Since the January 2011 Revolution and the rise of the Islamists, Egypt’s monuments and antiquities have been increasingly coming into the spotlight, not always positively.
At one point, the Salafis insisted the monuments were idols that should be demolished. Recently, it was circulated that Qatar wished to rent or lease them. And it didn’t make matters any better that the foreign expeditions that do the digs, documentation and cataloguing of the antiquities were suspected by Egypt’s parliament to be smuggling them out of the country. Which made Watani decide to explore the issue of the role played by foreign archaeologists in the discovery of Egypt’s heritage and making it known to the world.
Are foreign archaeological expeditions working in Egypt guilty of plundering the country and smuggling antiquities out? According to recent discussions in the Shura Council’s Committee of Culture, Tourism and Media (CCTM)—the Shura (Consultative) Council is the upper house of Egypt’s Parliament—they might very well be. The CCTM thus stressed the importance of Egyptian inspectors to accompany and oversee these expeditions, and halt the work of any team found to have a member involved in smuggling artefacts or in any crime contravening the 1983 Law on the Protection of Antiquities.
CCTM member Khaled Bannoura said that expeditions should only be allowed under the aegis of renowned scientific authorities, and that the dig permit must be restricted to a specific area and period of time. Another CCTM member Emad Mahdi called for the appointment of undercover inspectors to supervise digs, and suggested foreign expeditions should provide training for a specific number of Egyptian antiquities specialists to replace the foreigners in the future.
Such controversial statements brought to the fore discussions of the pros and cons of granting dig permits to foreign expeditions, even of the possibility of doing away with them altogether. At the same time, they brought into question the guarantees in place against the theft and smuggling of Egyptian artefacts, and the efficacy of the 1983 law.
The cost of digging
Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim Ali has declared on many occasions that disposing of foreign archaeological expeditions is currently out of the question. Foreign expeditions, he says, provide inestimable experience and financing and ask for nothing in return but scientific knowledge. He has also refused to make antiquities a political issue, and insists that permits are only granted to archaeological teams after scrupulous investigation which includes approval of the security apparatus and presentation of a work plan that conforms to the orientations of the ministry.
Mohamed Ismail, director general of permanent committees and foreign expeditions, shares this opinion. He stresses the importance of foreigners in making archaeological discoveries and documenting, cataloguing and preserving antiquities using modern scientific techniques. The fact that they also cover all their financial costs makes them a valuable and indispensable asset, since they lift a huge financial burden off the shoulders of the Egyptian State. It is vital thus, he insists, that the interests of the more than 300 foreign expeditions operating in Upper and Lower Egypt should be protected.
Excavation permits are restricted to specific locations and periods of time, and are non-transferrable to any other work groups. They are granted on evidence of the necessary scientific, technical, financial and archaeological experience. The 1983 Law on the Protection of Antiquities regulates the work of foreign missions and sets rules for their operation.
Reclaiming smuggled antiquities
Egypt has been a pioneer in issuing laws to protect antiquities—the first was passed 177 years ago, says Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy, who oversees the reclamation of Egypt’s stolen archaeological heritage. In his new book, Sarikat Mashroua (Legal Robberies) published by the Lebanese Egyptian Printing House, he points out that in the past some of these laws unfortunately created the means for foreigners to own many Egyptian archaeological artefacts by way of the so-called ‘division’ law. This law was issued in the early 20th century under pressure from foreign consuls to divide the finds of archaeological digs equally between the archaeological expedition and the Egyptian State. Even though Egypt took the first pick, the door was open to trickery, which is how the Neferiti bust got out, passed off as an inferior object’.
It was not until 1983 that a law was passed that was a turning point in the interpretation of division of antiquities. It limited the share of the foreign institution to only 10 per cent of the finds found in duplicate, and only for the purpose of scientific research or museum display. Selling off artefacts is prohibited. This law was valid until it was amended in 2010 and a new Law on the Protection of Antiquities was passed stating that all antiquities unearthed by any archaeological expeditions, be they foreign or domestic, belong ipso facto to Egypt.
Theft of ancient Egyptian antiquities and tomb robbery is not new. They go back in time to the Pharaohs themselves, especially at times of political unrest and economic decline. Sometimes, a royal tomb would be robbed by the workers who took part in its construction or the priests who performed the funerary rites. Proof that ancient Egyptians did commit tomb robberies was recorded in several ancient Egyptian papyri. The cache in Deir-el-Bahri where the mummies of 50 pharaohs and dignitaries were discovered was yet another attempt by 21st dynasty priests to save the royal mummies from theft.
