Egypt's antiquities chief resigns

7. March 2011 16:18

For an outsZahi Hawass in northern Egypt, May 2010. c. Voice of Americaide observer at least, it is hard to imagine Egyptology without the country's top antiquities official, Zahi Hawass. Since he became head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in 2002, he has been a familiar figure in TV documentaries -- tracking down long-lost mummies, supervising state-of-the-art scientific projects and roaming the country in search of "new" finds.

He has featured regularly in newspaper headlines too. Hawass's energy and enthusiasm have raised the profile of Egypt's antiquities, and the numerous documentaries, as well as touring museum exhibitions of pharaohs' treasures, have brought in much-needed cash. But his critics have accused him of everything from using his position to boost his own media profile, to corruption (an allegation that he denies).

Shortly before President Mubarak was ousted by the recent uprising, he converted the SCA into a new government department of antiquities with Hawass as its minister. But last Thursday Hawass told the New York Times that if asked to continue in that role he would refuse, complaining that the police are not doing enough to protect Egypt's archaeological sites from looters. He had previously downplayed the risk of looting on his blog, saying that sites were safe, but on Thursday he reversed that position, posting a long list of affected sites across the country.

As a long-time ally of Mubarak, it is far from certain that Hawass would have kept his job under the new regime anyway. But his comments about the extent of the looting are still pretty worrying. On Saturday I asked Hawass about what he hopes to achieve by resigning, his fears for Egypt's archaeological sites, and whether he would consider staying on in any SCA or government role. I've included the full interview below.

I've written two stories about the situation, one for New Scientist on Friday about the possible extent of the looting, and one for Nature today about the implications of Hawass's departure. Last night the caretaker prime minister Essam Sharaf named a new cabinet, and got rid of the newly-created antiquities department, reinstating the SCA. Its new head has not yet been officially announced but I'm told it will be Mohammed Abdel Maksoud, the head of the SCA's Lower Egypt division and an archaeologist who has worked for many years in the Nile delta region.

My interview with Zahi Hawass (5 Mar):

JM: Why have you decided to resign?

ZH: I resigned because of three main things:

· During the earlier protests, Egyptian youths and the police protected the museums and monuments. Only the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was broken into and, thank God, all the important objects inside it were safe and only a few things were lost or broken. A report of exactly what is missing is still being compiled, however. Magazines were looted, but after initially appearing to get back to normal, the situation has recently become worse and there are many reports of thefts and illegal excavation. This is my most recent announcement:
· Since the revolution, many people have continued to protest over other things, such as against me over jobs and salaries. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide everything that everyone is asking for. In the Ministry of State for Antiquities, we need money to protect sites and to restore buildings and objects too. We need the money brought in by tourists who visit our sites and museums to fund these things and, at the moment, there are no tourists.
· Crooks in the Ministry and at the University of Cairo have started to attack me personally. I cannot stand this!

Most importantly, however, is that there are not enough police to protect the sites. I hope that my resignation will encourage the government to do something about this and also encourage the international community to put pressure on it do so as well.

JM: What does this mean for your position as head of the SCA - will that position still exist, and if so will you continue to hold it?

ZH: Some weeks ago, the SCA became the Ministry of State for Antiquities. Having been a minister, I cannot go back to being the head of the SCA. It is a lower position and in a sense no longer exists. I have to step down from everything.

JM: In the meantime, what efforts have you been making to protect Egypt's archaeological sites?

ZH: I cannot do anything to protect the sites now. I hope that my successor will continue the projects that I started though and achieve things like I did.

JM: What is your greatest fear for Egypt's antiquities?

ZH: I am most fearful for the Giza plateau, the love of my life, at which I have lived, excavated and looked after for most of my life and made some of my most important discoveries. I built a big wall around the pyramids to protect them from building work and was working on a site management plan that will help make it beautiful again and restore its magic. It will stop cars, camels and horses accessing the site and tourists will be able visit the monuments in electric trams: However, the camel owners started to put up signs during the revolution saying that I was stealing antiquities, when they are the ones doing the damage there!

JM: What would you like to see the army doing at these sites?

ZH: The army cannot do anything. They cannot run after people; this is the duty of the police and that is why we are all waiting for them to come back and do their job as before.

JM: How easy is it to get clear information about any looting or illegal excavations that are going on?

ZH: I keep my website as up to date as I can with the information that I have. This is my most recent post:

JM: Have you had offers of help from international organisations? If so, do you think these should be accepted, and whose decision would this be?

ZH: Other than offers to keep an eye out for stolen objects, I have not received any offers of help from international organizations and none at all since my resignation.

JM: If the situation improves, will you reconsider staying on in the cabinet?

ZH: I do not know.

JM: What plans do you have for your own future, if you do not stay in your current post?

ZH: I am still thinking about what I should do in the future.

Since making these comments, Hawass has posted further comments on his own blog, which you can read here and here.