Resistance to UNESCO visit to Egypt to save artefacts

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 21 Mar 2011

A UNESCO delegate is set to visit Egypt to help recuperate looted ancient artefacts post-revolution, but there is no Egyptian antiquities minister, and to boot the delegate faces scepticism of 'antiquities colonisation'

Abu Simbel temples one of Egypt

With the absence of the relatively important role of minister of antiquities in Egypt due to a massive restructuring of ministerial positions post-revolution, archaeologists are wondering who will escort the UNESCO’s delegate that will visit Egypt’s archaeological sites Tuesday. 

Some archaeologists are uneasy with the visit, which they consider as unexpected and in bad timing, one of whom is professor of Egyptology at Cairo University, Abdel Halim Noureddin. He confessed to Ahram Online that “I am wary of the UNESCO visit to Egypt. Why this delegate is coming now, during this transitional period is not clear. Could it be to inspect the Egyptian museum after the break-in? Or to collect information about Egypt’s archaeological sites that were susceptible to looting? Who invited the delegate to come to Egypt? Or by this visit is UNESCO making a statement that it is coming to protect Egypt’s antiquities?” Noureddin wonders.

He continued that if the delegate is coming to check up on the Egyptian museum that this is not its responsibility, but rather the task of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM). “We are keen on our heritage and we are totally able to protect our monuments and we don’t need curatorship from anyone,” asserted Noureddin.

However, the professor added that if it is the case that the UNESCO delegate is coming to help Egypt recuperate looted artefacts their help is more than welcome.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud the director of the central administration for antiquities in Alexandria and Lower Egypt, voices his appreciation for the UNESCO visit.

Maqsoud welcomes such a visit and doesn't see it as a contradiction with Egypt’s role in protecting its heritage. Abdel Maqsoud told Ahram Online that, actually, Egypt is among the countries that played a vital role in the foundation of UNESCO. It is also a member in the World Heritage Organisation (WHO), which is a part of UNESCO. He explains that the UNESCO delegate is, indeed, coming to help Egypt to resituate its looted artefacts in the aftermath of the revolution by publishing a list of the missing objects in case it appears in the antiquities trade market.

This, asserts Maqsoud, doesn’t undermine Egypt’s value or raise doubt of its capacity to protect its monuments.

“We have to cooperate with UNESCO with more transparency attitude, considering UNESCO is the international organisation dedicated to protecting human heritage,” confirmed Abdel Maqsoud.

Egypt cannot forget how much UNESCO has helped and supported Egypt to protect its heritage. Among the most recent is the problem of a highway, called the Ring Road, that was meant to cross over the Giza plateau. This would have encroached on the famous area of the pyramids.

“Protecting and safeguarding Egypt’s monuments is an internal matter and Egypt is more than capable to execute such a task,” Abdel Maqsoud told Ahram Online. Proof of that is that Egypt, very transparently, announced a list of some of its missing objects to the press. Soon the results of the inventories carried out in the Giza plateau and Sinai will be announced and reported to Egyptian security authorities and Interpol, which, in turn, will work to resituate them. 

“What we need now is the quick appointment of an antiquities leader,” Abdel Maqsoud pointed out. To date, he says, no one knows who will meet with the UNESCO delegate. “It could be an archaeological team from the ministry of antiquities affairs or the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf or both - nobody knows yet,” confirmed Abdel Maqsoud.

On his part, Zahi Hawass, former minister of antiquity affairs said that he was requested by the assistant director general for culture, Franceso Bandarin to meet the UNESCO delegate. Hawass said that he will discuss with the delegate the recent status of Egypt’s antiquities and the amount of break-ins and loss, as well as the means to resituate such objects in the case they were smuggled out of the country.

He made clear that on several other occasions he rejected offers from UNESCO and other international organisations help to protect Egypt’s antiquities, calling the interference of any foreign country in the protection of Egypt’s heritage “antiquities colonisation.”

A top official in the ministry who requests anonymity told Ahram Online that Hawass cannot meet UNESCO delegate officially as he is no longer the antiquities minister, although he can meet the delegate as a professional archaeological expert in order to provide suggestions, the same as the former general director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Gaballa Ali Gaballa or any other archaeological expert.

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