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Top Egypt archaeologist sees hope for future in past

A few years ago, looters have tried to cut into pieces a colossal red granite statue of the 19th Dynasty king Ramesses II at the southern quarry of Aswan.
A few years ago, looters have tried to cut into pieces a colossal red granite statue of the 19th Dynasty king Ramesses II at the southern quarry of Aswan.Courtesy of SCA

By Tom Perry,


CAIRO - The keeper of Egypt's archaeological treasures sees hope for the nation's future in its pharaonic past.

Mohammed Ibrahim, head of the antiquities ministry, likens Egypt's turbulent emergence from autocracy to the periods of decline that afflicted the nation on the Nile between the fall and rise of its three ancient kingdoms.

"We have passed through similar periods like that, even in antiquity," said Ibrahim, custodian of the pyramids, tombs and temples that bare witness to one of the world's oldest civilizations. "Every time Egypt passes through this period, it recovers very quickly, very strongly."

But for now, Ibrahim's ministry, is suffering from the repercussions of unrest that has hit the economy hard, driving away the tourism which pays his ministry's bills.

Excavation work led by the ministry has ground to a halt because of the financial squeeze. The unrest has also stopped many foreign-financed digs by deterring the archaeologists.

But the 59-year-old Egyptologist is upbeat: foreign archaeologists are starting to come back. And while the periods of decline between the ancient kingdoms could last 200 years, he expects Egypt to bounce back much sooner this time around.

"Egypt will be something new," he told Reuters in an interview at his offices in the medieval citadel that towers over the mosques of Cairo's Islamic quarter.

Head of Egyptian antiquities since late 2011, Ibrahim fills a post occupied for a decade by Zahi Hawass, who left office several months after the uprising that swept former President Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years of autocratic rule.

With a doctorate in Egyptology from France, his career includes time as director of Sakkara, an ancient necropolis south of Cairo best known for the stepped pyramid that was a forerunner of the pyramids at Giza.

The job of managing Egypt's ancient antiquities is more complicated today than it was in Mubarak's era. The rise of Islamists repressed by the deposed autocrat has brought with it calls from a radical, if tiny, fringe for the destruction of pharanoic monuments on the grounds that are contrary to Islam.

Ibrahim says the issue has been exaggerated out of all proportion by the Egyptian media. Investigations were only able to uncover one such fatwa, or religious edict, he said.

Nevertheless, Ibrahim asked Egypt's Sunni Muslim authorities, including the prestigious al-Azhar mosque and university, to speak out.

"They all said we have more than one fatwa saying that pharaonic monuments are not against Islam, or Islam is not against pharaonic monuments," Ibrahim said. "So now this case is closed."

Recovering stolen artifacts

Ibrahim has also been trying to recover artifacts stolen at the height of the uprising in 2011. The greatest losses were at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, where some 40 artifacts went missing.

"We found about 15 objects, 29 artifacts are still missing," said Ibrahim. He takes pride in the fact that the museum housing King Tutankhamun's treasures has been kept open through the spasms of turmoil since the revolt to "send a positive message."

In an effort to draw back tourists, Ibrahim has reopened tombs and temples closed for years because of restoration.

These include Sakkara's sprawling underground Serapeum, the catacombs where mummified sacred bulls, or Apis, were buried. The Serapeum had been closed since the late 1990s. Six tombs have also been reopened at Giza plateau, together with the Pyramid of Chephren, the second largest.

He says the Grand Egyptian Museum being built near the Giza pyramids will be completed by August, 2015.

In another initiative to boost visitor numbers, Ibrahim said the aviation ministry would soon open routes from Red Sea beach resorts to Luxor and Aswan. "This also might encourage them to go ... at least for a day," he said.

In Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings, Ibrahim laments hotel occupancy rates have slumped to 17 percent in the winter months that should mark the high season for cultural tourism.

"Egypt is still safe and welcoming those who want to come here," said Ibrahim. "If you want to help us, the only thing we need from you is to come back."