Egypt’s Chief Archaeologist Resigns
Amid Looting of Antiquities
by John Van Auken
Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s longtime Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and renowned Egyptologist, has gotten entangled in the uprising and turmoil in his country. On January 31, former President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak incorporated the SCA into his struggling-to-hang-on government, forming the Ministry of Antiquities and appointing the well-known Dr. Hawass as its Minister. Then, when Mubarak fell from grace and power, a countrywide breakdown in controls and security occurred, including among the Tourist Police who are charged with safeguarding archaeological sites, stored antiquities, and the spectacular Egyptian Museum. With no formal protection, looting and night-time excavating began to occur unchecked. The museum and many storage sites were looted, and digging in known sites to find valuable artifacts became a widespread activity of desperately poor citizens who could find no other work to support themselves. The activity became so out of control that on March 5, Hawass resigned as Minister of Antiquities, writing on his blog: “I cannot stay in Egypt and see antiquities being stolen when I cannot do anything to stop it! This situation is not for me! I have always fought to return stolen artifacts to Egypt.” On March 6, the Egyptian caretaker Prime Minister Essam Sharaf dissolved the Ministry of Antiquities and reestablished the SCA, putting it back under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, which will now be led by Emad Abou-Ghazi, a history professor from the University of Cairo. Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, argues that Egyptian archaeology will continue much as before. “The idea that Egyptian archaeology is Hawass is just something made by TV,” she says. The new secretary general of the SCA has yet to be officially named but it is expected to be Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, head of the SCA's Lower Egypt division. “He is a senior scholar, of the right age and experience,” says archaeologist Ikram. “He is not an enemy of Dr Zahi. He is not walking in and taking over, it is a regular sequence of inheritance, and one hopes that Dr. Zahi had some say in the appointment.”
The problem remains: How does the new government safeguard the ancient one-of-a-kind artifacts with no payroll or trained personnel? Hawass says that sites all over the country have been damaged. Storage warehouses in Dahshur, Abu Sir, Giza and the Sharm el-Sheikh area have been broken into, often by armed looters who overpowered guards. Tombs have also been targeted. The tomb of Ken-Amun in Tell el-Maskhuta, the only 19th-Dynasty tomb known in Lower Egypt, has been completely destroyed. Inscribed blocks have been stolen, and illegal excavations and construction have been reported at several sites. Another problem facing the new Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities is the question of how one soothes the country’s unhappy, underpaid archaeologists? Hawass’s offices have been surrounded daily by disgruntled archaeologists complaining about unfair pay and the lack of opportunity. Hawass counters, “It is not possible to provide everything that everyone is asking for. We need money to protect sites and to restore buildings and objects too. We need the money brought in by tourists who visit our sites and museums to fund these things and, at the moment, there are no tourists.”
Dr. Hawass has been a controversial figure for many years. His regular appearances on TV documentaries raised the profile of Egyptology and brought in funding for ambitious science projects, including X-ray scanning and DNA analysis of King Tut’s mummy. He developed touring exhibitions of the pharaoh's treasures around the world, which brought cash flooding into Egypt. But he has been accused of courting the media to boost his own profile, and his last days in office were marked by protests about jobs and pay for the country’s growing number of Egyptology graduates. However, many Egyptologists believe that he did more good than harm. “There were certain problems,” says Jaromir Malek, head of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, UK. “There was a big ego involved, and his own career flourished as a result. But he genuinely cares about Egyptian antiquities.” Malek acknowledges that Hawass’s “personality, drive and energy” will be hard to replace.
Dr. Hawass has also had a quiet tolerance of Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) and our activities in Egypt searching for an ancient Atlantean Hall of Records buried near the Sphinx. The loss of Dr. Hawass in this key position may curtail such expeditions for some time to come. The new SCA leader’s openness to A.R.E.’s research and even his ability to protect such expeditions remains uncertain. Even so, Cayce’s own readings stated that the ancient Hall of Records will only be entered when the time and people are right.
John Van Auken
John is an internationally renowned speaker, longtime staff member, and current director at Edgar Cayce's A.R.E. A popular leader of A.R.E.’s life-changing tours to Egypt and other sacred sites, he is also the author of several best-selling books, including his latest Edgar Cayce and the Kabbalah, and the presenter in several best-selling DVDs, including the recently released Edgar Cayce's Tour of Egypt. He is also a regular contributor to A.R.E.’s Membership publications Venture Inward magazine and Venture Inward Newsletter. His extensive knowledge of the Cayce readings, the Bible, world religions, and ancient mysticism is combined with years of experience as a teacher and retreat leader to bring deeper understanding to today’s spiritual seeker.