Challenges for antiquities
Three months after being appointed Egypt's minister of antiquities, Khaled Al-Enani tells Nevine El-Aref about the challenges ahead
Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enani began his tenure in Prime Minister Sherif Ismail's second cabinet in March. His mission has been to solve the ministry's budgetary problems that have been likely to prevent suspended works from being completed, whether the construction of new museums or the development of existing ones.
Improving both the ministry's infrastructure and personnel is another task, as is working in collaboration with the ministries of tourism, civil aviation and investment in order to provide the means to improve the infrastructure at Egypt's archaeological sites and tourist destinations, to encourage and restore tourism, and to attract investment to the country.
Other pressing issues are the removal of encroachments on monuments or in archaeological site buffer zones, something that occurred during the breakdown of security after the 25 January Revolution, and the recovery of looted or illegally smuggled artefacts, whether from illegal excavations or incidents in the aftermath of the revolution.
Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to Al-Enani in his office decorated with replicas of ancient Egyptian and Islamic art to find out how much he has achieved and what challenges remain.
The walls are covered with ceramic gravures in foliage patterns. A replica of the well-known ancient Egyptian painting of the Meidum Geese decorates the office entrance wall, while a large map of Egypt showing the country's archaeological sites is on the wall at the far end. The side tables are decorated with replicas of the lion god Sekhmet, the justice goddess Maat, the boy king Tutankhamun astride a panther and hunting on a papyrus skiff, and two large replicas of Islamic vases painted with foliage motifs and geometrical designs.
What are the challenges you have faced since taking up your post in March?
I have had six main challenges to deal with: the lack of budgetary resources; the postponing of archaeological projects, especially in the museums sector; the lack of highly qualified staff, especially in international law; the encroachment on archaeological sites after the 2011 Revolution as well as illegal excavations; problems from subterranean water at sites and the lack of documentation of Egypt's monuments; and finally weak infrastructure at archaeological sites and museums and the lack of archaeological awareness among the population as a whole.
What were the causes of the ministry's budgetary problems?
The main problem goes back several years, as the ministry's budget has been mainly dependent on ticket fees from archaeological sites and museums all over the country. There has been no investment policy to feed its annual budget. This policy was sufficient earlier when the tourism industry in Egypt was growing and the number of tourists had reached its peak. But with the decline in tourism and the increase in the number of the ministry's employees the ministry has entered financial deadlock.
The ministry has lost around LE1 billion of its annual income, which decreased to just LE275 million in 2015. Its debts since 2011 have reached almost LE6 billion, as it has had to borrow from the ministry of finance in order to pay its employees and for postponed projects.
Bazaars and cafeterias at archaeological sites and museums have closed their doors because of the decline in tourism. This has meant that the ministry has lost a good deal of its income.
How are you managing the ministry's budgetary problems?
To help solve these problems, the ministry took decisions such as decreasing the rental of bazaars by up to 70 per cent and cafeterias by up to 60 per cent as well as offering facilities to franchise-holders to help them pay their debts. The ministry has succeeded in recovering 40 per cent of its debts, instead of zero per cent five years ago. Reopening the bazaars and cafeterias has also provided job opportunities to youngsters, as well as providing facilities to tourists at archaeological sites.
The ministry discounted its publications by 70 per cent until 2012, giving 25 per cent reductions on those published after 2012. This is designed to encourage reading among people in general and increase their archaeological awareness. I have other ideas in mind in order to provide unconventional ways of financing and I think that this could be achieved through planned investment and management services at archaeological sites such as printing the logos of organisations on the backs of tickets, finding sponsors to organise exhibitions, and publishing ads on the ministry's Website.
How will you complete the archaeological projects put on hold after the 2011 Revolution?
When the ministry was in its heyday, it was thought a good idea to start several archaeological projects at the same time because it had a sufficient budget to finance and accomplish all of them at one time. Within the framework of the country's policy to raise the cultural and archaeological awareness of Egyptian people towards their national heritage, whether tangible or intangible, the ministry invested efforts in building national museums in every governorate in Egypt and it started to build two major museums in Cairo – the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) on the Ain Al-Sira Lake. Several development and restoration projects at archaeological sites such as the Giza Plateau Development Project and the Al-Gamaliya restoration projects in Islamic Cairo were also started.
However, after the revolution the scene was different. All these projects were put on hold, and some of them have been deteriorating. These problems are in direct relation with the budgetary problems, and when the appropriate funds are available all these projects will be resumed. With the help of the government a soft opening of the GEM is to be held at the end of 2017. This includes the inauguration of the staircase hall that puts on display the Ramses II colossi and other gigantic statues and the halls exhibiting the Tutankhamun collection.
The ministry has not decreased the budget of the GEM, but it has been trying hard to decrease costs by, for example, buying local materials instead of imported ones if they still meet requirements. The planned design of the GEM will not be changed as has been rumoured. The government has been helping in the construction of the GEM, and measures are in place in order to borrow $482 million to complete it.
As for the NMEC, work is underway to inaugurate the temporary exhibition hall in October, which will put on show artefacts from the Museum's permanent collection and change every three months.
