A year after the Egyptian Revolution, what is the state of Egyptology? And how has the former head of Egyptian Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, to life without political and scientific power?
by Philip Coppens
For more than a decade, Egyptology was dominated by Dr Zahi Hawass, in charge of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Farouk Hosni, the Minister of Culture into which he reported, and of course Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt with whom he was friendly. When the Egyptian Revolution was ignited on January 25, 2011, two – Mubarak and Hosni – were immediately removed from power; both have since been charged and one tried and convicted.
Hawass was part of the Old Regime, more a politician than Egyptologist, and both superseded by his willingness to seek out the light of the camera. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Nora Shalaby, a young Egyptian archaeologist described him as “the Mubarak of antiquities.” For many years, he was the darling of so many television documentaries, but “Chasing Mummies”, a quasi-reality show following him in his daily activities, revealed more of the man than most wanted to see and what he wanted to show. He tried to keep the series as quietly as he could, though it was never totally clear whether he realized he had been set up and had taken the bait all too willingly.
Egypt’s steps towards democracy over the past year are perfectly illustrated by Hawass’ fate. On January 31, 2011, days after the revolution broke out, he was made Minister of Antiquities, as part of a cabinet reshuffle through which Mubarak hoped to stall the revolution and save his government. After Mubarak’s regime fell on February 11, Hawass stayed on until March 3. During those weeks, there were often daily protests held outside of his Cairo office. The protesters were often young, unemployed archaeologists who saw no future, and were protesting on how the old regime had handled antiquities, archaeology and employees. On his personal website, he would downplay the protests, claiming several congratulated him, while he invited a delegation of the disgruntled into his office, for talks.
But by March 3, it was all to no avail. Hawass himself posted on his personal website a list of dozens of sites that had been looted in the 2011 protests, making it appear that his resignation was because he was powerless to protect Egypt’s national monuments and would not remain in a position that could not save national treasures.
Hawass has one of the greatest bouncing-back capabilities of anyone. Even under Mubarak’s regime, there were a number of times when he was suspended for wrongdoings and even charges of corruptions, but Hawass could always evade or bounce back, to a higher level than the one he fell from. Hence, on March 30, Hawass was back as Minister of Antiquities, reappointed by the new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The appointment came as a surprise, as days before, Hawass had reported that he did not desire to work for this individual whom he seemed not to respect. It appears that their relationship was indeed strained, for on July 17, Sharaf informed Hawass that he would not be continuing in his position, in what was announced as a “cabinet reshuffle”. Hawass responded that “All the devils united against me”, which reveals very little.
Sharaf named Cairo University engineer Abdel Fatta El Banna as Hawass’ successor, but his appointment was challenged when it was pointed out that he lacked archaeological credentials. On July 20, Hawass personally told the Egyptian state news agency that he had been reinstated, though six days later, he claimed that he had left the position to rest and write. Whether it was true or to leave the impression he quit, rather than was fired, remains a question. Mohamed Ibrahim Ali (center) Throughout the remainder of 2011 and 2012, there were rumors of a Hawass return, who, rumors went, was plotting his return behind the scene, while pretending he was enjoying the free time, the lack of responsibilities and the opportunity to write books and scientific papers. As the months went on, his successor as Minister of Antiquities was not an easy or quick decision: it lasted until December 7 before Mohamed Ibrahim Ali was announced as the new Minister of Antiquities. Ibrahim Ali was the dean of archaeology of Ain Shams University in Cairo. I had the privilege of getting to know him during the International Conference on the Bosnian Pyramids in late August 2008. His very presence at the conference revealed his openness, even though since his appointment some armchair bloggers have seen his presence at the conference as a weakness. For those who are aware of the conspiracies certain members of the European archaeological establishment have mounted against this project, his unwillingness to take a stand against the Bosnian Pyramids is something they now clearly deplore. Whereas Hawass did not waste any opportunity to proclaim it was all a sham – even though away from the cameras he supported the initiative by sending a geologist to help the excavations – Ibrahim Ali is far more reserved.
