May 30, 2006

Tutankhamun, the Field Museum & Zahi Hawass

Posted at 1:03 pm in Similar cases

The demands of Zahi Hawass (the controversial secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities), appear to have led to a relatively unexceptional stone sarcophagus being displayed in a new exhibition even though it is not of particularly great historical significance.
The coffin was purchased by John Rowe, the CEO of Exceleon. Hawass asserts that Egyptian relics should be available for the public to view rather than in private collections. He threatened to cause various difficulties with the proposed exhibition of Egyptian treasures at Chicago’s Field museum if the John Rowe did not agree to display the sarcophagus there. As a result, the museum ends up some of their limited space being taken up by an unimportant exhibit. Hawass has tended in recent years to pursue restitution cases in a slightly destructive way – for instance, threats are made to obstruct & block archaeological digs in the country. This way of approaching the issue seems often to cause as many problems as it solves.

Chicago Tribune

Expert gets in dig over Tut tempest
Coffin not worth place at Field, its seller says
By Aamer Madhani
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 28, 2006

When the Field Museum agreed last week to showcase an ancient sarcophagus owned by a powerful Chicago executive, it ended an awkward spat with Egypt’s antiquities czar but committed the museum to displaying an artifact of questionable historical value.

Museum officials on Friday had yet to examine the 2,600-year-old stone coffin at the center of a tiff between Exelon CEO John Rowe and Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities–a dispute that threatened to mar the opening of the exhibit “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.”

But the Chicago antiquities dealer who sold Rowe the sarcophagus said that under other circumstances a museum as esteemed as the Field would be unlikely to set aside any of its limited amount of floor space for the piece.

“If it had historic value, I wouldn’t have the chance to buy it in the first place,” said Harlan Berk, who said he purchased the coffin from a Zurich dealer before selling it to Rowe about 10 years ago. “I don’t think the Field would be putting John Rowe’s sarcophagus on display if it wasn’t for the spat.”

Hawass’ argument was that such Egyptian relics should not be kept by private collectors; they should be available for the public to view. He demanded that Rowe place the sarcophagus in a museum or return it to Egypt. If Rowe didn’t capitulate, Hawass said, Exelon should be removed as a sponsor of the traveling King Tut exhibit. He also threatened to cut his ties with the museum.

Berk said there are at least 10,000 sarcophagi in existence like the one Rowe owns. “Mr. Hawass’ assertion that these things should only be in museums is ridiculous,” he said.

“Museums put out 2 or 3 percent of what they own,” said Berk. “There aren’t enough museums to put all this stuff on display.”

A spokeswoman for the St. Louis Art Museum, which is embroiled in a separate tiff with Hawass over an Egyptian relic in its possession, said private collectors can play an important role as custodians of relics.

“There are a lot of antiquities, but museums have only so much space,” said Jennifer Stoffel.

The Field expects to receive the stone coffin from Rowe, a museum patron, sometime this week, said Robin Groesbeck, the Field’s director of exhibitions. Groesbeck said museum officials were trying to figure out where exactly among the Field’s vast collection of ancient Egyptian relics to display it.

The hubbub started at a press preview of the King Tut exhibit, an event that is expected to draw more than 1 million visitors to the Field. An Exelon official standing in for Rowe remarked that his boss had such a passion for ancient Egyptian artifacts that he displays a sarcophagus in his office.

Hawass, in town for the preview, criticized Rowe for keeping the piece in a private collection and later made his demands. On Thursday the standoff was settled when Rowe agreed to lend the coffin to the museum indefinitely.

Hawass’ ultimatum threatened to undermine what is likely to be one of the city’s top-drawing museum exhibits.

In 2004, he began demanding that the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. A year earlier, he persuaded Emory University to return a mummy believed to be Pharaoh Ramses I. More recently, he has pushed for the repatriation of 3,200-year-old coffin mask owned by the St. Louis Art Museum.

Stoffel said Hawass’ claim that the mask was stolen is confounding to the museum. Officials consulted Egyptian authorities and art registries to ensure the mask was not stolen before purchasing it in 1998 for nearly $500,000, she said.

“It’s a serious charge,” she said. “We have an ethical obligation to check into his assertion, but he hasn’t presented anything to back up the claim.”

