Archaeological sites in the crosshairs of government bulldozers again

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After days of conflicting statements, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced, officially, that a committee affiliated with it discussed removing part of the historic fish park from the census of antiquities, while ministry officials said that the goal of this step is to establish a “garage” for cars, cafeterias, and restaurants within a comprehensive development plan for the park.

The fish park is one of the few archaeological parks in Egypt. It was established in the late 1860s by order of Khedive Ismail, to be opened to coincide with the opening of the Suez Canal. The garden consists of an entrance from two openings resembling a fish gill opening, and behind it is the foyer area. On the side of the two openings, there are two side fins behind which are the four garden corridors. The park has many rare trees brought specially from Madagascar, Australia and Thailand. It also includes 49 aquariums for diverse and rare fish, and there is a panorama to display stuffed fish.

At first glance, the news of removing part of the park from the antiquities census in preparation for its demolition raises eyebrows and condemnation, as how does a ministry supposedly responsible for protecting archaeological sites remove part of a historical park that is more than 150 years old? And for what? To create a garage for cars, restaurants and cafeterias! But a little thought leads us to make sure that the task of this ministry is not to protect archaeological sites, but to legitimise the demolition of these places in order to build roads and investment projects.

Demolition of the nation’s history

In August, Egyptians were surprised when bulldozers belonging to the Luxor Governorate demolished the palace of Tawfiq Pasha Andraos, which is more than 120 years old. Provincial officials said that the decision to demolish the palace “came against the background of a decision issued by the Ministry of Antiquities to expropriate the palace in order to obscure it from the panorama of the Luxor Temple from the western side towards the Nile, and in implementation of the removal decision issued by the Dilapidated Facilities Committee in the governorate.”

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities wanted to save face, so it denied the dependence of the palace on it, stressing that it was not registered as an antiquity, as if this absolved it of responsibility! However, the ministry did not justify the reason for not registering this historic palace despite its importance in the national memory, which is considered a gross negligence on the part of the ministry. The palace is considered the home of the nation for the Egyptians in Luxor Governorate, as at the height of the activity of the Egyptian national movement led by Saad Zaghloul at the beginning of the twentieth century. Tewfik Pasha Andrawes, the builder of the palace, was one of the leading leaders of the Wafd Party.

The palace has distinctive architectural features, worthy of being an antiquity registered on the Heritage List, as it was built with mud bricks in the classical style, which is a distinctive feature of buildings in Luxor owned by wealthy people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they are rare examples in Luxor. The house included paintings of Frisk on the ceilings and walls by Italian artists in bright colours from the era of construction, which illustrate the extent of the splendor and artistic value of the building. After the sharp criticism faced by the ministry, it returned to justify the matter by saying that the palace “obscures the view of the Nile River and obstructs work on the Rams Road,” a road linking Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple, and dozens of buildings that were in the path of the construction of this road were removed. The ministry went around the matter again, saying that the demolition of the palace was caused by the possibility of the presence of an archaeological Roman temple below, and that the demolition was aimed at starting excavations for an expected major archaeological discovery.

In 2009, a technical committee from the Ministry of Culture previously rejected the demolition of the palace, saying that it “constitutes a national memory of the nation with which it is impossible to demolish.” In July 2020, the government operated its bulldozers and demolished dozens of tombs of important historical value, located in the historic Mamluk cemetery area, to establish a traffic axis to facilitate the movement of cars from the New Administrative Capital to Old Cairo.

Among the tombs that were demolished, the tomb of Ahmed Lotfi El-Sayed, president of the Egyptian House of Books and former director of the Egyptian University (currently Cairo University), the tomb of Hassan Pasha Sabri, Prime Minister of Egypt at the time of World War II, and the tomb of Ahmed Aboud Pasha, the first Egyptian on the company’s board of directors of The Suez Canal International company, the tomb of Zaki Bey Al Mohandes, one of the most important founders of the Ministry of Education, the tomb of Nazli Hanim Halim, the granddaughter of Muhammad Ali Pasha the great, and the tomb of Murad Pasha Mohsen, the headmaster of the royal estate during the reign of King Farouk I. As usual, the Ministry of Antiquities claimed that these tombs are non-archaeological to justify their demolition, ignoring that these tombs are in an area of ​​”distinct value” and are under protection in accordance with the decision of the National Organisation for Urban Coordination and Urban Planning and Urban Coordination Law No. 119 of 2008.

The area of ​​the Mamluk cemetery, in which these tombs are located, is of global heritage value, as it is registered with UNESCO as a world heritage site, within Historic Cairo. The Convention on the Protection of the Natural and Cultural World Heritage, drawn up by UNESCO and signed by Egypt, provides for “taking appropriate legal, practical, technical, administrative and financial measures to identify, protect and preserve this heritage,” which the Egyptian government has not adhered to.

Money speaks

These facts remind us of an important rule governing the regime of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, which is “money speaks,” as if the regime’s mouthpiece is saying, “When it comes to money and investment, do not talk to me about archaeological sites and this nonsense.” Countries compete to own archaeological places and invent new concepts to define archaeological sites and heritage, but Egypt, the “mother of the world,” and its officials invent arguments to remove archaeological sites of distinctive architectural value, for nothing but to build roads, garages, restaurants and luxury cafes that enhance consumerism, which is rampant in society.

All of this is taking place amid the shameful complicity of the Ministry of Antiquities and its officials, who are the people who know best about the value and long-term usefulness of antiquities in attracting tourists, enhancing Egypt’s international tourism status, and even protecting the rights of present and future generations to enjoy their country’s great antiquities.