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BlogBack: Egyptologist Decries Rumors About Antiquities Looting (but concerns persist)

Crowds outside the Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Photo from Zahi Hawass’ website

Zahi Hawass, recently named to the new Egyptian government post of Minister of Antiquities, reiterates again today on his website that Egypt’s antiquities are safe. He leads off his latest post by emphasizing his own bureaucratic standing:

I have
come into this new position at a very critical time, but the most
important thing about this is that for the first time in history Egypt
has a Ministry of Antiquities….Previously,
the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) had fallen under the
ministries of education, tourism, and, most recently, culture. Now, I am
happy to say that there is a Ministry of Antiquities that is separate
from the Ministry of Culture.

His enhanced status in the embattled government might mean that he rises and falls with Mubarak. Or his stature may be such that his fate will not be linked to that of the current ruler. At least one commentator, Robert Eisenman in the Huffington Post, has advanced the highly improbable notion of “Zahi Hawass for Prime Minister.” That nomination elicited some bemused comments from members of the archaeological community who have gravitated to the Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum! page on Facebook.

Perhaps to quell speculation that he may depart Egypt upon the fall of the Mubarak regime, Hawass writes:

I cannot leave the country and live in any other part of the world. I want to die in the sands of Egypt.

Meanwhile, a report yesterday on a website [via] devoted to Dutch excavations in Saqqara contradicted Hawass’ forceful assertions that Saqqara has not been looted (and jibed with the account from American University Egyptology Professor Salima Ikram, quoted at the end of this post):

A reliable source in Cairo (who had this directly from one of the SCA
inspectors at Saqqara) confirmed that the Czech magazine at Abusir and
the Cairo University magazine at Saqqara have been
looted. No confirmation could be had about private tombs.

Apparently doors have been forcibly opened but whether reliefs have been
taken is not clear. The inspectors themselves have not yet had access
to all parts of the site.
[Hawass had reported that “outlaws only broke the padlocks” at Saqqara and “no damage had been done.”]

While the unconfirmed reports continue to fly, a non-Egyptian Egyptologist, who identified himself to me but requested that his name not be published, responded to my CultureGrrl post—Fire Reported at Egyptian Museum; Hawass’ Deeply Flawed Crisis Response:

I’m a long-time reader and fan of your blog, but I’d like to take you to task for your latest pieces on the Cairo Museum.

Saying it has been ‘looted’ is—at present and hopefully in the future—wildly inaccurate. “Looting” means that objects have been stolen from the museum. Readers of your blogs will imagine that a fate similar to that of the Iraq Museum has befallen the Cairo Museum. This is thankfully wrong.

It’s also not entirely fair to castigate the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities [headed by Zahi Hawass] for inaction on this. [Actually, CultureGrrl never accused the SCA of inaction.] The SCA has long been severely underfunded. The establishment of the new Antiquities Ministry will presumably give museums and sites a far more generous allocation of funds. Dr Hawass is an extremely able administrator with an undeniable passion for Egyptian heritage, and giving him and his organisation more power is an excellent step.

The “Memphis Museum” that you describe as possibly being looted does not exist. It seems likely that reports are referring to the Imhotep Museum at nearby Saqqara, which many accounts have mentioned as a target. But there is no certain knowledge that it was entered or that anything was taken.

It’s interesting to note that many of the sites that have allegedly been looted (i.e., Saqqara, Dahshur) are ones where there are currently no/few expeditions working. Therefore, they may have been looted but there is no independent verification of this. Until the dust settles, I would trust the SCA rather than the wildly contradictory reports that have been coming out.

I have been keeping a close eye on this and have been astonished at the speed with which rumors arise, become fact and are dispersed. To base an article on these, without verification, does the real situation a disservice.

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