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune


Ray Hanania
King Tut brings old, new issues to fore

Egyptian politician keen to attack injustice. But not when his government is the guilty party

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, doesn’t mind standing up for the rights of the dead.

But apparently, he may not have the same enthusiasm to stand up for the rights of the living.

Hawass is a Pharaoh when it comes to Egyptian antiquities. And, he has the courage of a Third World tyrant to confront the injustices committed by others, but not his own country.

Fighting Exelon

In Chicago for the opening of the exhibit of King Tut, the Egyptian boy king who symbolized an era of ancient tyrants, Hawass threatened to end his association with the exhibit’s host, Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum, and to remove Exelon, one of the American Midwest’s largest energy giants, as an exhibit sponsor.

During the opening ceremonies, Hawass discovered that Exelon CEO John Rowe owns an Egyptian sarcophagus. According to reports, one of Rowe’s underlings mentioned the tidbit maybe thinking it might demonstrate the Exelon robber baron’s love for the arts.

Instead, he inadvertently lit the fuse of an international incident. Hawass immediately criticized Rowe demanding the sarcophagus be placed at the museum.


I don’t think that even Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has the kind of chutzpah Hawass displayed. Clearly, Egypt’s president doesn’t have the courage to criticize American foreign policy abuses in Palestine, Iraq and the rest of Middle East, either. In Mubarak’s defense, Egypt does receive the largest international bribe, err, “foreign aid” package from the United States, second only to Israel.

Still, it was refreshing to watch Hawass brow beat Rowe all over local TV. Rowe is worse than a government tyrant. Exelon, a public utility, abuses its customers, provides poor service, and over charges them, and guys like Rowe make so much money it’s disgusting. Yet, he has as much responsibility to the public as a Third World tyrant.

That he spends some of his endless wealth to own his very own, personal Egyptian sarcophagus, only infuriates me more. I won’t even get into the macabre symbolism that, according to reports, Rowe displays the coffin in his office.

Making demands

These confrontations, apparently, are not unusual for Hawass who seems to have the diplomatic skills of a bull in a china shop.

According to reports, Hawass began in 2004 demanding that the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. A year earlier, he reportedly persuaded Emory University to return a mummy believed to be Pharaoh Ramses I. More recently, he pushed for the repatriation of 3,200-year-old coffin mask owned by the St. Louis Art Museum.

A spokeswoman for the St. Louis Museum said she is “confounded” by Hawass’ claims that the mask was stolen. She says the museum was diligent in determining that it was not stolen before paying $500,000.

Yeah, right. Like the majority of ancient items are not stolen from the oppressed people!

The fact is museums in many powerful Western nations have antiquities “taken” from less powerful nations like Egypt.

When I walk through the Louvre, in Paris, my first thought isn’t about the symbolism of the artifacts. No, I think about how France must have taken the loot while abusing the people of the countries it occupied.

Defending the oppressed?

I give Hawass credit for standing up for a higher and more important principle that I also share; it almost undermined the Chicago museum exhibit and certainly must have soured all the fancy parties planned for the opening that I am sure Hawass attended with all his regal popularity.

But I do wonder why Hawass, with an ego and mouth as big and as fearless as his, hasn’t already weighed in on the other controversy taking place at the Field Museum.

On the same day that Pharaoh Hawass and Corporate Tyrant Rowe had their royal tiff, nearly 100 members of several Chicago area Coptic Churches protested under the immense gold banners that touted “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the Field Museum.

I am sure Hawass couldn’t miss the protesters who carried wooden staffs and crosses, wore crucifixes around their necks, and waved American flags (in case anyone mistook them for illegal immigrants). The protesters were hoping to remind Americans that their tax dollars are being used to support a modern day Egyptian tyrant who oppresses his people.

Although Hawass has the courage to embarrass powerful American corporate giants to make his principled point about the rights of the ancient dead, he has been silent about the suffering of his fellow Egyptians who are still alive.

Well, Hawass might claim he did protests in support of the protesters, and argue it just wasn’t reported because the mainstream American media is biased and filled with anti-Arab hate.

Of course, that would have to mean that Hawass has experience with an uncensored, free media in Egypt.

Maybe Hawass wants to talk about that!

Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist, author and standup comedian based in Chicago. He can be reached at .
(05.29.06, 09:39)

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