The future of the past
Almost at the end of his first year in office, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damaty tells Nevine El-Aref about the challenges ahead
When Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty began his tenure in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s second cabinet last June, the country’s archaeologists and heritage professionals were encouraged. They felt that his track record would allow him to manage Egypt’s antiquities portfolio efficiently, being 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.
Over the ten months 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 are now on hold.
However, his 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.
An Italian archaeologist recently claimed that the famous ancient Egyptian painting of the Meidum Geese, on display in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, was a fake. He claimed that the painting’s discoverer had painted over a real Pyramid Age painting. There have also been claims that the treasure of Tutankhamun has been mistreated.
The Weekly met with Eldamaty at his office in Zamalek to talk about his achievements and future plans.
Why has a campaign against the Ministry of Antiquities and Egypt’s heritage 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 not published.
For example, the return of 123 ancient Egyptian artefacts from the United States was not highlighted in the newspapers, and nor were the discoveries made at Tapozires Magna on the north coast between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh. These discoveries were made by the first Egyptian-Dominican archaeological mission, which unearthed a collection of noblemen’s tombs from the Roman Empire and a stele similar to the Rosetta Stone dating to the 21st year of Ptolemy IV’s reign. The stele is engraved with hieroglyphics and demotic texts, but the Greek text is missing.
But instead of reporting this, the media reported the robbery of the Mostafa Kamil archaeological storehouse, and when the stolen artefacts were returned and the criminals caught and put in jail the media did not give enough attention to this. The claims of forgery made against the Meidum Geese painting are unfounded and are not based on proper scientific studies. They depend on claims by an Italian archaeologist who in my opinion made these unfounded claims in order to draw attention to himself.
Why is the restoration work at the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria in limbo when an agreement has been signed between the ministry and the Italian government to speed up the work?
After almost ten years of being off limits to tourists, the Graeco-Roman Museum will soon once again be restored to its former glory and provide more facilities for visitors. This is thanks to the Italian government, which has provided the funds to rehabilitate the museum within the framework of a memorandum of understanding signed with Egypt in 2008 to strengthen ties of friendship, cultural and scientific cooperation, and the protection of cultural heritage between Italy and Egypt.
The work at the museum stopped as a result of the 25 January Revolution, but it restarted just last week. An agreement with Alexandria Governor Hani Al-Messeri has also been signed to grant the land behind the museum to the Ministry of Antiquities. This will be used as an extension of the museum to enlarge its display area and maybe also to build a new entrance.
The funds required for the restoration amount to LE10 million. The work is to be carried out over the coming 18 months, including the restoration of the building itself, replacement of the showcases, installation of new lighting, ventilation and security systems, and renewal of the overall display.
The façade of the museum is to be kept as it is, and the changes will be made inside the building only. A conservation laboratory, children’s facilities, a lecture hall, cafeteria and bookstore are planned. Under the new plans, the museum will include halls for the display of its permanent collection, a section dedicated to archaeological study and research, and a special museum for children. Italian architects will also use state-of-the-art techniques to make the museum more environmentally friendly.
The museological project is divided into three key parts: the main hall, the exhibition sections and the “multimedia isle”. The main hall will be dedicated to artefacts related to the main theme of the museum, which is the city of Alexandria. Within this section there will also be a “multimedia isle” conceived as a space for voices and images that will start with the descriptions of the city found within the writings of ancient authors, first and foremost in the Geography of Strabo, and will include a reconstruction of the ancient city and a kaleidoscopic narrative of voices and images of the monumental ruins of the city and its monuments.
Why was the last ministerial meeting held at the Grand Egyptian Museum instead of at the cabinet, as usual?
Holding such a meeting at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) has had important results, which I can sum up in three items: first, the government has finally approved to pay Egypt’s share in the GEM budget of LE284 million; second, the Japanese government has indicated its initial acceptance to negotiate a soft loan of $400 million, as requested by the Ministry of Antiquities to continue the GEM construction work; third, the prime minister has formed a ministerial committee headed by the minister of international cooperation to launch a fundraising campaign to collect the final amount of $400 million required to complete the GEM.
A temporary exhibition of some of the objects transported to the GEM from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square is to travel to Japan in an attempt to collect funds to complete the GEM. If the work is carried out according to plan, a part inauguration of the GEM can be scheduled in May 2018. This would include the inauguration of the hall of Tutankhamun’s treasures and the museum’s large stairs hall, which will exhibit ancient Egyptian royal statues and colossi.
Is there any news concerning the improper restoration of the beard of the golden mask of Tutankhamun?
I have assigned a scientific committee, led by me, to carry out a comprehensive analytic study on the mask since its discovery in 1922 in Tutankhamun’s tomb, as well as the restoration work carried out on it until now. German restorer Christian Eckmann will assist me in such studies because he is an expert in metal restoration. The committee includes the head of the German Archaeological Institute, Tarek Tawfik, head of the GEM, the head of the metal restoration section at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, and a German CT-scan expert. The ministry has bought new CT scanning equipment to complete the study.
After the completion of the study, Eckmann will travel to Germany with the results, where he will create a replica of the mask using the proper materials. In mid-August, he will then return to Cairo where an international conference is to be held to explain to the public and scholars the method selected to restore the beard through state-of-the-art technology. The restoration itself is to start in September, and all the work will be documented.
