Latest News in Brief - May 2011

Sites Re-opening

After 13 years and $20m of restoration work to the fourth century Hanging Church in Cairo, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf officially inaugurated it in time for Coptic Easter. Pope Shenouda III will lead these ceremonies to celebrate this important festival. The majority of the restoration work was undertaken to reduce the water leakage into the church and strengthen the foundations of the church that were constructed over the Roman Babylon fortress. This work should protect them from any future damage. The walls were also reinforced, with missing and decayed stones being replaced and masonry cleaned and desalinated. The decorations and icons inside the church were also subjected to fine restoration in collaboration with Russian experts and new lighting and ventilation systems have been installed. The work in the Coptic area of Cairo is not finished, as the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) soon hopes to install state-of-the-art security measures at the church as well as the area of the Mar Girgis monastery.

The Hanging Church

In Old Cairo the Al-Mansour and Qalawun complexes in Al-Muizz Street, as well as the Mosque of Prince Soliman, which is known as the Hanging Mosque after undergoing many years of restoration are soon to be opened to the public. Other Islamic sites to be opened soon include the Zaghloul Mosque and six Islamic-era houses in Rashid, the Salaheddin Citadel in Taba, and the mosque of Sidi Galal in Minya. After many years of conservation work the Serapeum in Saqqara will open soon. The restoration of the south side, which was in very poor condition, is now completed. Metal supports have been installed throughout the interior to support the walls and ceiling, so now the south section can be visited. Conservation work on the north side will begin, shoring up sections that are unsafe and making general repairs. Also at Saqqara the New Kingdom cemetery of the high officials that has been excavated and recorded by Prof. G. T. Martin, Dr M. Ravens and Dr A. Zivie over several decades and that contains many famous tombs, such as those of Maya and Horemheb is soon to be opened to the public.

The Serapeum being restored                                             The Qalawun Complex

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf is also to inaugurate other archaeological projects, such as the Suez National Museum. Tourists will be able to travel by boat to visit this museum, which encompasses different aspects of the city, including pilgrimage, trade, the Suez Canal, and the history of the Sinai Peninsula. The Crocodile Museum at Kom Ombo, as well as the visitor centre in Amarna will also soon open to the public. Over the next few months the MSA is preparing to open several more sites around the country, including the Temple of Hibis in Kharga Oasis.

New Security Guards at Archaeological Sites

Following Hawass’ meeting with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he announced the formation of a new security department for antiquities and archaeological sites had been agreed upon. The current laws do not permit guards at archaeological sites to carry guns. This has resulted in them not being able to fend of armed gangs of looters. This new department will included a number of armed guards who are educated and trained by the national security forces, not only in weapons training but in tactics in order to be able to safeguard the sites, museums and magazines and so deal with any further attempted break-ins, illicit digging or encroachments.

A New Complaints Department in the Ministry of State for Antiquities

Dr Hawass has appointed legal consultant, Mohamed Ramadan, to the post of Director General of the Minister’s Office for Legal Affairs, tasked with reshuffling the ministerial office and its sections. As a result a new department has been established at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) to receive complaints against ministry employees. This department will be run by Magdi El-Ghandour, former director of foreign missions, and will look into and review all complaints and suggestions to develop the MSA. Dr Hawass promised that each complaint will receive a reply within a week. Zahi Hawass says that hard work will pay dividends, and has promised to raise salaries, secure better health insurance and other benefits and also enforce stricter rules concerning bonuses, which will be granted only to hard workers. Hawass added that the MSA will also equalise its pay scale, so each position earns a fair salary according to effort. A finance committee has also been created to investigate how to raise salaries. Hawass also announced that the MSA will give scholarships to employees based on qualifications, also taking into consideration those with special needs or health issues. This should make for a more balanced and fairer system for granting scholarships and positions. Employees will be chosen on merit to accompany travelling exhibitions. Another goal is to find money in the MSA’s budget to hire buses to transport employees between home and work. Hawass also promised to support the creation of a syndicate for archaeologists. Hawass also stated that he is trying to make the many talented works that are on temporary contracts on to permanent contracts and secure their services for the MSA.

