Sunday, April 24, 2011

Harvard Egyptologist's Newsweek Essay on Protecting Egypt's Heritage Post-Revolution: What It Gets Wrong and Why the Facts Matter

Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard, is a brilliant archaeologist as well as a very nice fellow (I met him recently at a lecture I was giving for University of Chicago alumni at his stomping grounds). But the scholarly rigor that characterizes his academic research is sadly lacking in the opinion piece he published recently in Newsweek, Protecting Egypt's Heritage Post-Revolution - Newsweek. Here's how Der Manuelian describes what has happened this year:
In the space of a few short weeks, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) broke away from the Ministry of Culture to become its own ministry; then Mubarak was toppled, the police disappeared, and some sites, including the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo, were looted. Hawass stepped down to protest the looting; the SCA temporarily lost its independent ministry status; and the new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, could not choose a successor to fill the power vacuum. This created an unfortunate window of opportunity at some sites for armed criminals to overpower the unarmed guards and break into antiquities-storage magazines.
This timeline is both inaccurate and incomplete. The Museum was looted before Mubarak was toppled, not after, and looting of sites and storerooms also began before Mubarak stepped down -- began because the police disappeared, almost certainly on orders from Mubarak. Hawass did step down to protest the looting, but before the museum was attacked he seems to have done little or nothing to secure it, despite the pitched battle that took place in front of it just days before the break-in, and in the weeks following he repeatedly gave out information that was misleading in ways designed to downplay what had gone wrong at the museum as well as what was going wrong on sites and at storehouses. Speaking of the antiquites-storage magazines, Der Manuelian has the timeline wrong here as well. The window of opportunity Der Manuelian talks about did not open because Hawass' resignation created a power vacuum: storage magazines were being attacked before Hawass resigned as well as afterward. 

Why this slipshod approach to the facts? The answer is clear from the fulsome praise Der Manuelian heaps upon Hawass' performance at the helm of the SCA and from his contention that "few others could fill the post at this delicate time." I am not sure that I agree on that point, though I share Der Manuelian's view that Hawass has done great good work over the years for Egypt's cultural heritage and for archaeology in general (including, by the way, co-editing a volume in 2010 with Der Manuelian), and it is easy to see why foreign archaeologists might be not just wary of criticizing someone so powerful but truly and honestly in favor of keeping him in charge because he makes it easier to undertake digs there. 

But all the good Hawass has done cannot be a reason for sweeping under the rug the facts about his performance during the crisis. He must be held responsible for not having thought carefully enough or developed contingency plans in advance to deal with the eventuality of a breakdown in the normal policing functions of the state. The lessons of Iraq, where the toppling of the state left a security vacuum in which the museum and then Iraq's sites were massively plundered, were clear, but ignored. After the clashes began in Tahrir Square, he should have ordered the Cairo Museum completely locked down, and some of the 30,000-plus employees under Hawass' authority should have been dragooned, or at least asked to volunteer, to stand guard together at the museum, at sites and at storehouses, as was done with workers at the Baghdad Museum just before the 2003 invasion. 

One might add that foreign archaeologists and museums engaged in excavations in Egypt also should have been thinking before the fact about the need to secure sites and storehouses in the event of political unrest that was as predictable in general terms as an earthquake; Hawass' failure to have done so is of a piece with general disinterest on the part of both archaeologists and collecting institutions in the unsexy, unintellectual, and sometimes brutal task of securing sites, museums, and storehouses against looters.


Geoff Carter said...

There is a lot more to this story, and the facts, although obscured, are quite disturbing.
The blogsphere is the main source of criticizes of Dr Hawass, because no academic or institution, with an interest in the archaeology of Egypt would risk it, such is the absolute nature of the good Dr's power.
You simply don't bite the hand that holds the key to the feed store.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of his reign, those who know are not likely to speak up, until they are absolutely sure he is well out of the way.

Anonymous said...

The looting of the museum occurred over a week before Mubarak stepped down. The looting of the magazines has been ongoing, but almost certainly has involved SCA & antiquities police. The way in which some items have been recovered has been very suspicious.

Hawass was reappointed solely because of his popularity abroad - he has almost no credibility within Egypt or among the foreign Egyptology community.

Peter Lacovara said...

Manuelian is no archaeologist. As for the rest, I reserve comment.....

Nigel Strudwick said...

Only just came across this. It does rather prove that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and rather show the author's lack of knowledge about Egypt in the pre-revolution times. If you criticised the SCA, bang goes your permit, and I honestly don't see than changing in the shorter term.

Also, in the unlikely event of Egyptian archaeologists working in the USA, would you want them telling the local security services how to secure US sites? Of course not--you would see it as interfering in your country. We should help and offer suggestions, but it is the job of the host country to deal with security.

We must do what we can to help, but above all we must respect their dignity and their independence, and not patronise them.