Can we stop kicking Zahi Hawass, please?

The director of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation — or whatever it is currently called — is one Zahi Hawass.  He dresses like Indiana Jones, and has brought colour and enthusiasm to the cause of promoting interest in Egyptology.  It is difficult, indeed, to see any TV programme about Egyptian archaeology which does not feature him.

But his position has been threatened because of the revolution in that country.  Like everyone in power, he had connections to Mubarak, and consequently was removed from office for that reason.  Following his fall, there was a torrent of sneering at him on blogs online — I shall not link to these, to spare the blushes of those responsible. 

It seems that a lot of people resented his control of excavation in Egypt — which, surely, was his job, not a personal thing — and his determination to seize control of Egyptian artefacts exported overseas.  The latter, involving interference with the art market, was something that any Egyptian in his position would have to do.  Personal attacks were not lacking.

Somehow he fought back, and was, mirabile dictu, reinstated.  But of course he is not out of the woods yet.  The situation in Egypt is still unstable. 

Cultural Property Observer blog is generally pro-art market.  There is no reason why it should not be.  A great many finds are made in Egypt by peasants who sell their finds to the illegal Cairo dealers, who in turn smuggle them out of the country.  The artefacts do get damaged in the process.  But if there was no market, the peasants would probably simply destroy the finds for fuel.  It is not obvious, at all, that the law of unintended consequences would not apply if a ban was enforced.

But CPO doesn’t like Zahi Hawass. 

Today’s New York Times has an interesting article that suggests that Zahi Hawass’ star may finally be on the wane in Egypt. See

The article also exposes business ties between National Geographic and Hawass.

National Geographic has also actively sought so-called “emergency” import restrictions on Egyptian cultural artifacts on Hawass’ behalf. See

But don’t these business ties suggest a potential conflict of interest that should be investigated before such import restrictions are considered at all, let alone considered a “done deal” as Hawass himself has suggested?

“One hand washes another” has been long a staple of Egypt’s corrupt political scene, but it should play no part in the State Department’s decision making whether to clamp down on the import of Egyptian cultural goods by U.S. citizens.

I’m a bit sad to see this.  Zahi Hawass has been good for Egypt, and for Egyptian archaeology.  He has done his best to promote the subject.  He has made it fashionable in Egypt itself.  What educated Egyptian boy would not wish to be like him?  This can only be good.

There is no purpose in complaining that, in an autocracy, he had to cosy up to the rulers.  Anyone in his position would have to do so, and to attack him for it is to attack anyone holding his job.  Nor is there anything to be gained by muttering about corruption, or “illicit wealth”.  To do so, when the object is a man in a third-world country, is only fair if we also demand  that the honest colonial rulers be reinstated.

Come, give the man a chance.  I should not care to have to make my way in the shark-infested waters of current Egyptian politics, with rivals eagerly seeking to seize my position and everything I worked for.  We should support him.  For his replacement, in the current climate, would at best quite likely be some official skilled only in back-stabbing and eager to grow rich.  At worst it might be an Islamist of the Taliban persuasion.


3 thoughts on “Can we stop kicking Zahi Hawass, please?

  1. “Zahi Hawass has been good for Egypt, and for Egyptian archaeology.”

    For once, dear Roger, I beg to differ. If only Hawass had published as many books in Arabic as he published in English, he might have made a difference. But he has consistently focused on the international market and preferred to present Egyptology to his own people as a foreign undertaking. By consistently keeping his own nation ill-informed, he may, in my opinion, be co-responsible for the looting of the past months.

    Besides, I think we must not close our eyes for his Anti-Semitici remarks, his support of unsupportable claims about Cleopatra’s tomb, or his claim to be able to radiocarbondate stones.

    Finally, to say forgivingly that anyone had to deal with Mubarak, is, in my opinion, not altogether fair to those scholars who refused to sell out. There have been unsung heroes, and I sing we should praise them, instead of forgive Hawass.

  2. Your first paragraph worries me, since it suggests that I may have been misinformed about what he was doing at home. Do you have more details?

  3. I think I put it a bit ambiguously. I should have written “he has consistently neglected”… and so on; by writing “focusing”, I presented it as a deliberate act.

    And reading back, I notice a curious typo in the final section: “sing” >> “think”.

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