Dreams for Egypt’s heritage: Interview with Egypt's minister of antiquities

Nevine El-Aref , Friday 22 Apr 2016

A week after his appointment as minister of antiquities, Khaled Al-Enany tells Al-Ahram Weekly about his vision to protect, preserve, conserve and develop the country’s heritage and archaeological sites

El-Enany during his visit to Luxor

The recent appointment of Egyptologist Khaled El-Enany as Egypt’s new minister of antiquities was met with surprise by some archaeologists and curators, especially among employees of the ministry. But his integrity and qualification are widely accepted as impeccable. He completed his doctorate in Egyptology in 2001 at Montpellier III University in France, writing on ancient Egyptian royal names. He began his academic career at the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management at Helwan University, where he rose through the ranks.

While at Helwan, El-Enany was director of the Open Learning Centre, head of the Tourism Guidance Department, vice-dean for Education and Student Affairs and a professor of Egyptology. He is also an associate scientific expert and member of the board of administration at the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO) and a visiting professor at Montpellier III. He has lectured in France and Switzerland.

In October 2014, he was appointed director-general of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) at Fustat in Cairo, where he spruced up the museum’s construction. Within the next six months a temporary exhibition hall is to be inaugurated displaying a collection of the NMEC’s permanent collection of treasured artefacts. A year later, he was appointed supervisor-general of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in parallel with directing the NMEC. In October 2015, the French government awarded El-Enany the Chevalier (knight) of the Order of Arts and Literature for his achievements in archaeological studies and his efforts to preserve Egypt’s heritage and create a strong bridge of cooperation between Egypt and France in the field of archaeology.

Some consider El-Enany to be too young for the post of minister and see him as an outsider, but archaeologists feel that his track record will allow him to manage Egypt’s antiquities portfolio more efficiently, as well as develop plans to attract more tourists to Egypt. They also say that his relative youth will make him more reactive and swift in his work. In this they may be right. Since taking the post, El-Enany embarked on inspection tours of different archaeological sites, such as the Museum of Islamic Art and the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), the Giza Plateau and Khufu’s second solar boat.

El-Enany also travelled south where he visited the Karnak and Luxor Temples in Luxor, the Deir Al-Madina necropolis on Luxor’s west bank, Al-Tod, Qift, Armant, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Aswan and Elephantine Island. Still on his agenda are several sites, among them Al-Qantara East, Ismailia, Rosetta, Fuwa, Damietta and the Abu Mina Monastery.

“I started my term as minister of antiquities by visiting as many archaeological sites as I can in Egypt in order to inspect them with my own eyes because field visits are much better than reading reports in the office,” El-Enany told the Weekly in his interview this week. However suited to the job, Al-Enany will have no easy task in his new office, since budgetary problems are likely to prevent work from being completed, be it the construction of new museums or the development of existing ones.

Since 2011 when the ministry was formed, several archaeological projects have been put on hold, including the construction of the GEM and the NMEC, as well as the development of the Giza Plateau itself. The Museum of Islamic Art and the National Malawi Museums were subjected to destruction in 2014.  Another pressing issue has been the breakdown of security since the 25 January Revolution, allowing encroachment on and in some cases the destruction of sites and monuments, as well as incidents of looting and smuggling. Although work was executed during the two-year tenure of former minister of antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, more work and projects are still waiting. El-Enany seems remarkably upbeat for a man bearing such a large burden, and he confidently vows to improve both the ministry’s infrastructure and personnel.

Busy schedule: Although he has a very busy schedule, Al-Ahram Weekly was able to interview El-Enany on the steps of Tutankhamun’s Tomb in the Valley of the Kings after the completion of the radar-scanning of the boy king’s burial chamber to test the theory launched last August by British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves who claims that the burial place of queen Nefertiti is hidden inside the tomb of her son-in-law Tutankhamun.

El-Enany spoke about the radar survey on Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and his vision and action plan to properly preserve Egypt’s antiquities for the future and upgrade the skills of ministry staff, sprucing up efforts to resume those archaeological projects now on hold.

El-Enany believes in continuing what his predecessors have started, as the post does not suggest one should start from scratch, he says, or erase previous efforts. Rather, the aim must be to build on what has been done thus far.

Concerning the radar survey of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, El-Enany announced that “the scans have given data and indications, but we cannot announce the results right now because it requires more study to achieve accurate and concrete results.” He noted that some seven days were still needed for all the data to be analysed by a US-Egypt geophysics team.

“We have indications, but I want to highlight that we are not looking for a hidden chamber. We are testing a scientific hypothesis,” El-Enany told the Weekly, adding that “we are keen on science and exploring the truth.”

