
5-د.حسن سليم
6-د.ممدوح الدماطي
7-د.علي رضوان

Sabri Abdel Aziz and Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, photo by the Egypt Exploration Society
Two contenders for the position of Minister of Antiquities, Sabri Abdel Aziz and Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, photo by the Egypt Exploration Society

Also worth noting, Ahram Online has an article with more information on Egypt’s the newly appointed Minister of Culture Abou Ghazi:

A statement of prominent intellectuals confirmed that Abou-Ghazi is “a true intellectual who is involved with the current affairs of his country, in addition to being highly respected among all intellectuals inside and outside Egypt, and who is capable of regaining Egypt’s cultural role in the region.” Supporters of Abou-Ghazi spoke of his patriotic stances, referring to “his articles that reflected a strong stance towards freedom and democracy”, and considering him “a son of the Egyptian patriotic movement who never hesitated to pay with his own freedom, where he was subject to prison because of his political ideals”.

Dr. Zahi Hawass has updated his blog with more on the illegal building & farming happening on a number of archaeological sites.

The Arab Archeologists Union says its funds are at the disposal of the Egyptian government for the protection of antiquities.

You can sign a petition here, urging Egypt’s transitional government to provide adequate protection for the sites and antiquities.

On a slightly different, but timely note, tomorrow is International Women’s Day and in Egypt, a Million Woman March is being organized to take place in Cairo‘s Tahrir Square. The Petrie Museum in London is also holding an event in honour of International Women’s day in the form of a show about Amelia Edwards, who was the driving force behind the establishment of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and essentially founded the Petrie Museum and Britain’s first professorship in Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at UCL. (I’ll be attending, so if you’re there too, come and say hi!)

UPDATE 7th March 11am:

Just a quick update to note that the Penn Cultural Heritage Center has compiled an amazing and detailed list with accompanying photographs of the antiquities currently known to be missing from Egypt. Their efforts are hugely appreciated and I hope this list can be widely and efficiently disseminated.

UPDATE 7th March 2:15pm:

In an SCA press release, an open letter from Dr. Tarek El Awadi, Director of the Egyptian Museum, and other archaeologists in Egypt, urges the Prime Minister of the interim Egyptian government to prioritize the deployment of police protection to sites and magazines around the country:

Open Letter to His Excellency, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf

Your Excellency,

We hope that your tenure in office continues smoothly and would like to
ask a favour of you that affects not only us, but all Egyptians and indeed
people worldwide. Would you please make it a top priority of your
government to return police to archaeological sites so as to put an end to
the illegal excavations, the looting of storehouses and tombs, and illegal
construction on governmental archaeological land. The desecration of
archaeological sites and monuments is not only a huge loss for the people
of Egypt on a national, economic, and human level, but is also a loss to
all of humanity and to science.

Below are just a few signatures of scholars and individuals who support
this request. We very much hope that you will take immediate steps to
save Egypt’s heritage for posterity.


Concerned Egyptologists/Archaeologists
On the behalf of all archaeologists and Egyptologists

Dr. Tarek El Awadi Director of the Egyptian Museum

[List of names not attached]

UPDATE 7th March 10pm:

A new video from CNN shows scenes of empty cases in Egyptian Museum, but also some of the damaged objects that have had restoration work done and are back on display. It is worth noting that the video claims that one of the four canopic jars belonging to Thuja is missing, however a photo of the original display clearly shows that only three jars were in the case in the first place. We know that that particular case was broken into and disturbed, as one of the canopic lids was pictured in the Al Jazeera footage lying on the ground, however the three jars are still there undamaged. Nevertheless, the gilded canopic chest that was originally in the same case appears to be no longer on display and I sincerely hope it is in conservation but hasn’t been too damaged!