Many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were already open to tourists from the ancient world. Graffiti on the tomb walls written in archaic languages like Greek and Latin prove that the region was a touristic destination during the Greek, Roman and Coptic eras.
After the Arab conquest in 641 AD, the archaeological sites fell into neglect and it was not until the late 17th century that European travellers started to take an interest in visiting these sites, describing, drawing and documenting what they saw. These travellers included the French Paul Lucas who was the first European to make drawings of Karnak temple in 1704, Father Claude Sicard, a French Jesuit who travelled around Egypt in 1708, British traveller Richard Pococke who sailed all the way from Alexandria to Nubia in 1737 and 1738.
In 1798 the Napoleon military expedition landed in Egypt. Although the expedition failed to achieve its political goals, it contributed greatly to the introduction of the ancient Egyptian civilisation to the world. The series of publications entitled “La Description de l’Egypte” drew worldwide attention to Egypt’s rich history and civilisation. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone which eventually led to the deciphering of the Hieroglyphics made the ancient Egyptian history and artefacts all the rage. Demand on Egyptian antiquities by museums and personal collections spiralled. With the absence of a law regulating archaeological excavations and the lack of appreciation of these artefacts by the people and rulers of Egypt, the 19th century saw several foreign treasure hunters coming to Egypt to conduct digs and sell the plundered loot to whoever offered the highest bid.
The political climate in Egypt in the early 19th century could not be more favourable for Europeans to flock into Egypt. Muhamed Ali Pasha, Egypt’s new ruler, aimed to establish a modern state and resorted to hiring European experts to help him accomplish his reforms.
To the highest bidder
The large numbers of foreigners created a need for consul-generals of their respective countries in Egypt. In addition to performing their diplomatic duties, the European consuls in the first half of 19th century Egypt conducted the more lucrative task of smuggling Egyptian artefacts by the thousands under the nonchalant eye of Egypt’s Viceroy. The key players in that field were the British and French consuls Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti. Salt used agents such as Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian adventurer who excelled at conducting excavations all over Egypt, as far south as Abu Simbel. Belzoni’s knowledge of hydraulics and levers enabled him to transport many large pieces of antiquity along the Nile and then all the way to Europe, such as the colossal bust of Ramesses II now at the British Museum. Drovetti conducted most of his excavations himself and was known for using unethical methods such as smashing duplicated artefacts to guarantee getting the highest price for his finds. Salt and Drovetti competed fiercely over the acquisition of artefacts and amassed a huge fortune selling them to highest bidders. Their collections were sold to the British Museum, the Louvre and King Charles Felix of Sardinia who later used them as a foundation for the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.
Deciphering the Rosetta Stone
Despite the abuse, credit has to go to foreigners that Egypt’s heritage and history were made known to the world, and that Egyptology as a science was born.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 was a twist of fate for Egyptology, because it provided the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs—which had hitherto been but a mystery—and eventually changed Egyptian studies for ever.
The stone was discovered by a French officer during Napoleon’s French Campaign in Egypt. Lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stone were made and distributed to researchers. In 1802, the stone came into the possession of Great Britain and was taken at length to the British Museum where it is still on display.
After an initial breakthrough by Thomas Young, Jean-François Champollion made the brilliant leap of deduction that helped him decipher the Rosetta Stone. Champollion’s first key to breaking the code came when he discovered 15 common signs between the Coptic and the Demotic writings and concluded that Coptic was in fact the last form of the Ancient Egyptian language. He announced his discovery to the world in 1822 and, now that the ancient Egyptian language could be understood, the way was paved to unveil the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Despite studies in GB, US, France, Germany and Italy on Egyptian archaeology from the beginning of the 19th century, the actual science of Egyptology was founded only when Amelia Edwards died in 1892 and left a bequest to finance the first Chair of Egyptology at University College London (UCL), with Flinders Petrie as its first incumbent.
The founding of the Egyptian Museum
The deciphering of hieroglyphs created huge interest in Egyptian antiquities. Mohamed Ali, the Ottoman viceroy who ruled Egypt at the time, built a small museum in the Azbekiya Gardens in Cairo, which opened in 1835. This soon proved too small for the number of artefacts being registered, so in 1858 the museum moved to a building in Bulaq in Cairo. A few years later the collection moved again, this time to a new building, also in Bulaq, designed by the Conservator of Egyptian Monuments, Auguste Mariette. In 1878 the Nile flood badly damaged this building, destroying artefacts and Mariette’s collection of manuscripts, but the national treasures remained there until they moved to their final, purpose-built home in 1902.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Ali and his successors gave away antiquities as gifts to foreign monarchs, to the detriment of the national collection. Mariette, a French excavator who had made important discoveries at Saqqara, was appointed to the post of conservator of monuments by Said Pasha in 1858. He undertook the task of classifying and cataloguing antiquities, worked on issuing laws to control theft and smuggling, and called for the establishment of an administration for antiquities. Mariette’s dream of a larger museum was not realised during his lifetime and he was extremely distressed by the loss of his manuscripts in the 1878 flood. He died in January 1881.