Will the ministry be able to inaugurate the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) on schedule for the 42nd anniversary of the October War?
The MIA will be reopened at its scheduled time in October 2015. The rehabilitation work is in full swing to meet the deadline, thanks to the United Arab Emirates, which provided all kinds of financial and technical support to return the MIA to its former glory. The restoration of the museum’s collection is almost complete, as is the restoration of the building itself.
The showcases and the exhibition scenario have been slightly changed. The locations of the cafeteria, souvenir shop and library have been changed, and a new section entitled “In Order not to Forget” has been created within the new storyline. This section will put on display a large collection of photographs showing the destruction of the MIA after the car bomb in 2013 during the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, as well as other photographs depicting the restoration and rehabilitation work carried out to return the MIA to its original grandeur.
What is the current situation of the Al-Arish Museum and its collection?
The building is the same as it has been since a series of coordinated attacks by militants at sites in and around Al-Arish took place last February. The ministry is not able to start any restoration work there because of the current political and security conditions in North Sinai. The collection is safe and sound, however. The 1,500 artefacts normally on display at the museum were removed and transported to a secure location at the start of the attacks in North Sinai in July 2013, and the museum then closed its doors to visitors.
What were the agreements signed with the Aga Khan Trust during the opening of the Blue Mosque last week?
No new agreements were signed, but a refreshment of the existing ones was agreed. Next month a comprehensive meeting with the head of the Aga Khan Trust is to be held to discuss future cooperation.
What new projects does the ministry have planned?
There are several, but the most important is the opening of Egypt’s Military Panorama Display at Qantara East, which is considered Egypt’s eastern gateway. The Panorama will be an open-air museum relating Egypt’s military history though the exhibition of a number of military fortresses and the Horus Military Road. The ministry is developing the area of Tel Habuwa, where King Seti I’s fortress of Tharo is located. The area of Pelusium where Roman fortresses are found is also under development. Near the New Suez Canal Corridor, a small museum relating the story of Egypt’s military history from the ancient Egyptian king Mena to the October 1973 War is under construction in collaboration with the armed forces.
A library housing documents of the wars Egypt has been involved in will be set up and will be completed in two years. Construction work at the Atun Museum in Minya is to be resumed soon, according to the protocol of friendship 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. The Marina Al-Alamein Archaeological Site is also to be opened in July.
Has the ministry anything planned for the Egypt Treasures Conference to be held in October under the auspices of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi?
The ministry will take part in a scientific seminar and temporary exhibition about Egypt’s different civilisations.
What is the holding company that the ministry wants to establish?
The company aims to help efficiently 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 would not by any means manage the archaeological sites or museums, as has been rumoured. On the contrary, it would only manage the touristic aspects at the archaeological sites in order to upgrade the level of services provided which in turn will increase the ministry’s income. The company would 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.
Is there an investment plan for Historic Cairo?
We are planning to introduce new ideas, such as the establishment of a hotel using some of the historical edifices. This kind of investment is well known abroad and helps protect and preserve monumental edifices without impacting on their authenticity or historical value. Such a hotel would be the first of its kind in Egypt and would be owned by the ministry, which would request the help of an international hotel organisation to run the hotel at the highest level.
What problems does the ministry face that could frustrate its efforts?
The lack of finance is an enormous obstacle that the ministry is facing now. Several new projects were started before the revolution which in my opinion were beyond the ministry’s budget. Some of these projects were even put on halt before the revolution, such as the Graeco-Roman Museum development project, the museums at Sharm El-Sheikh, Ismailia, Port Said, Aten, Sohag and Hurghada, and the development of the Giza Plateau and Saqqara. After the revolution, the financial situation got worse due to the decline of tourism to Egypt. Now negotiations are taking place with all the contractors, companies and foreign partners in an attempt to resume the work.
Bureaucracy is another problem. After the revolution, many heads of different sections were afraid of signing paper work. The National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) and the Malawi Museum were true examples of bureaucracy. I have now signed the papers on my own responsibility, and the work has resumed. The Malawi Museum is to be officially inaugurated soon. Another phase of the NMEC is to be opened in July.
The lack of security is a third problem, and we are trying to fill the gap through the installation of new electronic security systems like the one newly installed in the Luxor Museum. The lack of specialist restorers is a fourth problem, since the ministry has a large number of restorers but most of them are non-specialist. This led to the improper restoration of the Tutankhamun mask.
I have created a new section in the ministry for restoration in order to provide specialist restorers, meaning that it will soon have restorers specialising in metals, wood, glass, stone, papyri and so on. Training for restorers will also be introduced in collaboration with Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. The social media is a fifth obstacle, as incorrect material appears on the Internet.
What is the ministry’s policy regarding the return of illegally smuggled antiquities?
Since I entered office almost 500 artefacts have been returned from France, Switzerland, and the United States. A collection is to come back from Australia soon.
Can you comment on UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova’s visit this week to Cairo to attend a conference on cultural properties under threat in the Middle East?
Irina Bokova is to inaugurate the conference and will pay a visit to the MIA to inspect the rehabilitation and restoration work carried out there, as well as signing the agreement for UNESCO’s $100,000 donation to the MIA. Her attendance is a great honour to the conference and sends the message that UNESCO is protecting all monuments, including those damaged during terrorist attacks.