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Kwame Opoku: Restitution and Recent Upgeavals in Egypt

The disorder, revolt or revolution in Egypt, writes Kwame Opoku, does not change the nature of the debate on restitution nor does it provide any convincing excuse for the retentionists in the Western world. 

Images of recent disturbances from Tahir Square, Cairo, in January and February 2011, will make anybody who intends to send anything, including cultural artefacts, to Egypt, very hesitant. (2) Also, the looting of artefacts from the Egyptian Museum, Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt makes those interested in the preservation of cultural treasures extremely worried.  But the disorder, revolt or revolution in Egypt does not change the nature of the debate on restitution nor does it provide any convincing excuse for the retentionists in the Western world. The determination not to return the Rosetta stone to Egypt has never been based on the security or insecurity in Egypt. Those who are against restitution will use the present situation as an excuse for rejecting the restitution of the bust of Nefertiti to Cairo.  Dr. Christina Riggs has correctly remarked:

“Egyptology websites, discussion lists, even Facebook groups have circulated updates about suspected looting, and several organisations have issued statements calling for the protection of Egypt's antiquities. Ironically, such statements come on the heels of vigorous US and European rejections of Egyptian requests to repatriate objects, including some granted to foreign excavators before the 1920s”. (3)

But what happened in all the previous thirty years in which Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt? There were no reported major disturbances in this long reign but still the retentionists refused to return some of the Egyptian artefacts as requested by Zahi Hawass. However, many other artefacts were returned to Egypt from France and even from Great Britain. (4)

If we look at the other cases of restitution, for example, the Benin bronzes, we note that there is no revolution in Nigeria and yet for more than hundred years, including the period when Nigeria was a British colony, the British Museum refused to return the bronzes though the venerable museum has at times been very willing to sell these objects even to Nigeria. (5) Similarly, the British have been unwilling to return the golden Asante regalia they looted from Asante (Ghana) in 1874 even though the country which was British colony until 1957 has been peaceful without any major civil unrest. (6) Again, if  we  consider the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, there is no disorder in Athens but the British Museum is not considering the return of the marbles to Athens.

Clearly, those who argue against returning artefacts to Egypt are using a very convenient but unconvincing argument. They will not convince anyone who has carefully followed the debates on the issue in the last years.

Many Western museum directors may be rejoicing at the resignation and departure of Zahi Hawass from the position of the Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Let them rejoice for the period of respite they have unexpectedly gained will be shorter than they wish. The question of restitution was there before Hawass came and will remain after his departure and after all of us are gone if attitudes in the West do not change.

Whatever happens to Hawass in the post Mubarak period, one must acknowledge that the celebrated archaeologist has rendered to Egypt and to Africa immense services which many others envy. He has made the issue of restitution known to  a broader public in the world. Which other archaeologist is as well-know as the famous Egyptian archaeologist? He has made archaeology a lively subject for many persons. He has restored to Egypt, Egyptology, a science dominated for too long by Westerners. Westerners can no longer go to Egypt as if they were going to an archaeological supermarket to take whatever they want. They have to seek permission which may be refused and they may be asked to leave the country. One may not always like his style and tactics but there is no gainsaying that Hawass has been more successful with his approach than many others. The dedication and enthusiasm he brought to the issue of restitution deserve the admiration of all honest people. (7)

How many people can bring such energy and dedication to their work? We wish other countries had such worthy and energetic representatives who speak out clearly in the cultural field. The West, of course, has never liked intellectuals and representatives of non-Western peoples who know their work and articulate their positions boldly. A man like Hawass who mastered modern media and used them effectively was a thorn in the flesh of many.  Vernon Silver has rightly stated “Western collectors and curators may gain further advantage with the departure of Hawass, who cemented his celebrity by hounding museums for artefacts.”  He also quotes Zahi Hawass as saying; “I did fight antiquities robbery everywhere…I’m sure all museums will be happy now that I’m stepping down.” (8)

Hawass may have made mistakes in his work but that is for the Egyptian authorities and people to decide. (9)  Many were surprised however that he resigned at the time he did for Egyptian antiquities were in a bad situation: looting of artefacts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, more than 20 archaeological sites invaded by robbers, tombs in Saqqara and Abusir, near Cairo, were visited by looters. Was this the right time for the man who has devoted much of his energy and time to preserving Egyptian antiquities to leave?   No doubt Hawass knew that some were calling for his resignation as a minister of the former President, Hosni Mubarak whose regime was ousted by popular revolt of January 2011. (10) He probably did not want to wait for a dismissal. Hawass has given the reasons for his resignation largely based on the fact that the Egyptian police were no longer guarding the museums and archaeological sites. (11)