The famous statue of the seated scribe in the Louvre was sent by Mariette from his 1850 excavations in Saqqara.
Petrie, the first ‘Egyptologist’
Flinders Petrie first came to Egypt in 1880 and excavated many archaeological sites until 1905. He is known for developing a scientific methodology for studying archaeological finds based on the meticulous study of the smallest details he would find in his digs such as pottery fragments. Due to the lenient laws of the time which allowed archaeologists to get hold of many of their finds and under the pretext that he wanted to save many artefacts from destruction and neglect, he managed to send many of his archaeological finds to his homeland, such as Fayum mummy portraits and artefacts from Tell-el-Amarna.
In 1892, Petrie was the first person to hold a chair of Egyptology in England and was knighted in 1923 for “services to British archaeology and Egyptology”. Many of his finds are now on display in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in University College London.
Maspero… and more finds
In 1850 an event occurred that has rocked the world of archaeology. This was the discovery of the cache of more than 50 royal mummies at Deir al-Bahri, hidden by ancient priests in a single tomb. The tomb had been opened by the Abdel-Rassouls, a local family who for decades had been making a living by selling objects on the mummies on the antiques market. The authorities were alerted in 1881, and an inspector, Émile Brugsch, had the mummies speedily removed and taken to Cairo.
French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero set sail to Egypt in the late 1880 as the head of an archaeological expedition. He arrived in Cairo a few weeks before the death of his friend Mariette, and immediately succeeded him as director general of excavations and antiquities and curator of the Bulaq Museum. Maspero resumed Mariette’s excavations in Saqqara and widened the search area. A specialist in the ancient Egyptian language, Maspero was particularly interested in tombs that contained important hieroglyphic texts that would help enrich the lexicon, and in the course of his work he photographed and sketched 4,000 lines of such texts.
Maspero established the Institut Francais d’Archéologie Orientale, and was its first director. The French Institute not only studied ancient Egyptian archaeology, but also all antiquities belonging to the Coptic and Islamic eras. Maspero resumed his predecessor’s digs at Edfu and Abydos temples, and his work on removing sand from around the Sphinx at Giza in an attempt to find hidden tombs below it. Maspero also worked on cataloguing the many antiquities in the Bulaq museum. As the number of finds increased, the need arose to put them in a safe place to protect them from theft, and so the present Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square was built and opened in 1902.
Carter and the Golden Pharaoh’s tomb
Foreign archaeological excavations continued after Maspero’s death, but none captured international attention as much as the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Golden Pharaoh, by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. Carter was performing archaeological digs in the Valley of the Kings in the Nile’s west bank in Luxor. Near the entrance of the tunnel leading to the tomb of Ramesses IV, he noticed the presence of an underground gallery. He started digging in that location and finally reached the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, ornamented with wonderful scenes telling the story of Pharaoh’s journey to the kingdom of the dead. This discovery attracted huge worldwide media attention because it was the first ever Egyptian tomb to be found intact with all its contents of artefacts and jewellery made of solid gold and ebony.
Foreign expeditions and an ongoing contribution
Recent years have seen ongoing cooperation with foreign archaeological expeditions specialising in both excavation and restoration of antiquities. Many of these expeditions carry out their work in Luxor, the capital of the ancient Egyptian empire from 1567 to 1085 BC. The missions recently working in the region include the Polish and German Archaeological Institutes, the Universita di Pisa (Italy), the Archaeological Institute of the City of Madrid (Spain) and the Universitat Basel (Switzerland), who contributed to the maintenance, restoration and cataloguing of the open courtyard of Queen Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir al-Bahri temple as well as the maintenance and restoration of its Hathor chapel and the sphinx and Osirian statues. Other contributors to archaeological digs in Egypt include expeditions from Waseda University (Japan), The University of Warsaw (Poland), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), Yale University (USA), the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) and the Institut Francais d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO), which undertook restoration and maintenance work on the tomb of Amenhotep III in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, the Khensu temple in Luxor; an archaeological field survey in al-Ma’la, between Luxor and Edfu, and at Wadi al-Gimal (Valley of the Camels) on the Red Sea coast; and drawing a map of the mines and rock engravings at Wadi Hamamat in the Eastern Desert.
24 March 2013