Tweets from a number of different accounts on Twitter suggest that protestors in Tahrir Square are still being arrested, detained at the Egyptian Museum, and possibly even beaten. During the early days of the revolution, the museum was occupied by the army and reportedly used for detention and torture. It is a horrifying state of affairs that a place intended for knowledge and enlightenment is being used to stifle voices supporting it.

museum dentention 1

museum detention 2

17 Replies to “Egypt’s Antiquities Officially Under Attack as Dr. Zahi Hawass resigns”

  1. the luxor times blog from feb 28 referrred to an article in the al-ahram arabic newspaper (with picture) of a statue recovered by an engineer and returned to the sca…do we know anymore about this? this is the only mention i have seen on any posts….thanks

  2. I’ve seen that email with the list, Margaret, and it is so reliable it accuses America and the National Geographic of having a hand in the looting. It is such a reliable source that the person doesn’t give his or her name. It was clearly written by someone with a grudge.

    The list of missing objects bears no relation to what the museum says is missing.

    Shame on you for publishing this un-sourced, un-substantiated junk.

  3. Sorry Margaret, by the same standard of “worth noting” you should have been including those Zahi Hawass ate my hamster stories that were flying about a couple of weeks ago. Are you willing to tell us who the “other channels” who tell you the source is trustworthy are? I presume not but would be interested to see them. Do they actually know who this writer is? Who knows. A first rule of research is to evaluate your sources and an anonymous one is unreliable unless proven otherwise. When the complete email embodies fantastic claims like the National Geographic conspiracy how can you decide which bits to trust?

    The “just passing it on” defense is weak. The endless rumor mill – I heard this, my supervisor’s friend’s epigrapher’s husband heard that – may be good for your blog stats but is damaging to serious attempts to establish the real truth about what happened: for that people will need access to the museum and its records, and verifiable statements from people who were there, not some email that could have been written by someone in London for all you know.

    If you imagine what it’s like in Egypt you’d realize that the museum / ministry / police are all playing the blame game and emails like this are all part of this. I repeat: shame on you for publishing this un-sourced, un-substantiated junk.

  4. I received this same list from a source with the museum 3 days ago. I didn’t post it because it could not be substantiated but when I saw Judith’s post I noticed it was exactly the same list, most likely from the same source.

  5. I notice that A.H. refuses to identify himself — why would he expect us to think he is any more reliable that the person he accuses of leaking the list, without a name? The person in the museum might be in danger, if he/she reveals himself/herself? Is A.H. in danger?

    I fail to see what harm there is in posting a list with all the caveats I made on my blog when I posted it.

  6. I know it’s impolite to carry an argument about your blog onto Margaret’s, Judith (sorry Margaret). But I should just point out that you have refused to post my comment – much the same as the one I put here – on your blog.

    You said that you would not do it as you would not “publish an unsubstantiated allegation against N[ational] G[eographic]”, but were quite happy to pass on the very same allegation about Zahi Hawass – good of you to kick a man when he’s down.

    My ID is irrelevant, I’m not claiming to know what may or may not be missing from the museum. I’m just pointing out as anyone who has seen the email could, that the list of missing objects is inextricably linked to patently ludicrous allegations like the NG / Zahi / AUC Profs ones and as such its credibility is severely diminished. You quoted the email selectively to give it a credibility it otherwise is sorely lacking. When the museum releases its report on the missing objects will you claim that the crackpot letter is equally truthful?

    If this sort of misleading editing is what makes a scoop, please consider resitting a journalistic ethics 101 class.

    For the sake of some traffic to your blog you have passed on some noxious tittle tattle which will damage more serious efforts to get to the bottom of this. Your published career doesn’t show that you’ve written much on, or had much of an interest in, Egypt before this. It’s good that you’re still trying to excuse your actions in what must be for you a relatively minor and unlucrative part of your career. This suggests a guilty conscience.

  7. You would have far more credibility if you identified yourself, especially since your problem with the original list is that it came from an unidentified source. My motive in publishing the list — which I did with caveats, that I could confirm it — was simply to aid the possible identification of missing objects and stop their flow into the black market. International customs officials are begging for a list.

    It’s amusing that you cite a lack of published articles by me on Egypt (which certainly does not indicate anything about interest or other expertise), and then you proceed to lecture me on something that appears to be quite out of your expertise — journalism. What are your journalism credentials?