One undoubted achievement of Zahi Hawass was his success in bringing together States with restitution claims in April 2010 to the Cairo Conference on restitution - Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage - in Cairo, on April 7 and 8, 2010. For the first time, States with restitution claims met for two days to discuss common problems and to develop strategies for recovering/stolen/looted cultural artefacts. In addition to emphasizing that “Ownership of cultural heritage by the country of origin does not expire, nor does it face prescription”, the communiqué issued at the end of the conference added that “The efforts initiated in Cairo should be pursued and expanded upon and there should be continued consultations among the participants as well as with other countries and institutions”. (12)

The host of the conference, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) was to liaise with other delegations for the preparation of the next meeting and outlining the future activities of the Conference. The question that is posed now is whether with the departure of Zahi Hawass from the SCA the next conference would take place. Since the conference was not a private matter for the former Secretary-General but an international effort, we assume and hope that his successor and the other participants would continue the useful work started in 2010.

The recent events in Egypt may be analysed and assessed differently but it would clearly be illegitimate to argue that the temporary disorder in that country offers a valid reason for not returning artefacts illegally taken from Egypt. Certainly, we do not expect anybody to return artefacts in the midst of revolts and public disorder. This situation however will improve soon and the retentionists in the West will be exposed for their dishonest arguments which are based on grounds other than the present disorder.

Kwame Opoku, 23 March, 2011.


1. Egypt's Museums: 'our open-air museum’, Interview with Faysa Haikal, Almasryalyoum, 17 March 2011. www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/360092

2.  Egyptian antiquities attacked and under threat   

3. Christina Riggs, “Calls to save Egyptian cultural heritage ring hollow when those making them are blind to the past, argues Christina Riggs”, Times Higher education  www.timeshighereducation In this connection, it is interesting to note the view of Prof. Barry Kemp, an archaeologist working at Amarna;

“The most useful thing the international community can do about this is to examine its conscience. The looting of sites is done to satisfy the market in antiquities, which continues to flourish in Europe and the US. It is now a reasonable assumption that any Egyptian piece that is for sale is either fake or was looted.” www.newscientist.com

4. Kwame Opoku, “Egyptian Season of Artefacts Returns: Hopeful Sign to be Followed by others?” www.modernghana.com

5. Martin Bailey, British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes , www.forbes.com
BBC News, Benin Bronzes Sold to Nigeria, news.bbc.co.uk
Crown Fraud, www.modernghana
British Museum sold precious bronzes

6. K. Opoku, “When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts? A History of British Looting of more than 100 Objects” www.museum-security.org

7. K.Opoku, “Shall we learn from Zahi Hawass on How to Recover Stolen/ Looted Cultural Objects?” www.afrikanet  “Zahi Hawass in His Element: Is it Possible Not to Admire this Man for his Efforts on behalf of Egypt?”

8.  Vernon Silver, “Egypt Is Looted, and Curators Balk”

9. “ Former Minister Hawass denies having covered up antiquities theft”   www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/351660 for allegations made against Zahi Hawass and his response thereto.

10. Bikyamasr, Egypt’s Zahi Hawass and a dark past , bikyamasr.com/wordpress/
The Assemblage, “Will Hawass follow Mubarak? “

11. See Annex. See also, Paul Barford, Where do You Stand on the Issue of Looting? paul-barford.blogspot.com

12. Cairo Communiqué on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage,

K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Cairo conference on restitution”,

Why Dr Hawass Resigned

Q: Dr. Hawass, for many years you have been the image of modern Egyptology. Why are you leaving now?

A: “I am leaving because of a variety of important reasons. The first reason is that, during the Revolution of January 25th, the Egyptian Army protected our heritage sites and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. However, in the last 10 days the army has left these posts because it has other tasks to do. The group now in charge of the protection of these sites is the Tourist Police, but there are no Tourist Police to do this either. Therefore, what happens? Egyptian criminals, thieves (you know, in every revolution bad people always appear…), have begun to destroy tombs. They damaged the tomb of Hetep-ka at Saqqara, the tomb of Petah-Shepses at Abu Sir and the tomb of a person called Em-pi at Giza. They attacked a storage magazine at Saqqara and we do not yet know how many artifacts are missing; they opened two storage magazines at Giza; one tomb dated to the 19th Dynasty, the only one in the Delta in fact, was damaged at Ismaïlia; and a store at El-Qantara East has been broken into and looted for antiquities. People have begun to build houses and to excavate at night, everywhere, putting heritage sites all over the country at risk. I had to write a report and I sent it to the Director of UNESCO. That is why at the meeting of the Egyptian cabinet yesterday I had my speech prepared already and I said: “I cannot stay in Egypt and see antiquities being stolen when I cannot do anything to stop it!” This situation is not for me! I have always fought to return stolen artifacts to Egypt. I did fight Ahmed Ezz as well, the man in the Parliament, who was the most powerful man, because he wanted to allow antiquities to be sold in Egypt again.

The second reason is that there are two crooks in the Antiquities Department, who have accused me of stealing antiquities and doing other illegal things all of the time. Their files talk about this. A third person started saying similar things, a university professor who was the Antiquities Director for almost 6 years before me, who never accomplished anything in that time. As a corrupt man, he even gave his signed permission to a rich lady from another Arabic country to take manuscripts out of Egypt! These three people encouraged young Egyptians to protest against me personally, to shout outside my office that they needed jobs. Sadly, I cannot give a job to everyone, but I did find funds to provide nearly 2000 training positions. In response to the horrible rumors that I am stealing antiquities. How could this be?! How could a man who has given his life to protecting and promoting antiquities, be accused later of stealing them?! Because of all of these things, I believe that if I stay in my position for another six months, I will never be able to protect the antiquities I love and I will never be able to work during this mess. All my life, I have been excavating, discovering, writing books and giving lectures all over the world. My work is responsible for bringing many tourists to Egypt, which helps our economy. But now I cannot do this! Therefore, I decided to resign”.

Q: Your decision could have a very negative impact on tourism in Egypt and on the image of the post-revolutionary Egypt…

A: “I know. I agree with you, but what can I do? I cannot work during this mess. Antiquities are my life. I cannot see with this mess in front of me. I cannot work with these dishonest people trying to tell everyone else that they are honest. I was writing an article before you came about a situation similar to this that happened 4000 ago in Egypt. A nice man, his name was Ipuwer, tells us on a papyrus what he saw when he took a look at the state of the country. He describes chaos - how the poor became rich and rich became poor. The lady who had a mirror before cannot find the mirror now. She looks at her face in the water. People robbed the pyramids, they robbed everything. That is what is happening now too! It is something I cannot stop! I can work if there is discipline and honesty, but dishonest people have begun to appear and to attack the honest people. I can stand against them if antiquities are safe, but at the moment antiquities are not safe!”

Q: What are the conditions under which you would come back to lead the Ministry of Antiquities?

A: “I will come back if there is stability at the sites and if there are police, as it was before, to protect the sites, but now people come to them with guns. They stand in front of my security people, who run away, because they are not armed. In the past, the police refused to give them weapons. Therefore, everyday, in the morning, I am waiting for news. What has been robbed today? What has been stolen today? Since I cannot stop this, I cannot come back.

Q: Recently, you issued an urgent appeal to the young Egyptians of the revolution to protect the sites. What was the reason behind this?

A: “It was wonderful. This is something that really everyone should know. On Saturday, January the 29th, I went to Tahrir Square at nine in the morning. I walked among the young people there. They came to me and explained how they put themselves in front of the Egyptian Museum to protect it. When I checked inside, I saw that all the masterpieces of the Museum’s collection were still there. That is why I originally announced that the Museum was safe. Sadly, we have since discovered that 18 objects were stolen and 70 were damaged, but the final report is still in preparation and we will know the real result soon. The Director of the Museum has told me that there are more missing artifacts, but none are major pieces. Thanks God, someone found a statue of Akhenaton giving an offering near a garbage can in Tahrir Square and returned it. The Egyptian Museum is open again now. I would like people to go to it and see that it is safe. I have also been arguing with people who are now trying to tell me, “How can you ask for the bust of Nefertiti to be returned to Egypt, if your own people are stealing and damaging the monuments?”. I say that if what happened in Egypt, with the police force abandoning the streets for two nights, had happened in Rome, for example, Rome too would be robbed, completely. Their museums would have been robbed as well. Thank God, all that happened that day here was not that bad.”

Q: Frankly, Dr. Hawass, are you encouraging tourists to come back to Cairo and to the archaeological sites, or is this still not safe?

A: “Honestly, I have to tell you that if the Ministers of Tourism and of the Interior make a statement to give back the police their power, tourists could come to visit Egypt again. Until now, however, they have not done this. This means that visitors from abroad will have to wait until police officers and Antiquities Police are at every archaeological site once more.”

Q: Until that moment, it is not safe?

A: “I can say this, yes.”

Picture: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

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