In August when Reeves suggested that there was something concealed behind the west and north walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, the ministry had two choices. Either it could ignore his claims and close the subject, or it could carry out a radar survey of the tomb. The ministry, El-Enany said, had selected the second choice and authorised two radar surveys.

“I did not participate in the previous radar survey, as I was not a member of the scientific committee that carried out the survey, but today as minister of antiquities I am attending the survey in order to follow up on the situation, to review the project, and to study its different parts in detail,” El-Enany told the Weekly.

He said that a third radar scan was to be held at the end of April to scan Tutankhamun’s burial chamber vertically from the Valley of the Kings bedrock. An international scientific discussion is to be held on 6 May during a conference held at the GEM that scholars from all over the globe will attend.

The discussion will aim to find the best solution to how to deal with the results of the three radar surveys and how to explore a newly discovered chamber if studies prove its existence beyond doubt. Al-Enany pointed out that the results of the project couldn’t be announced after the radar survey he had attended that day. “I have to listen first, review the whole project in detail, and study all its parts in order to find the result,” El-Enany said.

He said that when taking up Egypt’s antiquities portfolio last week, he knew that a visit to Luxor was planned on Thursday with a radar survey by an American expert in collaboration with an Egyptian team. Due to his belief in the work of associations in the country, he had been keen to continue the project as long as it was worthy of past work in antiquities and archaeology, he explained.

“The project has to be efficiently evaluated, and anything worthy of the great tradition of antiquities in this country we will go ahead with. But anything that could do harm for reasons of frivolity will be stopped immediately,” El-Enany asserted. “I am not talking about the Tutankhamun Tomb re-exploration project as such. That goes for other projects as well. Due to my eagerness for scientific credibility, the project will be studied and the results announced when they are ready,” El-Enany said.

“No one can touch the paintings in Tutankhamun’s Tomb, and the suggestion to use a tiny camera to probe a one-inch hole from the treasury room of Tutankahmun’s Tomb, which has no paintings in it, to explore what lies behind the north and west walls, is just a suggestion. If the surveys prove 100 per cent that there is something to find behind the north wall, the scientific discussion in May will provide the best solution to how to do it.” “Although the exploratory mission has the approval of the ministry’s permanent committee, I don’t want to get ahead of events,” El-Enany said.

Working with foreign missions: Helping junior Egyptian archaeologists and curators to develop their skills is another goal that El-Enany vows he will work hard to achieve through the establishment of workshops on research methodology in Egyptology as well as sending archaeologists for training abroad.

Regretfully, due to the lack of budgetary means the ministry has not been able to send archaeologists abroad for training recently, but El-Enany has called on all foreign archaeological missions working in Egypt to train junior Egyptian archaeologists and curators in different archaeological sessions.

“Preserving Egypt’s heritage is the goal of the ministry of antiquities, as well as of the foreign archaeological missions, and training Egyptian archaeologists and curators to be up to international standards is a mean of preserving the antiquities,” El-Enany argued. “We are not coercing foreign missions to do so, but we are sending out an appeal to them within the framework of our cooperation in the archaeological field,” El-Enany said. He added that to regulate the training process, the ministry would insert some such article in foreign mission application forms.

“I have not met any of the foreign missions yet, but I will ask them very soon,” he told the Weekly, adding that he would also ask them to provide guidebooks in English, French and Arabic for every site they were working on. He would also be reviewing the Supreme Council of Antiquities Regulations for Foreign Archaeological Missions, created in 2002, in order to put them into effect again after years of being put on hold, he said.

“My dream is to establish concrete cooperation between the Ministry of Antiquities and the foreign missions in order to work together to preserve Egypt’s archaeological heritage,” El-Enany said.

Developing archaeological sites to be more tourist-friendly is another goal of Al-Enany, who wants to start such developments by installing signboards at every site and museum in Egypt according to a timeline starting with the most frequently visited sites.

“I have already started such developments at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, and within 15 days signboards will be erected in English, Arabic and French there for tourists,” El-Enany asserted. He explained that the boards would not only include details of a site or a museum, along with the opening and closing hours and ticket prices, but would also include information telling visitors how to preserve the site or museum by not touching artefacts, not disfiguring the monuments by writing on them or breaking parts of them, and keeping the places clean and not throwing papers or empty bottles on the floor.

“Raising archaeological awareness among people, especially children, is one of my top priorities,” El-Enany asserted, describing this as “a must” in order to nourish children’s loyalty towards their country, Egypt. Such awareness could be achieved, he explained, through opening all archeological sites and museums in Egypt free of charge to Egyptian school pupils. A curator or an inspector, he went on, could guide them around the museums’ 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 was very enthusiastic and promised to send an official circular out to all schools in order to encourage excursions to museums and sites,” El-Enany told the Weekly.

