The truth about the ministry
Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty speaks with Nevine El-Aref about the challenges ahead
The country’s archaeologists and heritage professionals were encouraged when Mamdouh Eldamaty was named minister of antiquities. He began his tenure in June 2014, during then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s second government.
They felt that his track record would allow him to manage Egypt’s antiquities portfolio efficiently. He was familiar with the ministry’s different sections and its many hidden doors. They also thought Eldamaty’s relative youth would stand him in good stead.
During the two years since his appointment, Eldamaty’s mission has been to embody a new vision and carry out an action plan to properly preserve the country’s antiquities, upgrade the skills of ministry staff, and work to resume archaeological projects that have been on hold.
He has also encouraged two major exploration projects, the first investigating theories of a hidden tomb inside the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, and the second to identify the internal designs of the Dahshour and Giza Plateau Pyramids (the ScanPyramid Project).
However, Eldamaty’s management style has not pleased everyone, and there have been campaigns both against the minister and against the ministry’s stewardship of the country’s antiquities.
Some Egyptian and foreign archaeologists, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that the exploration of Tutankhamun’s tomb has been given to “deceitful” British archaeologists involved in pricing stolen artefacts for antiquities traders. They also claim that the ScanPyramid Project is being undertaken for publicity purposes.
Campaigns have been launched against the ministry on several TV talk shows and on social media like Twitter and Facebook.
A privately owned online news site posted a five-minute video on YouTube showing four people breaking off and selling pieces of one of the Giza Pyramids. Newspapers have also published reports about the Amun-Re statue at the Karnak Temple in Luxor and the columns of the Kom Ombo Temple, claiming that they have been badly restored using cement, which is prohibited for use in restoration. They have also claimed that 157 artefacts have disappeared from the Saqqara archaeological stores and that some of the artefacts were replaced with replicas.
Al-Ahram Weekly met with Eldamaty in his office in Cairo to ask him for his views on the allegations against the ministry.
Why, in your view, has a campaign against the Ministry of Antiquities been taking place?
The campaign is not against the Ministry of Antiquities and Egypt’s heritage. On the contrary, it is a systematic campaign against the country as a whole. The Ministry of Antiquities is just the scapegoat. Several incorrect news stories about the country’s antiquities have been published in the media, while other stories have been stopped and positive news has gone unpublished.
In the pyramid incident, for example, the thief could not by any means harm or break the pyramid’s blocks because he could not get through the plateau entrance gate carrying a hammer or any destructive tools. There are tight security measures in place, and the gate is safeguarded with electronic security devices that detect any metal instruments.
The incident happened in a remote area south of the Menkawre Pyramid, which is off the tourist track, but is reachable by the horse and camel owners who have passes to circulate freely in the area as part of the tours they offer to tourists.
The blocks shown in the video are authentic, but they fell off the pyramids and were not broken off by thieves. The criminals seen in the video have been arrested and detained on charges of vandalism, trading in antiquities and fraud, but nobody has published this news.
As for the Amu-Re statue that the media is calling “Polio Amun-Re,” this was not wrongly restored with cement as is being claimed. The statue was restored when it was discovered by a French mission in Karnak more than 50 years ago, and it was this mission that used the cement in the restoration work, when the material was not prohibited. The same thing is true of the columns of the Kom Ombo Temple.
The case of the 157 ancient Egyptian artefacts from Saqqara occurred during the tenure of former minister of antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim, and the ministry at that time sent an official letter to the Public Prosecution stating that the archaeological committee formed to select artefacts from Saqqara to transport them to the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau had been responsible for a number of irregularities.
The ministry also sent a request to the prosecutor-general last October to give the ministry the green light to make a comprehensive inventory of the Saqqara storehouses, as well as undertake legal procedures, if required, but approval was not given to the ministry, and the case remains in the hands of the Public Prosecution. The whole case is now under investigation and in the hands of the prosecutor-general.
The last unfounded claim was three weeks ago during the celebration of the equinox at the Abu Simbel Temple. I was quoted as saying that the equinox at the Abu Simbel Temple was a “coincidence”. But this was the opposite of what I said. In fact, I said that the equinox was only connected to the Abu Simbel Temple and not to any other ancient Egyptian temples. If any similar phenomenon occurred at them, I said, then it was just a coincidence.
Why are these claims spreading now?
I think it is because of the administrative changes I recently made in some posts in the ministry’s echelons. Those who do not like these changes feed the media with unfounded claims as if they were real news. Regretfully, some officials have weak hearts. I am now calling on all journalists and media professionals not to believe all the information they get before checking it.
My press office and I personally will respond to them if need be. Publishing incorrect information without being sure of its credibility creates confusion and stirs up public opinion. Such publishing is not only an insult to the ministry but it also harms Egypt’s reputation abroad.