The ministry is also working on 39 projects in Islamic Cairo with a budget of LE600 million. The Giza Plateau Development Project is going ahead as the Ministry of Tourism is to provide the required budget of LE51 million very soon. Still waiting on the list are 20 restoration projects in Islamic antiquities, 10 development projects in the ancient Egypt section, and more than 20 regional museums that are under construction.
What kinds of challenges have there been to archaeological work?
These have mostly been in the registration and documentation of antiquities. But we have first to differentiate between these things. Registration means making sure that antiquities are properly recorded, whereas documentation means photographing the artefacts and describing every inch of them on paper and digitally. All artefacts are registered, but not all of them are documented.
The increases in encroachments on archaeological sites have had negative impacts on the monuments, and there have been increases in illegal excavations. The high level of subterranean water and the growth of grass at several sites requires intervention. I have also been working on the issue of antiquities repatriation.
Last week in collaboration with the Tourism and Antiquities Police and the Giza Governorate, the ministry succeeded in removing 23 encroachments on archaeological sites in Dahshur.
What kind of staff does the ministry lack?
I sympathise with all the ministry's employees. Since 2011 they have been under enormous pressure due to decreases in their salaries and other issues. They have also had to work under extremely difficult conditions, and they have been subjected to blame and criticisms.
The ministry's staff can be placed in three categories. The first one hardly exists at the moment and includes experts in international law, marketing and financial resources development. These people are required to deal with antiquities repatriation issues and negotiations or signing contracts with international museums or scientific institutions. Although some of the ministry's staff have been exerting efforts to fill the gap, the ministry still needs more people with these skills.
The second category is insufficient and includes engineers, technical experts, and security personal. The third category includes other personnel. In general, there is a need across the board for more training and development of skills.
To solve part of the problem I reconvened the National Committee for the Repatriation of Stolen and Smuggled Antiquities (NCRSSA), which held its first meeting last month since 2010. The Committee will draw up a strategy to repatriate all artefacts that have been stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country and to guarantee the protection of Egypt's cultural and antiquities heritage.
What improvements do you have in mind to the infrastructure of archaeological sites?
Infrastructure means security measures, monitoring cameras, lighting systems, signboards, guidebooks and raising archaeological awareness among the country's population. A private or public-sector company could be contracted to help manage the services provided at archaeological sites and museums across Egypt, including shops, cafeterias and restaurants. I would also like to see a new production unit to make and sell replicas of ancient items. The company concerned should upgrade the level of services provided, which in turn would increase the ministry's income.
One of the prime minister's directives to you is to work in collaboration with other ministries. How are you doing this?
The Ministry of Antiquities is working in collaboration with several ministries, such as the Ministry of Tourism, in upgrading services at archaeological sites such as at the Giza Plateau Development Project. It also works with the Ministry of Civil Aviation to develop a documentary for screening on EgyptAir flights. Horus, the EgyptAir magazine, is also to be developed in order to promote tourism to Egypt.
I have asked the minister of civil aviation to provide halls within every airport in Egypt to be used as small museums like the one recently inaugurated at the Cairo International Airport. A unit to sell the ministry's books and replicas is to be provided in every such hall. Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada Airports will be the first to host such museums for the benefit of transit passengers. We have selected the halls and are waiting for the architectural designs in order to convert them into museums.
I have also written to the minister of culture so that Ministry of Antiquities documentaries on archaeological sites can be posted on the ministry's planned Website and Facebook pages. In the holy month of Ramadan I opened all archaeological sites free of charge to the Ministry of Culture so that it could organise its Ramadan festival and events.
How will you raise popular archaeological awareness?
Raising archaeological awareness, especially among children, is one of my top priorities in order to nourish children's loyalty towards their country, Egypt. Such awareness can be achieved through opening all archeological sites and museums in Egypt free of charge to Egyptian pupils. A curator could guide them around the museum halls and sections of archaeological sites in order to explain how the ancient Egyptians built Egypt's civilisation.
I have talked to the minister of education about such a project, and he has sent an official circular to all schools in order to encourage excursions to museums and sites. A number of schools have attended such programmes at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
What are you doing to document Jewish sites in Egypt?
I issued a ministerial decree in May to establish an inventory of all the Jewish sites in Egypt and to document them. I am the first minister to do this.
What other decisions have been taken?
The holding of wedding parties in necropolises like the Giza Plateau, the Qaitbey fortress in Alexandria and the Salaheddin Citadel in Cairo has been prohibited. They can be held in gardens, as they are in other countries worldwide. According to the new regulations, weddings can be held in the gardens of palaces for a fee ranging between LE50,000 to LE60,000 depending on the site. I am also promoting palaces that could be suitable for holding other events, such as conferences and dinners, to be used instead of holding such events in hotels. Information on this programme will be distributed to government and other organisations.
Do you plan changes in ministry officials?
There have been some changes. When I took office I realised that some qualified officials were responsible for two or more jobs, while others, also qualified, had little to do. I made changes in order to make sure every official in the ministry was responsible for his or her proper field.