Amid Recriminations in Post-Mubarak Egypt, Antiquities Chief Announces Plan to Hire 1,000 Interns

Amid Recriminations in Post-Mubarak Egypt, Antiquities Chief Announces Plan to Hire 1,000 Interns

As tourists begin to trickle back into Egypt, six of the country's antiquities museums and all of its archeological sites re-opened to the public on Sunday. A looted statue of Akhenaten was recovered by Cairo's Egyptian Museum, while investigations continue into looted archeological sites and storage warehouses. And, amid these signs of a stabilizing cultural landscape, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass is still trying to hold onto his job as frustrated students and archeologists continue to speak out against him.

Dozens of international tourists visited Cairo's Egyptian Museum on Sunday, where they were greeted with roses by volunteers. The usually busy galleries were virtually deserted as the museum reopened its doors for the first time since the revolution began, Reuters reports. Tourists from the Netherlands, Canada, and Japan were present, along with a couple from southern Egypt. Emad Mohamed, one of the Egyptians, explained his presence to Reuters: "I came to be assured about the museum and to show those working in tourism that we're with them, even if foreign tourists are absent."

Despite his initial reports that the Egyptian Museum was safe, antiquities chief Zahi Hawass acknowledged last week that 18 artifacts had in fact been looted, with two having been recovered. Now the number of recovered items has risen to four, according to Hawass's blog, including most significantly a painted limestone statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten holding an offering tray that a 16-year-old returned to the authorities after discovering it near the museum wall. Additionally, part of a statue of the goddess Menkaret carrying Tutankhamun was also located, though the figure of the boy king is still missing.

In recent days, the actual state of Egyptian antiquities has started to become clearer. The Austrian cultural protection organization Blue Shield undertook a mission to Egypt and reported on its findings. According to the group's report, the museum at Memphis was not looted, contrary to previous reports, and most of the tombs were untouched. Last Wednesday, Hawass invited a contingent of foreign journalists to the museum to reassure the world that it was safe and to definitively quell rumors that the gold burial mask of King Tut had been stolen.

Yet break-ins occurred at several storage warehouses, including those at Saqqara and Cairo University, and investigations are underway to determine what may be missing, according to Hawass's blog. "False doors" were stolen from two tombs at the sites of Saqqara and Abusir. These were common architectural features in ancient Egyptian tombs and were thought to allow the spirit of the deceased to enter or exit the tomb. They were engraved with inscriptions and sometimes contained sculptural images of the deceased.

But Hawass continues to have to deal with the fall-out from the revolution on a personal and professional level as well. Having been appointed to the newly-created post of minister of antiquities by Hosni Mubarak just before his fall from power, Hawass has been viewed as a crony of the corrupt Egyptian power structure. The traveling exhibitions that he has organized have certainly been lucrative, though it is not known exactly where the profits end up. Certainly not in the hands of the typical Egyptian, who earns an average annual income of $1,500-2,000, according to a recent story in the Globe and Mail, which reported longstanding dissatisfaction in the archeology community with Hawass's attention-seeking and authoritarian control over Egypt's ancient sites.

Hawass has defended himself from these charges at length on his blog, writing that "throughout this ordeal, there have been people who have been completely dishonest, and have tried, through their statements, to make the situation worse, in some cases by accusing me (in vague terms) of various inappropriate or even illegal behaviors. Of course, as even these people themselves know, none of these accusations has any basis in reality." He attributed the student protests against him to a difficult job market and announced a new program to hire 900 recruits for a five-month training period, to be followed with additional paid internships for 1,000 students.

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Hawass also reported that he had met with "a group of young archeologists who were representatives of the protesters" and that they "came to offer their apologies to me." In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published today — in which he also claims to have "demonstrated with the people in Tahrir Square" — the crusading Egyptologist was asked if he took the demands for his resignation seriously. "I could leave this job tomorrow! But Egypt would lose and the world would lose."

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