The Archaeologist Dr Pahor Labib …A Story of Struggle and Success; Dr Ahmos Labib Pahor; Cairo; 2009
The story of the renowned archaeologist Pahor Labib (1905 – 1994) is the story of a man of exemplary integrity and great love for Egypt, whose life journey was an incessant quest for wisdom and a steadfast pursuit to serve his country. For this end Dr Labib endured hardships aplenty and overcame countless difficulties. A recent book written by his son Ahmos represents an authorised biography of a great man. The book is a precious 288-page document written in an eloquent style and richly illustrated with images from Dr Labib’s life and copies of relevant documents.
Watani had the opportunity to talk to Ahmos Pahor Labib, while on a recent visit to Cairo, about his father and his book. Dr Ahmos Labib is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, Cairo and an ear, nose and throat consultant who now resides in England.
Watani: You mentioned in your book that the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) had intended to publish a book on your father but the book never saw light. What happened to the project?
Dr Ahmos Labib: Years ago the writer and researcher Diaa Abu Ghazi was interested in writing books on prominent Egyptian archaeologists. These books were to be published by the SCA. Four books were already released. The fifth was to be about my father. Dr Abu-Ghazi wrote it and presented it to the SCA, the introduction was written by the then Culture Minister Abdel-Qader Hatem, but the book never went into print. There were so many delays and finally, in 2003, we were told that the original hard copy text was lost. Dr Abu-Ghazi’s disappointment was severe, equal only to mine. Dr Abu Ghazi died in 2006.
Was this the motive behind your decision to write a book about your father?
It was one of the motives. But the two books are not the same. Dr Abu-Ghazi’s book focused on the scientific credentials of my father and his professional career, while my book was intended to acquaint Egyptians with a man who had never been properly honoured in Egypt despite the brilliant reputation he had gained abroad. Western scientific circles highly appreciate him as a great archaeologist. He was decorated by Denmark and Germany and received the golden medal from late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. He published a host of works in English, French, German and Arabic. He wrote on ancient law, Coptic art, Greek studies, Islamic art, and the Naga Hammadi codices.
You said your father was the first Egyptian to earn a PhD in archaeology. How did this come about?
After my father got his BA in Archaeology in Egypt, his professor Percy Newberry told him that his professors in Cairo had taught him all they had and would then send him to Germany, home to some of the best archaeologists in the world. There, his studies were supervised by Herman Grapow, the greatest scholar of Hieroglyphs the world over, and Kurt Sethe, the chairman of Pharaonic department at Berlin University. His dissertation was on “Ahmos who drove the Hyksos from Egypt”. My father completed the work for his PhD in four years and became the first Egyptian with a PhD in archaeology. The thesis was published in a book in 1936.
Egypt in modern times knew about nationalisation during the Nasser years in 1956 and the 1960s. Yet you wrote that Dr Labib nationalised the museum of Ismailiya. Could you tell us about that?
In 1948, my father was appointed manager of regional museums in the Egyptian government. He dreamt of building a museum in each governorate to display the antiquities there. The Ismailiya museum had been established and was owned by the Suez Canal Company. In 1951, my father told the then Minister of Education Taha Hussein (1889-1973)—the great writer, novelist and icon of Egyptian enlightenment—about his wish that the museum should belong to Egypt; that it should be under the direct supervision of the Egyptian government. Hussein seized control of the museum.
Did he do the same thing with the Naga Hammadi codices?
When the Naga Hammadi ‘library’ was discovered, Taha Hussein encouraged specialists to study the manuscripts. And in 1951, a law was passed to protect Egyptian antiquities and the government nationalised the manuscripts and transferred their property to the Coptic museum in 1952. Dr Labib was then the museum manager and he insisted on keeping the codices as the property of the museum even though their were several offers from various international museums and institutions to procure them for sums up to some EGP20,000.
What was his role in the Mar Mina area?
Archaeological works at the area started by the Germans in 1905, but was later halted and did not resume till 1951 at the hands of Dr Labib and Dr Victor Girgis. When Pope Kyrillos VI wished to build a monastery in the name of Mar Mina in the same area where the ancient church had been, it had to be built at least 10km away from the archaeological sites. My father was instrumental in coordinating between the archaeological and the Church projects.
This interview did not tackle, however, the personal side of Dr Labib’s life. Yet this is presented in the book in a rich, warm, moving manner. The details are bound to touch the heart of every reader; they come along as brilliant, vivacious, and so full of life.
The book ends with a picture of a smiling 80-year-old Dr Labib wearing his German decoration. He used to wear that whenever he would visit Germany, Dr Ahmos Labib recalls, and the passport officials would directly stand up and salute him with the phrase: “Great respects”. Definitely well earned.