Little was heard from Hawass in early 2012, but then, the April 12, 2012 issue of the main Arabic daily newspaper Al Ahram gave Hawass and Hosni front page coverage. They went on the attack, claiming that “An American book attributes Egyptian Civilization to the Jews.” The book in question is “Breaking the Mirror of Heaven” and will be published on August 12, 2012 by Inner Traditions, an American publisher. The authors are Robert Bauval and Ahmed Osman, the former a Belgian living in Spain, the latter an Egyptian living in London.
As the book was not yet published, there was little to go on. Its subtitle reads “The Conspiracy to Suppress the Voice of Ancient Egypt”. The promotional text announces the role of Freemasonry under Napoleon in the exploration of Ancient Egypt, how foreign rulers had cleansed the pagan past of Egypt, and… “Shows how the censorship of nonofficial Egyptology as well as new archaeological discoveries continued under Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass”, adding later “Exposing recent cover-ups during the tenure of Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, they explain how new discoveries at Giza were closed to further research.”
The attacks were ad-hominem and Hawass’ reply was too. In the newspaper, Hawass claimed Bauval’s parents were “Belgians Jews” from Alexandria, which Bauval argued was “a claim clearly intended to be derogatory, implying that being a ‘Jew’ explains the reason for me writing this book (as an act of ‘vengeance’) and that, in any case, being a ‘Jew’ I cannot be believed.” Bauval actually went as far as to show that his parents were Catholic Christians, that he and they were baptized in a church in Alexandria (where they and he was born), posting copies of the actual records on his website.
The feud between Hawass and Bauval is not new and dates back to the 1990s. It had been patched up on a number of occasions, but clearly Hawass felt that the truce had been broken when Bauval decided to write this book.
It is not the first time that Hawass has used the ‘Jews’ to try and discredit his opponents and in 2002, Bauval dedicated an entire article to this very aspect. In a country like Egypt, Israel is obviously a controversial and topical subject. Politicians frequently play the Jewish agenda card to find support from the Egyptian people. But before Hawass played the role of a politician, he was commenting on the Jewish people, from a “historical perspective”. On February 11, 2009, Hawass was interviewed on Egyptian television and claimed that the Jews controlled the United States and the media, thus agreeing with the many conspiracy theories on the subject.
In his rebuttal, Bauval stated that Hawass’ recent attack “may, in fact, be a smoke screen to his own very involved relationship with American Jews – something that today in Egypt would definitely not go down well in the present political climate.” Hawass received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, where his tutor and assessor was Dr. David Silverman. Bauval: “Silverman, and his university, have been granted long-tern concessions in Egypt by Hawass, and the latter and Dr. Silverman have collaborated on many projects and even wrote a book together. It is also well-known that Hawass has ‘facilitated’ the Edgar Cayce Foundation of America to work at the Giza Pyramids many times, and that the principal funders were Joseph Jahoda and Joseph Schor, two prominent Jewish American businessmen.” Hawass, with Robert Bauval (to his right), Graham Hancock and John Anthony West (left) in better days The newspaper article also alleged that Bauval met with ex-minister Hosni and gave him a DVD/video about the theory presented in the book, something that Bauval denies. Bauval states he actually never even met Hosni. Finally, Bauval specified that the book does not attribute Egyptian civilization to the Jews.
Why did Hawass create those allegations against Bauval on the front page? Because days before, on April 2, that same newspaper reported that “Egypt’s ‘Indiana Jones’ faces charges.” Indeed, after a year of speculation, Hawass was finally charged for corruption. The newspaper reported that “General Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud on Monday referred charges of wasting public money and stealing Egyptian antiquities against Zahi Hawass, former minister of state for antiquities to the Public Fund Prosecution office.” Nour El-Din Abdul-Samad, Director of Archeological Sites, had filed the accusations against Hawass, and requested that the objects in question be returned to the Egyptian Museum. The Public Funds Prosecution office also received other charges accusing Hawass of wasting public money and exposing Egyptian antiquities to stealing in collaboration with former regime members. In total, Hawass faced seven charges.
