Young experts bring fresh ideas to help reform institutions in charge of likes of Tutankhamun’s tomb and Giza pyramids
By Patrick Kingsley in Cairo for The Guardian, Thursday 23 October 2014
Five years ago, if archaeologists digging up pharaonic ruins in Egypt found any human bones, they would usually throw them away. “Most Egyptian archaeological missions looked at human remains as garbage,” said Afaf Wahba, a young official at Egypt’s antiquities ministry.
But osteology, the study of bones, is standard practice on digs outside Egypt – and Wahba wants Egyptian teams to follow suit. After a five-year campaign, each Egyptian province is now meant to have an osteologist, and Wahba hopes the ministry will found its own osteology department. But, as she put it: “I am struggling to inform people in the SCA [the ministry’s governing body] that human remains are very important.”
Wahba’s mission is one example of a generational shift that optimists hope can slowly reform Egypt’s bureaucratic state institutions, not least its ministry of state for antiquities (MSA). The MSA has ultimate jurisdiction over arguably the planet’s most impressive collection of monuments and museums, hundreds of sites including the tomb of Tutankhamun, the mosques of medieval Cairo, and – in the Giza pyramids – the last remaining wonder of the ancient world.
“It’s a bit like English Heritage, the British Museum and a university research department rolled into one,” said Chris Naunton, the head of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), a British charity that supports Egyptian archaeology.
Yet despite its power and potential, the ministry – like many Egyptian institutions – is often accused of being a quagmire of paperwork. Foreign archaeologists complain they sometimes can’t import the equipment they need, or export rock samples for analysis. Taking such samples to foreign laboratories is banned and, as a result, local digs are overlooked by international donors, who prioritise projects with access to the latest research techniques. “Bureaucracy is such a monster in Egypt,” said Giulio Lucarini, an archaeology professor whose digs are among those affected by the ban based in Cambridge.
Local archaeologists have their own frustrations. Many want better field training, more opportunities for promotion, and say their ideas for reform are rarely listened to. “If you want to do something, you go to your boss, and from his boss to another boss – and so on to get permission,” said Moamen Saad, another young ministry official, of the process of starting a new project.
Decision-making is opaque. Activists say Egypt’s oldest pyramid, the Djoser at Saqqara, has been ruined by a ministry-sponsored restoration effort. The ministry denies the charge – but without independent arbitration, no one can know who is right.
According to Naunton, “there is very little mechanism for criticising the ministry for what it does. And that’s not very healthy”. When you’re talking about a big government institution, you should be able to say: maybe there’s another way of doing that.
But hope is on the horizon. A new generation of officials, a new approach to archaeology at Egypt’s leading state university and a new ministry leadership has given archaeologists hope that things may gradually change. Wahba and Saad personify the new broom. Wahba’s enthusiasm for osteology could shake up the ministry’s approach to research.
Saad wants to improve the practical education given to young ministry employees. Archaeology courses at Egyptian universities are theory-based, so new recruits arrive at the ministry with no experience of archaeological digs. Apart from a week-long course in the Sinai desert, the MSA does little to beef up their skills.
Saad wants to change all that. In 2012, while working at the temples of Luxor, he and local colleagues set up their own field training school, giving 100 officials a new set of skills they would have found hard to come by elsewhere.
Now Saad wants to replicate the scheme elsewhere. “This is my dream project – to do it again and again,” he said. “Lots of colleagues gave me a hand. Now I want to give a hand to my colleagues.”
Then there’s 33-year-old Mohamed Gamal, formerly a curator at the Grand Egyptian Museum – one of two unfinished Egyptology museums that are being built to supplement the cluttered, decades-old Egyptian museum in Tahrir Square. Like many observers, Gamal feels it isn’t yet clear how the three museums will complement each other – so he is developing a masterplan that, if adopted, may finally give each of the trio a clear and unique mandate.
“A very simple question that is always asked is: why do you have two new museums in the same city? What will you do with the [old] Egyptian museum? During the last few years, no one from the Egyptian side had a good answer,” said Gamal. “So the proposal I’m working on I hope will have the answer.”
Gamal, Saad and Wahba are not alone. They reckon they are part of a group of about 60 up-and-comers, all intent on helping the ministry reach its potential. “They have an awareness,” said the EES’s Naunton, “that there is an opportunity – if they and others like them can get into the right positions in the ministry – to genuinely reform things, to make sure that the ministry is dealing in the best way with all the challenges it faces.”
Groups including the EES are giving them a hand. In partnership with the ministry, the EES awards scholarships to some of the MSA’s high flyers, taking six young officials – including Gamal and Wahba – to Britain for workshops with leading British curators, conservators and archaeologists, and access to some of the world’s best archaeological libraries. In Egypt itself, the Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera), an American conservation group, has spent the past decade giving field training to Egyptian archaeologists – providing the latest generation, including Moamen Saad, with an unprecedented set of field skills. This year, this change in approach spread to Cairo university, where the new head of conservation, Mostafa Attia, introduced field training for the first time.
Foreign groups such as Aera and EES are aware of the balance they, as foreigners, must strike while intervening in an industry in which colonialism casts a long shadow. But they argue the guidance they give makes Egypt less dependent on foreign expertise. Foreign archaeologists say that five years ago, before Aera’s workshops had made much headway, you wouldn’t have been able to staff a dig exclusively with competent local archaeologists – most Egyptians didn’t have the training.
Now that’s changing: for the first time, digs are being staffed by Egyptians alone. “And that’s how it should be,” said Naunton. “It should be people like Moamen and Afaf who are running the foremost archaeological projects in Egypt – but until recently that hasn’t been possible, which has given the whole thing a very colonial feel.”
For its part, the ministry says it wants to modernise. It positively welcomes projects such as the Aera field schools, and the EES scholarships, according to Hisham Elleithy, who heads a department within the MSA. “When they come back from their scholarships,” he said, “they can transfer their experience to their colleagues in the museums and the sites.”
If there are failings, they’re often caused by problems beyond the ministry’s control, Elleithy added. The 2011 uprising caused a collapse in tourism, which reduced the ministry’s revenues by 95%. As a result, it has struggled to pay its 44,000 employees, let alone embark on grand projects of reform. The looting of hundreds of archaeological sites, meanwhile, is due to a security vacuum caused by the uprising.
The newly appointed antiquities minister, Mamdouh Damaty, is said to be refreshingly open to new ideas, and has already appointed fresh faces to key positions. “Professor Damaty has a lot of great ideas,” said Elleithy. “[He’s] encouraging the younger generation … choosing the right persons for the right places. Their age doesn’t matter – it’s their experience and ideas.”
Young officials hope this early promise results in real change. “Trust the new generation,” said Saad, in an appeal that will resonate across post-revolutionary Egypt. “Be flexible, listen to them and their ideas … Let’s test it and if it’s OK, let’s continue with it. But don’t from the beginning say no.”