The protection of cultural assets is a top-level priority in Egypt

Interview with Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt“s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
By Claudia Buess, EvB (Erklaring von Bern) a Swiss NGO working towards
equitable North-South relations

    Zahi Hawass, the dynamic Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is about to make a dream of his youth come true: the restitution of stolen Egyptian artefacts. In November 2003, Switzerland returned 280 illegally exported antiquities to Egypt. There are five more important cultural assets on Hawass' wish list, amongst them the Rosetta Stone (currently in London), the bust of Queen Nefertiti (Berlin), and the Dendera Zodiac (Paris). EvB spoke to him in Cairo.


EvB: Could you please describe the activities of the Supreme Council of Antiquities?

Zahi Hawass: After taking office, I opened the Egyptian Department for Returned and Stolen Artefacts, which deals with all cases of stolen cultural assets. We have compiled a database of all art treasures stolen from Egypt since 1972. We have written letters to museums and universities all over the world, letting them know that we would cut all relations with them if they were to buy any stolen Egyptian artefacts. In addition, we would no longer lend them any object and would not permit them to conduct excavations and archaeological research in Egypt. In this way, we raised the awareness of the problem, and even dealers in antiquities realized that their most important customers, the museums, would no longer make any purchases. Later, we began to return objects to Egypt. Just today I received news from our embassy in New York that two objects held in a private collection will be returned as a result of our active pursuit of repatriation.


The objects returned from Switzerland: were they important antiquities?

For three years, the Al-Sweisi family had been under observation in Egypt because of suspicions that they were involved in the smuggling of artefacts to Switzerland. In November, Swiss officials caught them red-handed at the airport with 280 pieces in their possession. I sent a delegation to Switzerland to examine the pieces, amongst them some important and beautiful ones such as mummies, sarcophagi, and coffins. Our Justice Department took care of the legal side of things, and the Swiss officials cooperated very well indeed and returned all of these pieces. They are now at the National Museum in Cairo.

Could you tell me how this illegal trade works?

Well, in the case of the Al-Sweisi family, the dealers conducted a number of illegal excavations on various sites across Egypt. They also broke into storage depots and exported cultural assets. Through telephone surveillance, we were able to trace the sites from which the thieves had got their goods, and keep them under observation. The arrest of the head of this smuggling ring, a high-ranking official in the Egyptian governing party, caused a major stir and thus contributed in some way towards curbing the illegal trade. Switzerland was the main market for stolen artefacts. Even certain museums and academics in Germany, the UK, and the USA have bought stolen objects. Now we are building new storage depots with electronic safeguards all over Egypt to prevent anyone from stealing any more objects. We are also improving the education of the guards.


What can the market countries, such as Switzerland, do in order to stop the illegal trade in Egyptian antiquities?

It is my view that our main task is to protect our antiquities and cultural assets here in Egypt. Secondly, we have to negotiate with other governments who could help us in the restitution of stolen goods, such as the US and the Swiss government. As a result of the discovery of this smuggling ring, the dealers got scared and, for the first time ever, the public has become aware of this problem. Previously nobody really cared, but now it has become a concern of the people.

What are the main tasks of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities?

We have five main targets that I wish to fulfil within the next five years: the protection and preservation of excavation sites, amongst other reasons in order to make them accessible for tourism; the building of many new museums, e.g. in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Hurghada, etc. These museums are no longer supposed to be mere storage sites, but institutions for cultural education. Then we will compile an inventory of our cultural assets and increase the awareness of all Egyptians, including school children, of their cultural heritage and the benefit that they might reap from it. The final target is the repatriation of stolen artefacts.


What can other countries do in order to support Egypt in reaching these targets?

They should continue to cooperate with us, as Switzerland has done, and return any stolen artefacts. Furthermore, the fact that Switzerland has ratified the UNESCO convention means that the main market for the illegal trade and dealers is now closed which is a good thing.

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