The Hawass Code – Bikya Masr
CAIRO: The Louvre and Egypt’s chief Egyptologist made up on Friday, as the French museum agreed to return five artifacts allegedly stolen from the North African country after Egypt had cut ties with the museum on Wednesday. The French move was met with a promise from Zahi Hawass, the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, to restore ties.
The dispute highlights who is in charge of Egypt’s ancient past, Zahi Hawass. Since taking charge of Egypt’s antiquities in 2003, the Secretary-General has been an ardent campaigner to have all artifacts taken from the sands of the country returned to Egyptian museums, but his efforts, until recently had been unfruitful. The Louvre’s decision to return the artifacts, which appear to have been stolen in the 1980s, is a major victory for Hawass.
“We see this as proof that Egypt deserves to have all stolen artifacts returned to this country because it is their rightful home. What country wouldn’t want their artifacts back on their homeland,” an official at the SCA told Bikya Masr on Saturday.
But, Hawass has been under fire from a number of sides in recent weeks from rights groups who accuse the man of dictatorial polices concerning debate and scientific findings. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) called out Hawass for allegedly pushing aside a researcher for stating views that differed from the SCA Secretary-General’s, which led to dozens of investigations, the rights group said in a statement published last Monday.
Ahmed Saleh, the researcher in question, told ANHRI that he was “alarmed with a series of investigations and announcements from Hawass in newspapers” that the researcher felt were undermining and ridiculing his work. According to ANHRI, the researcher proposed a new approach on how to deal with “some Egyptian antiquities, especially the mummy of King Tut.”
Saleh is a mummification specialist and has a Master’s degree in Egyptian antiquities.
ANHRI claims Hawass – who has become the poster-child of Egyptology worldwide with his cowboy hat – launched dozens of press campaigns against Saleh, after “Hawass would not accept a subordinate who is more knowledgeable, even if the researcher’s propositions are proved to be correct and for the good of the Egyptian antiquities.”
The Louvre and Saleh’s situation highlight the power Hawass has achieved. He is listed as one of the globe’s most influential persons and has taken it to heart, moving with speed to criticize foreign museums and threaten a suspension of ties with Egypt. Until recently, these threats were met with little fanfare, but the French museum’s acquiescence is likely to spur more demands from Egypt.
“I suspect that this decision will create more demands from Hawass and Egypt to have artifacts returned to the country, even though they don’t have the proper ability to maintain them,” said German Egyptologist Hannah, who asked that her full name not be published. “We all need to work in this country, but if Hawass and the government continue this push, it will be more and more difficult.”
Without proper museum capabilities, Egyptologists do not believe the country has a right to demand artifacts back. “How will they keep them so future generations can see them. Look at the Egyptian Museum, it is full of dust and thousands of pieces lie in the basement without proper care,” said the Egyptologist, who has worked in the country for years.
The criticism Hawass is receiving is not likely to change the man’s demands in the near future. He has blamed foreign tourists for much of the destruction in and around the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, which has pushed the SCA to make the area an open-musuem, forcing aside thousands of Egyptians who have lived near the relics for centuries.
In an interview with Bikya Masr’s Editor/Founder last year, Hawass said in his Cairo office that “if we do not act now, the history of this country could quickly disappear and we cannot have that.” And he is acting, as the Louvre knows very well.
But, for all his cheerful spirit – Hawass gave his fabled cowboy hat to American President Barack Obama in June – he has his critics, who claim he searches for fame before truly acting as a caretaker.
“He is paid thousands of dollars for each appearance he makes for the Discovery Channel and every time he writes or appears anywhere. The man makes so much money that it is no wonder he tries to curtail other opinions,” an Egyptian researcher told Bikya Masr. The researcher, who works for the SCA, says that “everyone in the council knows what goes on, but he is the boss and his rules go, so there is little we can do.”
With the Louvre returning stolen artifacts, Hawass is not likely to slow in his quest to have all artifacts, including the Nefertiti bust in Germany and the Rosetta Stone in London returned. Threats are no longer seen as empty, say archaeologists, and the situation is likely to heat up before it calms down.