Four More Artefacts Returned to the Cairo Museum

The Ministry of State for Antiquities announced on 11th April that it had recovered a further four objects missing from the Egyptian Museum since the January Revolution. The objects were apparently found in a black bag lying abandoned on a chair at Shubra Metro station in Cairo by Mr Salah Abdel Salam, a public relations officer at the MSA as he was going into work. Looking inside the bag, presumably before handing it in to the lost property department, he observed the gilded figure of Tutankhamun and took the bag with him and handed it over to Dr Tarek el-Awadi, director of the Cairo Museum. The four objects that were returned to the Museum were:
  1. The gilded wooden statue of Tutankhamun standing in a boat throwing a harpoon: JE 60710.1.
  2. One of the 10 missing shabtis of Yuya and Thuya: JE 68982.
  3. The gilded bronze and wooden trumpet of Tutankhamun: JE 62008.
  4. A part of Tutankhamun’s fan: JE 62006.
The statue (JE 60710.1) has suffered slight damage; a small part of the crown is missing as well as pieces of the legs. The papyrus that the statue was originally standing on is still in the Museum, and the figure of the king will be reunited with it before being put back on display. One face of the fan (JE 62006) is in good condition while the other has been broken into 11 pieces, and part of it is still missing. Following the return of these objects, the number of artefacts still missing is 33 objects out of the original total of 54. An exhibition of the reinstated objects was held at the Egyptian Museum to celebrate World Heritage Day on 18th April. Dr Hawass announced that the MSA is offering a reward to anyone that hands-in or has information about any of the outstanding 33 objects. The thieves who were caught stealing antiquities from the Cairo Museum have been sentenced to 15 years in prison and been handed heavy fines. It is hoped that these sentences may deter other would-be looters from ransacking archaeological sites and breaking into magazines.

Smuggling Attempt Foiled in the Sinai

On the 4th April customs officials in Nuweiba in cooperation with the police managed to arrest a Jordanian driver, Mr Karim Hassan Abd El-Fatah, who was driving a refrigerated truck loaded with cheese trying to cross to Jordan. As the truck went through the customs at the ferry port the x-ray scanner detected a large quantity of artefacts hidden in 33 cartons and rolls. The objects found included 40 metal statuettes, 52 amulets, five wooden masks, a copper vase, four metal shields and a large collection of Pharaonic and Islamic pottery hidden in a secret cache in the truck. Director General of Nuweiba’s Antiquities Department Abdel Rehim Rayhan added that security forces also found 17 silver and gold pieces that are not antiquities and do not fall under the antiquity law. The driver was remanded in custody and a report was filed on the incident. The defendant will stand before the General Prosecutor later this month.

Smuggling of Islamic Documents Thwarted

Egyptian authorities on Wednesday 22nd March 2011 thwarted an attempt to smuggle a collection of important Islamic books, documents, and five manuscripts dating back between 100 and 300 years. Customs officials in collaboration with the airport antiquities unit foiled an attempt to smuggle historical documents to Saudi Arabia via an Egyptian company. Customs officers discovered the documents when they opened a suspicious package during checks on exports to Riyadh from Cairo Airport. After inspecting the contents of the parcel, specialist Islamic archaeologists deemed them historical documents subject to the Law on Protection of Cultural Property and that their exportation was illegal. Customs officials then confiscated the documents and plan to send them to the National Library and Archives.

