Memoires of an Egyptology guru

Amira Noshokaty , Thursday 17 Sep 2015

Ahead of CULTNAT publishing, 30 September, the memoires of Egyptology guru Selim Hassan, Ahram Online digs into the life and achievements of the legendary archaeologist

Selim Hassan

Selim Hassan (1887-1961) was a pioneer in Egyptology. He had an active career in excavations and discoveries under the Egyptian University. Not to mention being the author of over 50 books documenting Egyptian history.

Born in 1887, the Egyptology guru grew up in Mit Nagi village, in Mit Ghamr. He was the son of the Sheikh El-Balad (the vice mayor) who wanted him to study law because it was prestigious and could secure him a government position. However, Hassan was fascinated by antiquities and ancient Egyptian history. "When his father passed away, he followed his passion," explained Ahmed Hassan, former Egyptian ambassador and son of Selim Hassan.

Selim Hassan and his youngest son, Ahmed on site
Selim Hassan and his youngest son, Ahmed on site. Courtesy of Selim Hassan Family

Growing up in an era that followed the decipherment of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs by Champollion in 1822, and amid tens of archeologists that commenced regular missions to explore ancient Egyptian treasures, Selim Hassan developed a lifelong passion for history in general. In 1912, Hassan graduated from the Department of Archaeological Studies, founded by Ahmed Kamal Pasha, recounts the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), affiliated with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

stamp issued in Hassan
stamp issued in Hassan's Honour in the eighties, Photo: Amira El-Noshokaty

Egyptians at the time were frowned upon. So Hassan started his professional life as a history teacher in a high school. "He wrote two history books, one of them titled Egypt During the Ottoman Reign, which was a great success, to the extent that the government assigned it as part of the curiculum in high school. It granted him LE5,000 in revenue that enabled him to buy a flat in Paris and study for his Masters," remembers Ahmed Hassan.

During his stay, he became friends with numerous cultural figures, such as renowned Egyptian thinker and writer Taha Hussein. Selim Hassan also kept a keen eye on Egyptian antiquities in museums abroad, tracing them back to their origins and documenting how they were transferred abroad.

Ambassador Ahmed Hassan with old Album of his father Selim Hassan
Ambassador Ahmed Hassan with old Album of his father Selim Hassan Photo: Amira El-Noshokaty

As Egyptology and the antiquities service were dominated and controlled by foreign Egyptologists, Kamal Pasha struggled until he managed to appoint two of his students at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in 1921. Selim Hassan was one of them, along with Mahmoud Hamza. Hassan became the first Egyptian Egyptologist to begin an active career, spanning 1929 to 1939. Now married with three children, Selim Hassan dedicated his life to his excavations.

"I spent my childhood by the Pyramids plateau," Ahmed Hassan told Ahram Online. "Near the Khafraa Pyramid there was a small rest house where we lived, next to the site of my dad's excavations. (Being his youngest child) I used to accompany him and was very happy to be part of the excavations. One day an English woman who worshipped the deities of ancient Egypt asked to work with Selim Hassan. Married to an Egyptian and a mother of a little boy, whom she called Siti, she was known to us as Om Siti (Mother of Siti)," he added.

Om Siti, or the later famous Dorothy Eady, became Selim Hassan's assistant, and would live on site. " She lived by the newly discovered tomb, which she took as shelter, never posed in any of our photos and would feed all stray animals, including snakes," he remembered.

 Selim Hassan on site with his daily visitor teh British High Commissioner in the late twenties
Selim Hassan on site with his daily visitor teh British High Commissioner in the late twenties, Courtesy of Selim Hassan Family

Selim Hassan's daily routine was quite simple. He woke at the crack of dawn and went off to his excavation site. To name a few of his excavations, he discovered many of the Giza mastaba tombs, cleared the Sphinx and its temple, for the first time completely digging out the great amphitheater around it and ensuring that it would not be buried by sand easily.

In addition, he wrote a study on the temple of Amenhotep II, discovered the so-called "fourth Pyramid," or the palace-façade tomb of Queen Khentkawes of the Fourth Dynasty, and also the funerary town of the priests associated with it, reveals CULTNAT. He worked at Sakkara on the causeway, and the valley temple of King Wanis, discovering 17 mastaba tombs around this area. He was a great success.

But success makes for a lot of enmity. As soon as Selim Hassan was promoted deputy head of antiquities, a feud between him and the government body surfaced, which ended with him being reassigned to an administrative position, recalls Ahmed Hassan.

He chose to retire altogether and focus on his writing that included over 50 books and tens of articles on Egyptology in English, French and Arabic, among which Excavations at Giza (10 volumes) in 1929-1939; Excavations at Sakkara (Three volumes) in 1937-1938; The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt History (16 volumes), completed in 20 years; Hymns religieux du Moyen Empire in 1928; Le Poeme dit de Pentaour et le Rapport Officiel sur la Bataille de Qadesh in 1929; The Sphinx: Its History in the Light of Recent Excavations in 1949; and Report on the Monument of Nubia in 1955.

"In his dedication of the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian History, Selim Hassan wrote the following to Ahmed Pasha Abdel Wahab, his childhood friend, who died at an early age," noted Hassan:

"To Ahmed Pasha Abdel Wahab, and to all those who wanted to offend me and came between me and my work, which only brought me closer to science, to all of the above, I dedicate my work ... "



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