October just got busier for Egypt’s prize fighter, Zahi Hawass, as another contender steps forward. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has taken up the cause of one of his subordinates at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), charging Hawass with using his position to muzzle dissenting opinions.
And here, next to the two-headed calf.. Ramesses I!
To understand this story we have to go back to Nineteenth Dynasty Egypt. Or at least to the Nineteenth Century Egypt. Or the Nineteenth Century United States. Or Canada. It depends on when you visit the Freaks of Nature show, you see, it exchanged hands several times.
Or we could start with Cairo, 2002. Egyptologist Ahmed Saleh has been something of a thorn in Zahi Hawass’ side ever since disagreeing with him back in 2002 over the identity of a mummy returned to Egypt from the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Atlanta, GA. The Carlos Museum had purchased the mummy as part of a collection acquired from a Niagara Falls “museum” that was little more than a tourist trap, mutant farm animals included.
The mummy enters this tale when a tomb was accidentally discovered in the 1800’s by Abd el-Rassul, a goat herder and part-time grave robber who began peddling the contents of his discovery to tourists and collectors. By the time officials were able to properly survey and inventory the tomb they discovered 40 mummies and an empty coffin belonging to Ramesses I.
A “murky’ trail of “ancient records from the tombs, diaries and letters from the mid-19th century, and scholarly conjecture” tentatively connected the empty coffin to a Canadian physician named James Douglass, who purchased the mummy in question around 1860 for the Niagara Falls “Freaks of Nature” show, where it shared the floor with a two-headed calf, a five-legged pig, and American Civil War memorabilia for about 140 years (source: National Geographic, U.S. Museum to Return Ramses I Mummy to Egypt).
Other more scientific means of identifying the mummy were eventually applied, including carbon dating, CT-scans, and computer imaging. Combined with observations such as the posture of the mummy and the nature of its embalmment, these tests seem to indicate that the mummy is very likely to be that of a royal person dating from the time of Ramesses I.
But short of having actually discovered the mummy in the coffin of Ramesses I, rather than at a roadside freak show, “very likely” is probably about as far as scientists should go in associating the mummy with Ramesses I. DNA testing may carry the ball further down the field, but in the tradition of the scientific method, it is probably best to say that so far we have been unable to rule out the possibility that this mummy may be that of Ramesses I.
This, of course, leaves the notion of Ramessid nobility open to question, and that is just what Ahmed Saleh did. When the mummy was finally returned to Egypt, Zahi Hawass announced that the mummy was indeed that of Ramesses I, with qualifiers such as maybe or probably conspicuously absent.
“I sent him my official opinion,” Saleh says. “This could not have been the mummy of Ramses I, because it had been lost in ancient times. He just ignored me, so I wrote to [weekly Egyptian newspaper] Akhbar al-Adab,” (source: Egypt Today, “Drop the Mummy, and Nobody Gets Hurt” [no longer available online]). Saleh’s reward was a two-day vacation without pay. Hawass, however, states that it is Saleh contacting the press, not his disagreements, that that are the cause of the friction.
The Court of the Media
In 2005 Saleh publicly disagreed with Hawass’ plans to move the mummy of King Tutankhamun to the Egyptian Museum. “When journalists called to ask my opinion I said the mummy should not be moved,” Saleh said. “The SCA had no clear plan of how it was going to move the mummy, which is in an already dilapidated state” (source). Additionally, Saleh was concerned over the glass case in which the world-famous mummy was to be kept, which he felt did not provide sufficient environmental protection. Hawass disagreed, insisting that the case was equipped with temperature and humidity sensors.
“But despite the scientific method that was to be applied, a person who loves to say no just for the sake of objecting tried to stir public opinion with lies,” Hawass responded. “Unfortunately, some journalists listened to him” (source).
But taking one’s case to the media does not make one wrong, and ANHRI feels Saleh’s complaints have merit. “It seems Hawass would not accept a subordinate who is more knowledgeable, even if the researcher’s propositions are proved to be correct and for the good of the Egyptian antiquities,” a spokesperson for ANHRI said (source: The Media Line, Egyptian Antiquities Spat Fuels Criticism over Lack of Freedom).
The purpose of the media is to provide checks and balances of those who are in power, and it seems appropriate that Egyptian media should seek all sides of an issue and that Egyptologists with opposing viewpoints should feel free to express their informed opinion. If Saleh is truly being marginalized by the SCA or singled out by Dr. Hawass for having dissenting views, then it is not just Saleh who is under attack, but Egyptology itself. That seems press-worthy.
Nor has Dr. Hawass been shy about taking the disagreement before the media. According to Saleh, Hawass has brought more than forty legal actions against him in the last two years, accompanied by announcements and newspaper stories disparaging Saleh and his work (source: Bikya Masr, Zahi Hawass, Antiquities Dictator?). And Dr. Hawass holds the formidable combination of pop-culture status and administrative authority.
Zahi Hawass dismisses Ahmed Saleh as under qualified and disgruntled. “This guy has no degree, he hasn’t published a single paper, has no credentials and he attacks me on my projects. I never insulted him publicly at all. I just took him to court and the court punished him” (source).
Saleh, who holds a Master’s degree from Manchester in biomedical and forensic studies specializing in mummification and Egyptian antiquities and has held administrative positions for the SCA at locations ranging from Mit Rahina to Abu Simbel, says that the combination of public and private actions by Hawass has had a devastating effect on his career. His complaint with ANHRI contends that the results of the disproportionate and personally motivated investigations and denouncements have been detrimental to his work and his professional advancement.
“We are in front of a unique case not pertaining to professional jealousy between manager and staff, but to inhibit scientific views, freedom of scientific research and the cherishing of a part of Egypt’s history” states Hamdy al-Assiouty, an attorney for ANHRI (source).
The Supreme Council of Antiquities stands firmly behind Dr. Hawass. “There is no truth to these arguments that we are attempting to curtail discussion within the antiquities. There is no need for that because we understand and appreciate debate, and this is part of scientific research. When a reporter asks a question, we will respond to help inform the public” (source).
So much for guilty by association with the press!
Freedom of scholarship is as important for Egyptology as it is for any other discipline, and after suffering under centuries of colonialism that excluded Egyptians from Egyptology, it seems unthinkable that the Supreme Council of Antiquities would allow an Egyptian scholar to be suppressed for doing what all scientists do: test the status quo. Hopefully the involvement of ANHRI will help sort this out and allow Ahmed Saleh, Zahi Hawass, and the SCA to all get back to doing what they do the best—Egyptology.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.