Egyptians Celebrate Firing of the 'Mubarak of Antiquities'

Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, sometimes known as "the Mubarak of antiquities" for his domineering politics or "the Egyptian Indiana Jones" for his outlandish personality and hat (he once called himself "the real Indiana Jones"), has been fired. The move has delighted activists who saw him as an extension of the regime's self-interest and obsession with control. It's also thrilled the country's sizable archeologist and historian community, which largely saw Hawass as an underinformed control freak who used his position for self-aggrandizement at the expense of Egyptian history and culture.

According to Egyptian blogger 3arabaway, this morning Hawass was "escorted out of the backdoor of the ministry into a cab, showered with insults and angry chants from young archeologists," an event captured on video. Unfortunately, this means that the official Zahi Hawass clothing line, started by one of the many American companies that goes through Hawass to access Egyptian relics, is probably off.

To begin to understand Hawass and why Egyptians would care so much about sacking an antiquities minister, watch this History Channel video on Hawass, which is linked to in a powerful essay by Egyptian historian Mohamed Elshahed. The essay, published in the always-excellent online magazine Jadaliyya, examines modern Egypt's relationship to its own history, and the politics from Gamal Abdel Nasser through today's post-Mubarak era of Egyptian antiquities. Here's the video, followed by an excerpt from Elshahed's essay.

The Egyptian state has been firmly in control of archaeology and of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities for several decades. Egypt's first and only Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, personifies the notion that Egyptians are in control of their ancient heritage, previously dominated by Europeans. This control has translated into security-oriented policies that claim to protect artifacts from theft and vandalism. In reality, this has meant protecting artifacts from Egyptian masses, while making them available to tourists. The government has not capitalized on Egypt's material legacy as a cultural resource central to discourses on national identity and heritage. The Supreme Council of Antiquities' main goals have been security not accessibility and mass tourism not culture.

... Last year, I visited the traveling King Tut Exhibition when it was hosted at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The entry ticket was over thirty dollars; thousands flocked to the exhibition and patiently stood in line. The exhibition began by visitors entering a rather claustrophobic room with dim lights and smoke to watch a short video starring Hawass. After meandering through the exhibition, one was confronted with a colossal four-meter-tall image of Hawass in his Indiana Jones costume. Under the portrait were books by Hawass and Suzanne Mubarak, in addition to a collection of souvenirs. With no transparency and accountability, the safety of the exhibited items and total revenues earned from traveling exhibitions and Egyptian museums are in the hands of a few persons, in collaboration with companies such as Discovery and National Geographic. Egypt's heritage has been monopolized, commercially packaged, and exported.

Read the whole thing at Jadaliyya.