Egypt's outgoing antiquities chief warns heritage is at risk

Published online 8 March 2011

The article originally appeared in Nature on 7 March 2011

Jo Marchant

As he steps down, Zahi Hawass says country's unique archaeological sites are underprotected.

Whoever saves Egypt's endangered antiquities, it will not be Zahi Hawass. The larger-than-life Egyptologist has been in charge of the country's archaeological heritage for almost a decade. But he stepped down at the weekend, warning that police are not protecting the sites and that looting has escalated.

Hawass had been Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the body responsible for Egypt's archaeological sites and artefacts, since 2002. On 31 January, Egypt's then-president Hosni Mubarak transformed the SCA into a government department, with Hawass as its minister. Hawass told Nature that his sudden departure is a protest at the new government's lack of action on the looting. "I hope that my resignation will encourage the government to do something about this and encourage the international community to put pressure on."

As a close ally of Mubarak, who was ousted in an uprising last month, Hawass was perhaps unlikely to keep his job anyway. But his comments have renewed fears that much of the country's precious heritage is trickling away.

The safety of archaeological sites has been of concern since the uprising began at the end of January, and the police force effectively vanished. Hawass initially downplayed the extent of looting, saying on his blog that damage was minimal and sites were safe. But on 3 March he reversed his position, posting a long list of affected sites across Egypt. The same day, he told the New York Times that he would not continue in his government post if asked.

On 5 March, Hawass confirmed to Nature that he has resigned from all of his responsibilities. "Having been a minister, I cannot go back to being head of the SCA," he says. "I have to step down from everything."

His departure leaves some researchers struggling to imagine the field without him. "It will be a break in Egyptology," says Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich. "He has been the leading personality for a decade."

Raised profile

Hawass has been a controversial figure at the SCA. His regular appearances on TV documentaries raised the profile of Egyptology and brought in funding for ambitious science projects, including X-ray scanning and DNA analysis of Tutankhamun's mummy. International touring exhibitions of the pharaoh's treasures brought cash flooding in.

But he has been accused of courting the media to boost his own profile, and his last days in office were marked by protests about jobs and pay for the country's growing number of Egyptology graduates.

Many Egyptologists believe that he did more good than harm, however. "There were certain problems," says Jaromir Malek, head of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, UK. "There was a big ego involved, and his own career flourished as a result. But he genuinely cares about Egyptian antiquities." Hawass's "personality, drive and energy" will be hard to replace, Malek adds.

Hawass says he has not yet thought about his future, but Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, predicts that he will remain a high-profile figure in Egyptology. "Nothing will stop him appearing in a documentary, excavating or publishing," she says. "He will continue to be a major spokesperson for Egypt ancient and modern."

On 6 March, the Egyptian caretaker Prime Minister Essam Sharaf named candidates for the new government cabinet. At the same time, he dissolved the Department of Antiquities and reinstated the SCA. As before, it will be associated with the culture ministry, which will now be led by Emad Abou-Ghazi, a history professor from the University of Cairo. The SCA is responsible for maintaining the country's artefacts, historic buildings and museums, as well as coordinating archaeological digs, both Egyptian and foreign. Ikram argues that these activities will continue much as before. "The idea that 'Egyptian archaeology is Hawass' is just something made by TV," she says. "Archaeology will continue on."

The new secretary general of the SCA has yet to be officially confirmed, but Nature understands that he is likely to be Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, head of the SCA's Lower Egypt division. Maksoud was a key player in the Archaeological Salvage Project of North Sinai, established in 1992 to study and protect endangered archaeological sites as the area was developed with canals, settlements and roads. "He is a senior scholar, of the right age and experience," says Ikram. "He is not an enemy of Dr Zahi. He is not walking in and taking over, it is a regular sequence of inheritance, and one hopes that Dr. Zahi had some say in the appointment."

Two immediate challenges will face whoever is appointed. One is pacifying the country's disgruntled archaeologists. "It is not possible to provide everything that everyone is asking for," says Hawass. "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."

The other is protecting the endangered archaeological sites and assessing the extent of the damage. At the moment, there is no clear information about how much of Egypt's heritage may be lost. Hawass says that sites all over the country have suffered. Storage magazines in Dahshur, Abu Sir, Giza and the Sharm el-Sheikh area have been broken into, often by armed looters who overpowered guards. Many tombs have been targeted. The tomb of Ken-Amun in Tell el-Maskhuta, the only 19th-Dynasty tomb known in Lower Egypt, has been completely destroyed. Inscribed blocks have been stolen, and illegal excavations and construction have been reported at several sites.

Ikram believes that some of the reports may have been exaggerated, arguing that most of the break-ins involve local people who aren't interested in stealing antiquities. "There's this old chestnut about the pharaohs being buried with their gold," she says. "People run into the tombs and look around for gold. When they don't find it, they run out again. Of course this can damage the sites," she says, adding that real antiquities thieves might profit from the confusion.

However some break-ins, particularly those at storage warehouses, do seem to be targeting antiquities to be smuggled out of the country for sale on the international black market. "Some of this material has huge market value," says Malek. The warehouses hold material from archaeological digs, for example fragments of loose wall reliefs from tombs. Much of it has never been properly described or published, meaning that it will be impossible ever to know for sure what has been lost.

The situation appears to be worst near well-populated areas, for example around Cairo. Hawass says he is most fearful for the Giza plateau, which he describes as "the love of my life". He says the only way to protect the sites is for the police to return. "We are all waiting for them to come back and do their job as before."

This article is reproduced with permission from Nature doi:10.1038/news.2011.146": (2011).