Has the ministry succeeded in overcoming its financial problems?
Regretfully, not yet. The ministry is still suffering from a lack of finance, and the financial situation has got worse due to the decline of tourism in Egypt since the 2011 Revolution. The ministry still borrows funds from the Ministry of Finance to pay employees’ salaries, at a cost of LE77 million a month. As for the projects it sponsors, the ministry provides financing through the archaeological missions working in Egypt and grants and loans.
How can such problems be solved?
They can be helped by the establishment of a holding company, which will be established in the next two months. The company aims to help manage the services provided at archaeological sites and museums across Egypt, including shops, cafeterias and restaurants. It also aims to establish a new production unit to make and sell replicas. The company will not by any means manage the archaeological sites or museums, as has been rumoured.
On the contrary, it will only manage the touristic aspects of the archaeological sites in order to upgrade the level of services provided, which in turn will increase the ministry’s income. The company will be affiliated to the ministry. The establishment of such a company is not something new. The Sound and Light Company at the Giza Plateau is another example of a similar idea.
Why do archaeological exhibitions abroad not help in raising ministry funds?
The income of an exhibition is measured according to three elements: the kind of artefacts, the number of travelling objects and the exhibition period. The Tutankhamun collection, for example, has the highest revenue of any exhibition materials.
Other elements are also involved. When there have not been any travelling exhibitions for a long period, these have to be restarted by providing a very good exhibition with a decent collection at a suitable price, as well as help in sending it abroad. After the revolution, the ministry exaggerated the fees it asked for travelling exhibitions, which was one reason why other countries did not host them.
During that time not a single archaeological exhibition travelled abroad, and this was true until six months ago when the Sunken Treasures exhibition was inaugurated at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
When I was Egypt’s cultural attaché in Germany, an exhibition was organised to celebrate 100 years of the discovery of Amarna, in which the famous Nefertiti bust would be the focal point. The German side asked Egypt to send some of its Amarna collection on loan for the exhibition period, but the ministry asked a very high price.
Because of this, the German side brought objects from the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum in the United States and Hildesheim in Germany instead. The same thing happened with the Queen of Egypt exhibition in Japan.
Today, there are two exhibitions abroad, one in Japan and one in Paris, but we also have more on the agenda.
What new projects does the ministry have planned?
There are several. Some of them are connected to the security measures taking place now on Luxor’s west bank and at Al-Deir Al-Bahari, using a soft loan given by the DIFFEX Company. These measures will see the installation of a new lighting and security system using infrared technology. The same systems will be applied at the Giza Plateau using funds from the Ministry of Tourism.
The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo is to be officially re-inaugurated soon, and DIFFEX will install an infrared security system. The Tel Al-Amarna Visitor Centre in Minya will be completed soon, and the Edfu Temple will be reopened after the completion of work to reduce the subterranean water that damaged the temple’s walls.
Within a week, the mediaeval Al-Qasr village in Al-Dakhla Oasis is to be officially inaugurated after restoration, as well as the Al-Qusseir archaeological site on the Red Sea. The latter includes the Mohamed Ali Citadel and the old police station. This project is being carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, and the Red Sea Governorate financed the project.
Work has resumed at the Sohag Museum, and construction work at the Atun Museum in Minya is to be resumed soon, according to the protocol signed between Minya in Upper Egypt and Hildesheim in Germany. This museum will have its own very positive impact on friendship between Egypt and Germany.
In the summer, the temporary exhibition hall at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation is to be opened as a soft opening of the museum. This hall is to display some of the museum’s permanent collection, and this will be changed every three months.
Is there any news about the underwater museum planned in Alexandria’s eastern harbour?
Yes, work will start when the Sunken Treasures touring exhibition returns home. This exhibition is promoting the construction of the museum, and I hope that it will collect the required funds.
Have the Japanese experts sent the results of the examination of Tutankhamun’s tomb as part of the search for Nefertiti’s burial place?
They have been sent, and the results are positive thus far. We are now discussing the matter and studying the case in order to choose the most efficient and least invasive method to probe within Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and see what lies behind it.
Will the ministry be taking measures to protect the Tel Al-Dafna archaeological site in Qantara East?
The ministry has made an agreement with the Defence Ministry to investigate the whole area and clear it of any bombs or booby traps. The area was used in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.
What is the ministry’s policy regarding the return of illegally smuggled antiquities?
In 2014 and 2015 the ministry succeeded in recovering 723 artefacts that had been stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country during the security vacuum in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution, when several antiquities storehouses were subjected to theft and illicit excavation was widespread at several sites.
In collaboration with the Tourism and Antiquities Police, the ministry also succeeded in seizing a collection of 511 stolen objects in 2014 and 2015.