The specific allegation was that Hawass sealed a deal with the American Geographical Society – which supposedly should be National Geographic Society – to display 143 rare Egyptian antiquities in exhibitions across the United States and Australia, which is a violation of the law. The artifacts were loaned in 2003 and never returned. Of course, Hawass was the man who incessantly accused foreign governments of having stolen precious Egyptian relics and demanding their return! To find out he personally allowed – illegally – several artifacts to leave Egypt and never asked for their return, is almost incredible.
Appearing on television, Hawass admitted that he had a 17 million dollar deal with regard to a Tutankhamun exhibition to raise donations for Suzanne Mubarak’s association, which he confirmed was a private organization.
After the initial charges were filed against Hawass, there were rumors in Egypt that Suzanne Mubarak had been questioned, something which the authorities denied. Hawass met with Ali El-Hawari, a lawyer from the Public Funds Prosecution Office, presenting a number of documents outlining what in his opinion showed the inaccuracy of the charges filed against him. El-Hawari ordered the formation of a committee made up of a number of experts from the judiciary and the antiquities field to study all the documents presented both by Hawass and the regulatory authorities. When a conclusion it reached, even if Hawass is found not guilty, there are several more people more than willing to press new charges against them.
Even if he escapes a guilty verdict, according to “The New York Times”, Hawass was paid around $200,000 a year to be “explorer-in-residence” for the National Geographic Society, which many in Egypt frown upon, if only because of the enormous salary involved. Ahmed Osman For the moment, it seems – for with Hawass no-one is ever sure – that the charges are sufficient so that he does not come out of retirement. His replacement is definitely displaying his strengths. Ibrahim Ali reported that his main emphasis was on the youth and junior archaeologists, stating that 2000 out of 6000 fresh graduates would be appointed at the SCA and the Ministry of Antiquities. In contrast, in April of 2011 when these students were protesting outside of Hawass’ office, he proclaimed that he could not provide jobs for them at all. He also suggested remodeling the thinking and goals of the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ Administrative Council, in order to better handle the current workload, adding new blood to its membership, including “prominent figures of civil society” and from the media. In short, break up the old boys’ network that was put in place by Hawass since 2002.
In early February of 2012, Egypt became interested as to whether Ramses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, or not and Ibrahim Ali was asked to comment. He stated that he would never allow the analysis of King Ramses II’s mummy to confirm whether or not he was the long-disputed Pharaoh of the Exodus. He added: “What is being rumored in this context is utterly non-scientific and not founded on any sort of evidence.” In the same interview, he was forced to address another issue to do with Jews: that the Grand Egyptian Museum – currently under construction – had a design featuring the Star of David, thereby not expressing “Egyptian identity”: “This argument is groundless. From a geometric point of view, it is utterly invalid. And from an archeological point of view, the formation and direction of the exhibits is yet to be conclusively decided, for those that say they will face Jerusalem. For example, some have alleged that the statue of Ramses II will be displayed in a certain fashion towards a specific direction.” It shows the level of rumors and allegations that are making their way within Egypt, and it is clear that Hawass is more than willing throw further oil on this fire, potentially endangering the lives of Bauval and Osman, the former who frequently visits Egypt.
Whereas Hawass was always rallying to get the Rosetta Stone and Nefertiti’s bust back to Egypt, Ibrahim Ali has stated he is not pursuing such causes. He ended the interview with questions that were clearly related to Hawass. He pledged to never cover up for any kind of corruption. He said that “I am not going to allow any measure of corruption, even if it is slight. Many legal cases have already been referred to the administrative prosecution service or the public funds prosecution. Upon assuming responsibility, I became highly suspicious of corruption in some projects, so I referred them to the cabinet which subsequently referred them to the Attorney General. This is concrete proof that we won’t cover up for any suspicion of corruption no matter how small it might be.”
In short, Ibrahim Ali has proclaimed to be a wind of change, but whether this will lead to openness on controversial topics frequently brought up by alternative researchers like Bauval remains to be seen. A first test, it seems, might be Bauval’s new book, though it is unlikely to achieve the required threshold to become a genuine political issue, however much Hawass is set to make it one, it seems. Though Ibrahim Ali is more open towards new avenues of research, he is a product of his generation, but thinks and reflects first before speaking out. It might be a small difference between the two men, but it is a big difference for Egyptology. This article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 94 (July – August 2012).