Military Arrests Six Looters

On the 10th April 2011 Armed Forces personnel arrested two students and four adult workers on for excavating artefacts west of Cairo in 6th of October City, according to security sources. Preliminary investigations indicate the suspects had specifically formed a group for illegally excavating monuments during a lack of security presence in the country. On the morning of 10th April the suspects went to an ancient cemetery in a village called Beni Suef, part of 6th of October City, where soldiers noticed them digging. They were immediately arrested and referred to prosecutors, who sent them to prison while further investigations are carried out. This region is famous for Old Kingdom remains, many of which have not yet been investigated or have only briefly been published. This makes the protection of these sites all the more important. It also raises the question of whether a list of endangered site needs to be drawn up, with unexcavated or only briefly investigated sites circulated to potential site directors. This list of sites could be divided by period so that researchers can focus on the time periods that they specialise in. The creation of such a list would be far easier if a complete computerised Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) or National Register existed, but this is also a good opportunity to create such a tool.

Artefacts Go Missing from the American University Cairo

An underground storehouse of Islamic and a few Coptic and Pharaonic artefacts was raided on the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) campus, beneath Ewart Hall on 15th March 2011. The storeroom had its padlocks broken and objects were thrown everywhere. An inventory was carried out by the Ministry of State for Antiquities immediately after the discovery, which revealed that a total of 146 original antiquities and 50 replicas are missing. Six AUC employees were arrested and charged with the theft and a preliminary court hearing was scheduled for Sunday, 27th March.

Zahi Hawass said that all the antiquities in possession of AUC are documented with the MSA, and are registered in three different Islamic antiquities logs and archives of Fustat excavations and that the last inventory was carried out in April last year. The majority of artefacts were the result of excavations conducted by the university in the Fustat area in the 1960s-70s lead by Prof. George Scanlon, who was a Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at AUC. At that time, there was a law in Egypt, Law 215, enacted in 1951, that stated that the results of foreign expeditions would be split equally between the foreign mission and the antiquities department. Other artefacts were added to the collection by ex-President Prof. Richard Pederson, who thought it would be nice to have a teaching collection of antiquities on campus, and bought pieces in the Khan al-Khalili. The AUC antiquities collection was also looted on 28th June 1989 and the criminals that perpetrated that crime are still at large. According to an AUC spokesman exhibiting the artefacts to the public would require space and strict security measures that the university lacks. Dr Hawass has written a letter to the President of AUC, Prof. Lisa Anderson, to inform her that it is safer for these objects to be stored in a magazine in Fustat, and the University can have access to them at anytime.

An Explosion near the Pyramids at Giza

On the 5th April some old munitions exploded near Egypt’s iconic pyramids, injuring three teenage horse and camel drivers, with one boy loosing part of an arm. The explosion occurred some 500 feet (150 meters) from the Pyramid of Menkaure. Officials said the teenagers found the object out in the desert and brought it nearer to the pyramids; the explosion being triggered when the boys began hitting it with iron sticks, thinking the casing might conceal valuable goods. The three boys are now stable in a nearby hospital. Some of these people who own horses and camels near the pyramids began to move onto the Giza plateau, they even began to use the ancient tombs as stables for their horses and camels. The pyramids themselves or any of the associated tombs were not damaged in anyway.

British Troops relaxing at the camp near the pyramids in the 1930s (Photo John M. Hamer)

Although no major battles have been fought at the pyramids since 1798 when Napolen’s troops defeated Ottoman troops, British troops had being doing military exercises there from 1882 until the Second World War. Although the main WWII battle fought in Egypt was in the Western Desert at El-Alamein, the troops were often stationed in Cairo before they joined the front and would have manoeuvres out in the desert to the west of the Pyramids at Giza. A military camp was set up 3 km from the Giza Pyramids, and they left behind the remains of munitions and other things. During the heavy rain at the end of March it began to wash away the sand and these remains began to appear on the surface. More worrying is the actual area of the WWII battle, for this is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. From El-Alamein to Torbruk there are munitions and other military hardware littering the desert, and it is the responsibility of those countries that left them there, predominately Germany, Italy and the UK to clear these munitions away. As all these countries are now friendly and part of the EU, perhaps the EU should provide the funds and technology to remove these dangerous objects.

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