On prime minister Sherif Ismail’s directions, El-Enany is also working in collaboration with the ministries of tourism, civil aviation and investment in order to think outside the box on providing the means to improve the infrastructure at Egypt’s archaeological sites and tourist destinations to encourage tourism and attract investment to the country.

The infrastructure, said El-Enany, meant security measures, monitoring cameras, lighting systems, signboards, guidebooks, and raising archaeological awareness among the country’s population. He went on by saying that he was to meet the minister of civil aviation soon, but they had already agreed to develop a documentary for screening on Egyptair flights. A private company, El-Enany said, had offered to do it free of charge. Horus, the Egyptair magazine, is also to be developed in order to promote tourism to Egypt.

The ministry of tourism was helping, Al-Enany said, in upgrading the services provided at archaeological sites such as through the Giza Plateau Development Project. According to a government statement, El-Enany has also promised to officially open several sites and museums in April and May. The first is the re-opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo two years after it was destroyed by a powerful car bomb that exploded outside the adjacent Security Directorate.

“The restoration and opening of the Museum of Islamic Art embodies the collaboration efforts exerted on the local and international levels to stand against any kind of terrorism that aims to erase Egypt’s identity and civilisation,” Al-Enany said, adding that re-opening the Museum was a very important message that Egypt was delivering against terrorism. “If terrorism tries to destroy the country, we will build it up again,” he said.

More sites to open: The Edfu Temple is to be opened in mid-April after the completion of the USAID project to reduce the level of the subterranean water inside the temple. The Elephantine Island Museum in Aswan is to be re-inaugurated next year after five years of restoration, and the opening ceremony will mark the museum’s centenary. The Baybars Mosque opened in Qaloubiya, as well as four mosques in Fuwah are to be officially inaugurated. A soft opening of the NMEC is to be held this year, which include the opening of a hall for temporary exhibitions where artefacts from the museum’s permanent collection will be shown and changed every three months. The official opening of the NMEC is scheduled for the end of 2017.

A soft opening of the GEM is to be held in mid-2018, with the complete opening scheduled for 2022. The ministry, el-Enany said, had not decreased the budget of the GEM, but was trying hard to decrease the cost by, for example, buying local materials instead of imported ones if they still met requirements. “The planned design of the GEM will not be changed as has been rumoured,” he said.

The government was helping in the construction of the GEM, El-Enany said, and measures were in place in order to borrow $482 million to complete the GEM’s construction. El-Enany has not announced the source of this loan, but he said he would be announcing it soon.

“Plugging the hole in the ministry’s finances is our top priority, because when funds are available projects that were put on hold can be resumed,” El-Enany told the Weekly, adding that Ismail had asked him to look for unconventional ways of financing. “I think that this could be achieved through the planned investment and management of services at archaeological sites,” El-Enany suggested.

He said that a private-sector company had been contracted 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 of ancient items. The company will not manage the archaeological sites or museums, as has been rumoured, he said, but would only manage the touristic aspects of the sites in order to upgrade the level of services provided, which in turn would increase the ministry’s income.

The company would be affiliated to the ministry, and the establishment of such a company was not something new. The Sound and Light Company at the Giza Plateau was another example of a similar idea.“I will not change any of the ministry’s officials right now, because if I do so it would be only for the sake of change and this in my opinion would be wrong,” El-Enany told the Weekly, adding that he would work with all the ministry’s officials though he would also be on the look-out for inefficiency.“I will not change any policy at the ministry unless it is not coping well with the work,” El-Enany said. He added that he had appointed Mahrous Said, director of the Nubia Antiquities Fund (NAF), to supervise the NMEC. Said was involved in the project as the NAF was the financer of the NMEC construction work and he was also an engineer on the project, Al-Enany said.He said he had also appointed curator Somaya Abdel-Salam to take care of the Tahrir Museum until the appointment of a permanent director. Abdel-Salam, El-Enany said, was very suitable because she had worked in the museum throughout her professional life and knew every inch of it.“I would never flatter any foreigner, whatever his nationality, or any Egyptian to the detriment of Egypt’s antiquities,” El-Enany added, saying that on the contrary he would use his good friendships with the French and other foreigners to do more for Egypt’s heritage.

“My dream is to improve every archaeological site in Egypt,” El-Enany told the Weekly, something that could be achieved through better site-management policies. “I have other ideas in mind, and I will work hard to implement them in order to protect and preserve Egypt’s heritage.”

El-Enany talking to El-Aref

This Article was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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