It seems that within the Ministry the SCA will be recreated (or retained) – so a return to the pattern of all but the last few days of the Muarak era. It is currently being reported by apparently reliable sources in Egypt that it will be headed by Dr Abdel (Mohamed Abdel) Maqsoud, former head of Alexandria and Lower Egypt under Hawass. He has been in the news recently for shipping the entire contents of the compromised Qantara storerooms under military escort to Cairo. If this is true, let us see whether his appointment results in any changes in the model of doing things created by his former boss Zahi Hawass.
The situation of archaeology in the state administrative and legislative systems is crucial to its ability to effectively protect the archaeological resource from unmitigated damage. The name of the new ministry is interesting, though it is difficult at this stage to decide whether it is one to be excited about or apprehensive about. In former days, the Supreme Council of Antiquities came under the Ministry of Culture, which gave rise to the problem (not restricted by any means to Egypt alone – see the UK for example) that archaeology was financed from a common pool of funds which had to be divided among other areas of culture. Opera and brass bands for example. In a case like Egypt, where “archaeology” (in a broader sense) contributes funds, many of them end up being siphoned off to support those that do not, opera and brass bands for example, and not being ploughed back into archaeology.
But of course what is generating the revenue is not “archaeology” itself, but tourism. If there are tourists around, where there are standing ruins or romantic looking humps and bumps in a field, given the appropriate marketing, infrastructure and presentation – you can make money out of them. Hawass was one of the ones who understood the point about “presentation”, having done a great deal to open eyes in his country to how sites SHOULD look if you want the tourists to not turn away in disgust from all but the most iconic of sites.
From the point of view of archaeology, the creation of a Ministry for Antiquities Affairs was a positive step forward with the potential of giving it some independence, not only financial but also of state cultural policy. This would, potentially at least, allow the creation of policies more likely benefitiing the archaeological record and its conservation and better management.
The problem with the former model of seeing everything under the 'promoting tourism' model is that the sites that attract tourists are only part of the archaeological record. The finds visitors want to see in museums fall into strictly definale groups (see teh UK Treasure Act). A well-preserved upper Palaeolithic kill site, or the complex of waste dumps of a nineteenth century glassworks or the soil stains of a decayed medieval peasant hovel on the site where some tycoon wants to build a supermarket (“creating local jobs”) for example are not tourist attractions. But it is precisely such sites that need to be seen as just as much part of the archaeological heritage as a Karnak (or Carnac) or KV62 (that’s Tut’s tomb for the rest of us). Its these sites which need to be protected from needless and unmitigated destruction, not just those that tourists pay through the nose to visit.So what is behind this new title? What are these antiquities it covers? Is an undisturbed scatter of Upper Palaeolithic flints on the desert surface an “antiquity” for everyone (including Egypt’s current military lawmakers)? Or are “antiquities” the shattered visage half-sunken in the sand of Shelley’s Ozymandias King of Kings (30 Egyptian pounds adults entry fee)? Is the juxtaposition of antiquities and culture intended to convey that these (yet-to-be-defined) antiquities are something separate from culture (“and”) or does the term culture include them? Will antiquities be treated in the New Egypt as a separate entity, or as part of a broader understood cultural heritage – and whatever the answer, is that a good or bad thing?
One thing is clear, in the near-immediate dissolution of the newly-formed ministry (just) for antiquities, in a sense, the position of archaeological resource management has already been weakened with a few days of the beginning of the process of creating a “new Egypt”.
UPDATE 6 3 11: Well, it seems that, more than usual, one hand does not seem to know what the other is doing in the transitional government (using the term loosely) . Kate Phizackerley has published another version of the same events… Hawass' Successor to be Elected?. Of course, all the time while there is this dithering about policy and politics and in-fighting of nterest groups, the antiquities are suffering. Let us hope that an effective system of protection is up and running as soon as possible.
UPDATE 14.03.11: It turns out my "well-informed source" was wrong and the new appointee as the Minister for Antiquities is (it is now being reported!) Prof. Dr. Alaa El-Din Shaheen (apparently his name is transliterated in a variety of ways)
UPDATE July 2011: It seems the first version was correct after all, Dr Abdel (Mohamed Abdel) Maqsoud (former Head of the Central Administration of Lower Egypt Antiquities, then supervisor of the office of Minister Zahi Hawass after his reappointment as Minister of State for Antiquities 1st April 2011), was appointed head of the SCA on June 30th 2011 which seems to be a post within the Ministry of Antiquities. Until then, Minister Hawass had been running the SCA through his office and facing an increasing barrage of protests from SCA staff. I've added a nice photo of the Minister of Culture.