Autocrats R Us

On the glorification of repressive regimes, past & present

When Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, came to work at the Egyptian Museum on Saturday, he found that looters had broken in and beheaded two mummies—possibly Tutankhamun’s grandparents—and looted the ticket booth. Reports indicate that middle-class Egyptians, the tourism police and later the military secured the museum. But now it appears that many other museum’s and storehouses have been looted, along with archaeological sites. A vast, impoverished underclass seems less taken with either the nationalist narrative of Egyptian greatness that stretches back to the pharaohs, or the intrinsic value of antiquities for all humanity, and more intrigued by the possibility of gold and other loot. For his part, Mr. Hawass has now been appointed state minister for antiquities by President Hosni Mubarak.

Zahi Hawass

These events make Mr. Hawass’s quest to return all Egyptian objects to Egypt misguided or at least poorly timed. Last week he again demanded the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum has long been on Mr. Hawass’s wish list, along with the Zodiac Ceiling in the Louvre and statues in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and museums in Hildesheim, Germany, and Turin, Italy. …  But can Egypt even look after what it has? This question is now out in the open.

One problem lies in the relationship between the past and present in Egypt and other authoritarian states, where antiquities and sites are used as a means of glorifying and justifying modern repressive regimes. In Iraq in 2003, during the U.S. invasion, the Baghdad Museum was looted by local residents, insiders and possibly professional thieves. The Americans took the blame. But it was Iraqis who did the looting, after Saddam Hussein’s soldiers had fired at U.S. forces from in and around the museum. They did not share the regime’s regard for the Mesopotamian past and correctly associated Saddam with both unspeakable repression and—as he intended—patronage of museums and archaeology.

— from Egypt’s Antiquities Fall Victim to the Mob, by Alex Joffe, The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2011


Dear Chris Johns:
How can you insist that National Geographic
is “unbiased” and has “no agenda”
when one of our Society’s marquee “explorers”
is a member of Hosni Mubarak’s cabinet?

≡  Mubarak as Sphinx via

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.