Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt’s Archeological Discoveries: Real Boom – or Better Publicity?

Egypt- massive statue in Cairo
A massive statue, that may be of pharaoh Ramses II, one of the country’s most famous ancient rulers, is surrounded by antiquities workers after it was pulled out of groundwater in a Cairo, Egypt, 13 March 2017. Photo AP

On 13 May 2017, international and local press gathered at the Tuna El-Gebel archeological site in Egypt for a much-hyped announcement: discovery of at least 17 mummies in a tomb from the late-Pharaonic or Greek-Roman period.

It was the first such find in the area, near the Nile Valley city of Minya. The tomb is believed to be part of a large human necropolis that could contain up to hundreds more mummies.

The unearthing was the latest in what Khaled El-Enany, minister of antiquities, called “a very fruitful year for archeology in Egypt.” Indeed, El-Enany devoted much of his time at the news conference elaborating on other recent discoveries instead of what archeologists had uncovered at Tuna El-Gebel. Despite the hoopla, El-Enany called Tuna El-Gebel a “beginning” of a major discovery rather than a major discovery, period.

The recent spate of archeological findings may have been partly due to luck. As Nevine El-Aref, an assistant minister with the Ministry of Antiquities, told Fanack, “Sometimes you start digging and you find close to nothing. Sometimes it’s major.”

The increased stability in Egypt could be another reason. “The political situation calmed down, more archeologists are able to do their work,” Egyptian archeologist Monica Hanna told Fanack.

The antiquities ministry desperately needs a stable Egypt. Since the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni, the country’s vital tourism industry has suffered deeply, especially after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.

In 2016, just 4.8 million tourists visited Egypt, a 66 percent drop from 2010. So far in 2017, the number of foreign visitors are picking up. The antiquities ministry relies on ticket sales for its revenues. And the ministry appears to be dire financial straits. It asked the finance ministry in May 2017 to raise the salaries of its employees to the level of the government-introduced minimum wage, according to a press release.

The need for money partly may be why the antiquities ministry turned the Tuna El-Gebel discovery into a media circus. It organized a two-day, all-inclusive press tour, including a coach tour in Minya and dinner with El-Enany. During the meal, El-Enany admitted that his own ministry overplayed the news. “When I saw the press release I was shocked, the magnitude of the discovery was exaggerated,” he said.

Dirk Huyge, an archeologist with the Belgium Royal Museum for Art and History in Brussels, told the Dutch newspaper Trouw that the Tuna El-Gebel discovery was hardly groundbreaking. “There are tens of thousands mummies, both human and animals, known from that period, and probably there are tens of thousands more discoverable,” he said.

Indeed, Huyge contends the number of archeological discoveries in Egypt in 2017 has not been much more than typical. What is unusual, he said, is how actively the ministry publicizes them. “The minister seizes every opportunity to bring positive news from Egypt,” Huyge said.

That’s not to say 2017 has been devoid of major discoveries. The most spectacular was the excavation of a large late-pharaonic statue in the working-class Cairo suburb of Matariya by a joint German-Egyptian mission. Unearthing the statue in Matariya, a very crowded area, was a challenging operation, according to Mahmoud Afifi, head of ancient Egyptian antiquities at the ministry.

The statue was at first widely reported to depict the famous Pharaoh Ramses II. But it is probably of King Psammetich I, who ruled in the seventh century BC. Underneath Matariya and the adjacent neighborhood of Ain Shams lie the remains of the old city  Heliopolis. Afifi said archeologists are currently completing the work on site, where “hopefully more will be found.” Heliopolis was frequently looted during Roman times, and most artifacts have ended up in Alexandria and later Europe, he added.

The use of a hydraulic excavator to lift the head of the statue out of the wet dirt has drawn criticism, as more advanced methods would have been suitable for such a discovery. The ministry countered the criticism saying it used the excavator only for the head and that nothing had been damaged.

The statue is set to be placed in the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza pyramids, which is currently under construction and scheduled to open by the end of this year.

Other major findings this year include the remains of a pyramid from the 18th century BC – containing the burial chamber of a pharaoh’s daughter – in Dahshur; and an “almost intact funerary collection” of a chancellor from the 18th dynasty (1550 BC–1292 BC) in Luxor. In addition, the ministry restored a statue of Ramses II and repositioned it in the Luxor temple.

Minister El-Enany bemoaned the lack of international press coverage of those and other archeological findings in Egypt. He told reporters about the struggles of his ministry, and the need for a tourism revival.

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