The Jinx of the Sphinx: How Egypt’s ‘exploited’ past came full circle


Behind the smokescreen of an illusory “jinx,” Egypt’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak last year has brought on an elaborate explanation as to why the country rose to oust its president.

The idea, recently introduced by an Egyptian author on ancient history, follows quite a mystical path.

It prompts the questions: Was the 2011 uprising predestined to happen? Is Egypt destined to destroy and rebuild itself over periods of time? And does this all follow in the footsteps of Egypt’s ancient history, one which tells stories of suppression and exploitation?

In an interview with Al Arabiya English this week, Egyptian writer Ahmed Osman explained the ties he has made between past and previous rulers in Egypt, those he deems to have exploited and misused the country’s archaeology for personal gains. Coincidence, they think not.

And the frequent mention of former Egyptian president Mubarak as a “modern-day Pharaoh,” due to his 30 years of autocratic reign, may strike a chord with history buffs.

In his latest book, Osman digs deep into the past, uncovering what he calls “a cycle of destruction and suppression” in Egypt, focusing on one thing – Egypt’s archeological presence.

“Breaking the Mirror of Heaven,” the book written by Osman and Egypt-born researcher Robert Bauval, unravels what the writers describe as a “conspiracy” against Egypt, which has continued from the ancient days into the present.

The degradation of its monuments, the theft of its relics and the censorship of ancient teachings by foreign rulers in Ancient Egypt all feature as part of the described conspiracy to engulf the historic land.

Drawing ties between Mubarak’s era and that of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, Osman shone the spotlight on the country’s antiquity council during a large part of Mubarak’s rule, claiming to expose cover-ups during the tenure of former Egyptian antiquities minister Dr. Zahi Hawass.

The former antiquities minister’s reign was part of a long “conspiracy to suppress the voice of Ancient Egypt,” Osman said, adding that such rulers, or those with high-ranking posts, have “always sought to individually gain from the country’s archaeological wealth and stifle Egypt’s antiquity developments.”

On Sunday, local Egyptian media reported a court ruling to retrieve 179 ancient relics linked to Cleopatra, which had been sent to be displayed in the United States, under a deal signed by Hawass but not presented to parliament.

“Egyptian antiquities were being treated as if they were their private collection,” Osman said of those appointed by Mubarak to oversee the country’s treasures, pinpointing Hawass.

Osman added that even former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak began to “protect” artifacts while her husband was in power and became “interested in obtaining golden antiques.”

Hawass hits back

But former antiquities minister Hawass, whose trademark Indiana Jones hat made him one of the country’s best known figures worldwide, continued to be the main focus of Osman’s criticism.

“Hawass failed to save Egyptian antiquities, which faced deterioration, and thousands of objects started to appear on international markets,” Osman alleges.

But in an Al Arabiya English interview, Hawass hit out at Osman’s claims.

“Ahmed Osman is taking advantage of the Egyptian revolution to speak out against me, just like others have,” he said.

Hawass also wished to disentangle himself from any references that tie him to the former president.

“I should not be affiliated to Mubarak; not him, not anyone. I was not part of his National Democratic Party,” he said.

Meanwhile in response to Osman’s claim concerning antiquities and international markets, Hawass again rebuffed the accusations.

“Egyptian antiquities have to appear on international markets. This is normal. Until 1983 this practice was allowed. During my time as Antiquities minister, if I would ever find a stolen piece on the international market I would try to retrieve it.

“I was the one that helped Egypt retrieve 5000 stolen artifacts from around the world, from countries including the U.S., UK, France, Spain and Poland. I opened 24 museums across Egypt.

“My achievements led to me being chosen one of the Top 100 Most Influential People for the year 2005 by Time Magazine,” the former antiquities minister said.

Hawass was the powerful overseer of Egypt’s cultural artifacts until 2011, after criticism erupted on his handling of a Jan. 28 break-in at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the mass uprising against Mubarak’s government. He originally stated no artifacts had been stolen during the break-in, then later announced that 18 items, including some belonging to King Tutankhamen, were missing.

While this rang alarm bells for many Egyptians, scholars such as Osman had been angered by a number of Hawass’ actions on an academic front also.

“Traditionally, the job of Egypt’s antiquity directors is to save Egyptian heritage and help excavators do their work without interfering in the result of scholars’ research. But Zahi Hawass appointed himself supervisor of other peoples’ work, and suppressed and intimidated scholar who reached conclusions that disagreed with own,” Osman said.

After Hawass lost his job along with about a dozen other ministers in a 2011 Cabinet reshuffle, activist and archaeologist Nora Shalaby called him “the Mubarak of antiquities.”

“He acted as if he owned Egypt's antiquities, and not that they belonged to the people of Egypt,” she said.

Back to the Future?

The ties drawn with Egypt’s ancient world, rewind back to when Egypt first began to suffer considerable destruction on political and archeological fronts – when the land of the pharaohs was pillaged by its own people. And while Egypt was an object of attention in the ancient world, it also became a target.

Egypt’s ancient artifacts cradled a special allure. Their destruction and theft began with the arrival of foreign rulers, both Arab and European.

“When Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, he brought with him a group of scientists to study and record all remains of Pharaonic Egypt,” Osman said.

Those French archaeologists made a great deal of advancement in Egyptology, including the discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone, which held the key to modern decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. These findings sparked Western interest in the Egyptian civilization.

But Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule was still seen as foreign intervention.

And more than two centuries later, the mistreatment of the country’s ancient relics continued, according to Osman’s book. The claims made in the book concerned not only Hawass’ but former culture minister Farouk Hosny as well.

Last week, Hosny was charged with corruption and has been referred to court for trial after failing to convincingly explain how he had gotten about $3 million in assets. He had also been removed from his post in 2011 amid the popular uprising, following more than two decades of services as culture minister under Mubarak.

Hosny, who joined the long line of former government officials and businessmen who have been accused of using their positions to enrich themselves, insisted that his wealth had been legally obtained, a result of investments and sales of his paintings.

Pharaoh, covered up?

But while the Mubarak chapter has now closed, observers who may have been pleased to see an end to Hawass and Hosny’s antiquities rule, may still share niggles of concern over the future of Egypt’s relics.

Fears have surfaced that the ultra-conservative Salafi political powers may soon wish to debate new guidelines over Egyptian antiquities.

Islamists have swept the recent presidential and parliamentary elections in the country’s post-revolutionary stage, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists rising to political power.

“The fundamental Salafis have demanded to cover Pharaonic statues, because they regard them to be idols,” Osman said, explaining that Salafi Muslims follow conservative religious principles which view statues and sculptures as prohibited in Islam.

“But so far the government has done nothing to indicate what is the future of Egyptian antiquities,” adds Osman.

Many hope that Egypt’s new President Mohammed Mursi will help usher better preservation of Egypt’s proud cultural heritage. Egyptian officials have recently announced the country will reveal more of its ancient buried treasures.

The tomb of Queen Meresankh III, the granddaughter of Khufu, of Great Pyramid fame, is set to be opened to tourists later this year, with the last resting places of five high priests also slated to be put on show.

Officials are also believed to be reopening the underground Serapeum temple at Sakkara, to the south of Cairo.

And while more historical finds will be housed in the new Grand Egyptian Museum, set to open in 2015, what was deemed to be Ancient Egypt’s suppressed history may now finally get a chance to roam free.