Mubarak, Hawass, and the End of Traditional Egyptology


What a roller-coaster weekend!  We kicked it off on a serious high Friday with the long-awaited resignation of Mubarak–Mabruk Masr! This was followed Saturday by the sad confirmation that several major objects in the Cairo Museum were missing.  Now, there are the disturbing reports of renewed looting at Dashur and elsewhere, perhaps including the expedition house at Abydos.  The Egyptological Looting Database is staying on top of these reports and compiling them on one location.  The situation is uncertain and rumors fly.

Now Zahi Hawass, the face of Egyptian archaeology to many around the globe, is facing angry protesters of his own. The SCA offices in Zamalek were besieged Monday by a large group of archaeology graduate students insisting on change.  Such grumblings are not new in the Egyptian archaeology community.  When I was photographing at the Cairo Museum for a few weeks several years ago, the assistant who helped me was a lovely young woman with an MA in Egyptology.  Although she worked nearly full time, there wasn’t any money coming into the museum to pay for staff, so she was just volunteering in the hopes that if a position did become available she might be considered.  She was trying to stay positive, but was mildly hopeless about her future.  It seems to have gotten even more desperate.

Zahi is a controversial figure in professional circles.  He is a very skilled archaeologist, no one can deny that he is passionate about his work, he cares deeply for these monuments, and he understands them.  I have met Zahi on several occasions and can attest that he is as energetic IRL as he is on screen–it’s not an act (although it’s played up in certain contexts).  He is also Pharaoh of Egypt’s antiquities and, currently, holds sway over who does and does not gain access to her treasures.  Egyptologists who have angered him have seen their expedition papers rejected, their visas denied.  He is a showman and loves the limelight, but his popularity has brought great funding to the country.  The big question is (and has been): where does all that money go?

Hard to say what is next for antiquities management in Egypt, and it isn’t my wont to speculate on such things.  From my experience, the majority of the SCA archeologists are intelligent, well-trained, and treasure the objects and monuments placed under their charge.  As with any group, there are exceptions that can sully the whole, but as facts emerge it is clear that sites in many areas of the country are secure because of the stalwart efforts of their SCA guardians.  We must help support them and honor their efforts and sacrifice.

As discussed in previous posts (on Jan 31 and Feb 6), the current uncertain situation in Egypt should prompt all scholars to renew their focus on thoroughly recording those objects and monuments that we already have access to.  It is amazing how few objects and monuments globally are fully recorded.  Google’s new Art Project is an incredible step in that direction, and the paintings that are recorded in detail can be examined down to the brushstroke (check out Bottichelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi–wow!), but there are many gaps, as is inevitable in an initial effort.

Recording becomes even more timely when speaking of monuments rather than objects contained within a museum which is a (largely) contained and stable environment.  Many monuments are freely manhandled by visitors on a daily basis.  Sometimes, the guides initiate this wall fondling, but most people unfortunately don’t need much prodding to stroke a 3,500 year-old section of painted relief.  There is something so…big…about being in the presence of something that ancient that there is a human impulse to touch it, to be one with it for a moment and consider all those who may have touched it before you.  I get that, but the same experience could be conveyed by an undecorated block (a piece of well-worn paving perhaps?) situated at the entrance to a monument, with a sign suggesting that people touch that ancient surface rather than the decorated surfaces within.  Who knows if it would work (there are some people that nothing short of a taser will stop), but at least it’s something.  Education is key.

The future of Egypt’s monuments lies in the hands of scholars who must record them, the SCA who must conserve and guard them, and the guides who must properly educate the visitors about them.  As the situation in Egypt continues to unfold, there may be unpredictable changes to the SCA and antiquities management .  We can hope that the large corp of highly skilled SCA archaeologists who cherish their sites will remain as part of the revised infrastructure.  The difference they make is fundamental.

We Egyptologists base our entire careers on the study of sites and objects we know to be fragile and temporary.  In the long view of time, humans will continue to move through intermittent cycles of war, revolutions, and chaos; even if such cycles are exceedingly rare, given enough time it is a certainty they will occur, and each occurrence puts precious sites and objects at risk.  We have the tools, technology, and resources to digitally capture every ancient Egyptian site and object ever discovered, and we should not–cannot–rest until that is accomplished.

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The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.