  8. This is turly sad, that looting is still going on and also with the resignation of Zahi Hawass. Does anybody know the future of Egyptology at all. What is the future of Egypt?
    Why do people have to loot & break monuments.

  9. In response to A.H., whoever you are, and Judith- I never received the original email myself, so I did not know that it also contained attacks against America & National Geographic (but also it is not inconceivable either that someone within the museum could be biased and want to blame outside sources). This is a blog, which I try to find time to update within a busy schedule, not a serious Egyptological research paper or the New York Times. Also, it is frustrating to not have anything more on what is missing from the museum. I know many people are as anxious for any kind of information as I am and are concerned the lack may hamper efforts to recover the missing items. The list does bear some resemblance to what we know about the break in, but for one thing I’d note that the measurement of the Thoth and scribe statue is described in the list as ‘6.8 cm high’, when according to my records, I have it down as 14cm tall. I hope that although we may disagree, we can all agree to be civil.

  10. Sorry Margaret – I promise this will be my last post on this topic!

    Judith – we’re none of us willing to let this go. If your motive for publishing the list was, as you now claim, “simply to aid the possible identification of missing objects and stop their flow into the black market”, you could have said so in your original post. Instead your first sentence in your original post says “a lot of dirt is going to come out”. This is not so high minded.

    Of course everyone is “begging for a list [of objects]”. But to be useful it has to be a reliable, illustrated list. Of the pieces mentioned in your list, only the Yuya shabtis, the Thoth and scribe (with, as Margaret points out, wrong measurements), the Tut fans, and the Tut trumpet are described in enough detail to suggest they could possibly be identified from this description alone. The SCA announced the Yuya shabtis and Thoth & scribe as missing, photographs of them have been circulated by Margaret and others. The other objects claimed to be missing are described so vaguely as to be meaningless: “17 ushapti [sic for ushabti] figures”? Perhaps you don’t know that these were made by the million, in different materials, styles, and scales. Your list is so vague, and attached to unbelievable allegations about the theft (most of which you have either printed contradictions to (AUC) or yourself been unwilling to print), it is impossible to rely on it. It certainly won’t help customs officials and law recovery bodies, who will need pictures.

    The Ministry of Antiquities has stated that the Museum registrars are producing an inventory with photographs of the objects believed missing. We must all wish it was ready and could be announced now (maybe conditions in the museum aren’t ideal for making the report? Maybe the change of ministers is delaying its announcement?). I imagine that UNESCO / INTERPOL et al are pressing the museum / ministry to get it out and they know more about the situation and tactics than either of us. Until then jumping the gun with anonymous, unreliable, and unspecific third-hand allegations will just muddy the water.

    Maybe I shouldn’t assume knowledge of journalistic ethics. I am a consumer of journalism and someone who has received the same email as you. I want to know the truth about what has happened in Cairo, and the stolen objects to be recovered. I find the uncritical acceptance of an anonymous email containing demonstrably ludicrous allegations, the misleading editing of it to try to give it greater credibility, and now the attempt to claim a high-minded motive for publication rather than a desire to be the first with the “dirt”, deeply unimpressive. Is this within your profession’s ethics?

  11. upps: “none of us” = “neither of us”. I’m sure everyone else is quite willing to let this go…

  12. Margaret – Enjoy your time at the Petrie tomorrow – I received my PhD from UCL (and A Edward’s library went to UCL so many of my study books originally belonged to her – most EEF, of course) and many of my boats are in the Petrie – the fishing model with the nets, deck beams, and mast partner is one of my favorites.

  13. Geez- it is tomorrow – boy, I need to get my calendar fixed. Enjoy your day TUESDAY in London. There. Done now.

  14. Ann- thanks so much! Would you mind sending me your email address? (mine is: my first name dot maitland at gmail dot com) I’d love to discuss your work further. I tried emailing the address attached to your comments here but it just bounced!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *