Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s antiquities council, is mounting a campaign to repatriate artistic icons from museums around the world.
Men still fight over the legendary Egyptian beauty Nefertiti, 3,300 years after her death. In 2003, when the director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin allowed two Hungarian artists to briefly unite the famous bust of the ancient queen with a new bronze body, Egyptian cultural officials reacted as if the lady had been violated. She was no longer safe in German hands, said culture minister Farouk Hosni.
Zahi Hawass, who had become secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities a year earlier, was incensed by what he called “an insult to Egypt’s heritage.” Not long after the event, he demanded the return of the bust to Egypt, along with four other objects in European and American museums. In a recent interview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Hawass told ARTnews that he plans to ask UNESCO to support his demand. He does not charge that the five objects he is asking for were looted. He calls them “icons of our Egyptian identity”—unique artifacts of Egyptian cultural patrimony. “They should be in the motherland,” Hawass insists. “They should not be outside Egypt.”
Hawass’s list of national icons starts with the Nefertiti bust in Berlin and the Rosetta stone (ca. 200 b.c.) in the British Museum in London. Both of these objects left Egypt a long time ago, the Rosetta stone in the 1820s and the Nefertiti bust in 1912. From the Louvre, Hawass wants the Dendera zodiac (50 b.c.), a map of the heavens that was sawed and blasted out of the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera by the agent of a French collector in 1821. By modern standards the Rosetta stone and the zodiac were looted, although the term wouldn’t have made sense to the French and British agents who swarmed over Egypt in the early 19th century in a competitive quest for treasure—nor to most Egyptians.
The Nefertiti bust was found by German archeologists, but it was covered with a layer of grime—intentionally, according to some—that hid its beauty and excellent condition from the director of the service, the Frenchman Pierre Lacau, who gave permission for it to leave the country.
Hawass also wants to repatriate two of the greatest masterpieces of the Old Kingdom, both of which left Egypt legally: the bust of the vizier Ankh-haf (2590–2570 b.c.), in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the imposing statue of Hemiunu (ca. 2540 b.c.), architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza, in the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. The bust of Ankh-haf has been called the finest portrait of the Old Kingdom and one of the supreme creations of Egyptian art.
Hawass is also encouraging other countries to demand the repatriation of their own national icons. He is planning a conference in Cairo next year of nations that have lost artifacts of their heritage, including, he says, “China, Greece, Italy, Syria, Jordan, Mexico, Sudan. Every country will say what are the unique pieces that have left the country and should come back. And every country will list two, three, four pieces, and we will have an international list and make a campaign to push that list.” He expects to reach agreements with the museums that house the objects through negotiation, not threats.
Where loot is concerned, however, Hawass threatens. “If any museum has stolen artifacts and is not willing to return them to us,” he says, his voice rising, “I will stop them from working in Egypt. They don’t deserve to be in Egypt.” Hawass believes that the theft of artifacts will end if museums stop buying stolen objects. “People destroy and steal because they know there is a market,” he says. “If museums will announce they are not buying stolen artifacts, no one will go and destroy a tomb or open a magazine [depot] by force.”
Hawass recently demanded the return of a 3,200-year-old mummy mask from the St. Louis Art Museum, claiming that it was stolen from a storeroom in Egypt in the early 1990s.
In a statement, director Brent R. Benjamin said that the museum “pursued extensive research and made appropriate inquiries regarding provenance in advance of its 1998 acquisition of the mummy mask. We are not aware of any specific or credible information suggesting that the museum’s ownership of the work is illegal. Should additional information be forthcoming, the museum would evaluate it thoroughly and proceed accordingly. The museum has great respect for Dr. Hawass and the Supreme Council of Antiquities and takes seriously any suggestion that it illegally or improperly possesses any object in its collection. We will review any and all documentation provided by the ministry of culture in connection with this allegation. We look forward to working with Dr. Hawass toward a fair and amicable resolution of this matter.”
The mask is only one of thousands of objects Hawass is after. He seeks “anything stolen from Egypt after 1972,” when the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property went into effect, and every piece recorded in a site register book, even if it was stolen before 1972.
Hawass has harsh words for the St. Louis museum. “How can this museum bring children to visit and tell them that this [mask] is taken out illegally from an excavation?” he asks. For the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, he has nothing but praise. The Met, he says, has returned about 300 objects it determined were stolen, without his even asking for them—the only museum in the world that has done this.
So far, he says, he has retrieved about 3,000 objects. Hundreds of them were in the possession of two major gangs he helped apprehend, which were smuggling stolen artifacts to Switzerland. One group was headed by an important Egyptian politician and the other by a high-ranking antiquities official.
“I am Pharaoh!” Hawass announces as he rushes into a gallery at the Met where the “Hatshepsut” exhibition has just been installed. Distinguished looking, with dark eyes and thick gray hair, he is youthful for his 59 years. He answers an interviewer’s questions patiently but gives the impression of a man who is always in a hurry. A crowd is already gathering an hour before his lecture on recent discoveries in Egypt, and many people want to talk to him. Hawass may be the world’s only archeologist with a fan club (see his Web site, zahihawass.com). He is a familiar figure on television, striding across the desert in his Indiana Jones hat or opening a sarcophagus to reveal a gold-masked mummy. He delights audiences at his frequent lectures with tales of exploring secret passages in the Great Pyramid or finding Tutankhamun’s penis. His charm is considerable, his enthusiasm infectious. Up close, the charm has an aggressive edge. When he talks about thieves and smugglers—or people who have disagreed with him—he sometimes seems to be barely suppressing his anger.
“He has to be tough to do his job well,” says one American Egyptologist. “He will have to retire soon, and he is driven to get a lot done before that happens.” Hawass’s detractors call him autocratic, egotistical, vindictive, and publicity-hungry. His admirers say that he has forced reform on a torpid bureaucracy and worked to professionalize a 30,000-strong workforce. Everyone agrees, however, that he is passionate about archeology and has made the subject enthralling to large numbers of people.
As a youth Hawass dreamed of restituting stolen Egyptian artifacts, and it was one of his top priorities when he became head of the country’s antiquities organization. Born in a village near Damietta in 1947, he holds degrees from the universities of Cairo and Alexandria and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His curriculum vitae prints out at eleven pages. Soon after he took over as secretary general of the antiquities council, he established a department to deal with thefts and compiled a database of art treasures stolen from Egypt since 1972. He wielded the power of the permit, warning museums that if they bought stolen artifacts, permission for them to excavate or do research in Egypt would be rescinded.
Hawass has closed down a number of excavations that he says were run by “amateurs or adventurers not connected with an institution.” He encourages archeology in the Nile Delta, where the watery environment is ruinous to objects, but he has stopped issuing permits for new digs in Upper (southern) Egypt. What is needed there, he says, is recording and publication, conservation and restoration.
One of his major concerns is protecting sites from the hordes of tourists. “Tourism is bad for archeology,” he says. “If 10,000 people a day went through the tomb of King Tut, you can imagine what would happen to the tomb.” Beginning next year, visitors to the Valley of the Kings will need reservations. There will be a new visitors’ center and a cafeteria. Hawass is planning new museums at other sites, which he envisions serving Egyptians as well as foreign visitors.
Hawass takes credit for arousing the interest of his countrymen in their own past. He recently told an interviewer from PBS’s Nova that modern Egyptians feel a link to their ancestors. “We are the descendants of the pharaohs,” he said. “Everything in our lives is like ancient Egypt.”
Sylvia Hochfield is editor at large of ARTnews.