Al-Ahram Weekly, by Azza Radwan Sedky
The sorrowful state of many of Egypt’s national treasures belies a much deeper problem that if unaddressed will leave the country in ruins, writes Azza Sedky
In the early 2000s, I took visitors to Cairo to Mahmoud Khalil’s Museum/Villa in Giza. Earlier in 1995, the villa had been renovated to finally house its original masterpieces and collectors’ items stored haphazardly through the years President Sadat utilised the premises as offices.
I roamed the rooms at the museum in pride, primarily enchanted by the exquisite structure, the small but manicured gardens, and the breathtaking view, but was immediately enamoured by the magnificent paintings adorning the walls and, more importantly, became extremely appreciative of the renovation efforts made to the villa during minister of culture Farouk Hosny’s tenure. Millions were spent to get the villa back to its original state.
A few years later I took yet another group of visitors to the museum, anticipating the same level of engulfing pride. I was deeply saddened by and shocked at how the villa had deteriorated in the interim: Years of neglect cast a shadow of grimness over the exhibited artefacts; piling dust dimmed the previous lustre, and the walls were sombrely darker. Mice traps in room corners tarnished the atmosphere even further. This, while the gift shop carried no gifts, and nothing worth buying.
The verandas showcasing the panoramic Nile vista had not been opened or cleaned since the premises were renovated a decade earlier. How could I tell? Twigs, bark, tree limbs and palm tree fronds, in addition to garbage and waste reached half way up the veranda shutters. No way anyone ever ventured through these veranda doors and cleaned the piled-up mess. The concept of maintenance did not exist.
Later, the “Poppy Flowers”, the precious Van Gogh masterpiece that enjoyed a centre spot at the museum, a private room of its own, was stolen after it was cut out of its frame.
Sorrowful, I opted not to visit the museum again.
On 20 August, on the programme Khait Harir, or Silk Thread, of Al-Qahira Wal Nas satellite channel, the presenter Shaimaa Sadek visited several destinations that used to be the pride and joy of Egyptians: Khedive Tawfik’s Palace, where dozens of classic Egyptian movies were screened and many memorable performances were presented; Helwan’s Springs, Oyoun Helwan, once described as sacred and healing therapeutic waters; and the Wax Museum, a must destination for most Egyptian students in yonder eras. Today, these three sites could be pronounced disaster areas.
Khedive Tawfik’s Palace lies in ruins, rubble and debris everywhere, and is utilised as a shelter by street kids— a disaster in its own right. No one in his or her right mind would risk venturing into the spring waters in Helwan, neglected, barren, its banks grimy and filthy, the sulphurous mineral waters squandered. And the Wax Museum is closed off. This is a minuscule illustration of how unconcerned we have become, and how history, heritage and, indeed, what others would consider treasures, don’t mean much to us.
King Tutankhamun’s botched beard is another example of how museum custodians have no clue how to deal with the valuable monuments they are entrusted with. As the worker removed the 3300-year mask from its display case to change the lighting, it fell and the beard, decorated with lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones, broke off. It was hastily glued back on with epoxy, the wrong glue, and in the process the mask got scratched and was left with a visible crust around the glued area. The prosecution said that those responsible were in violation of scientific and professional rules and guilty of gross negligence. However, did they know any better, we need to ask?
For years, whenever I visited the Egyptian Museum, I would search for a papyrus that left its mark on me from previous visits. For years, the glass frame protecting the papyrus was broken across the centre. One could tell that the papyrus under the broken surface had changed colour. And yet, every year the papyrus and its broken frame remained the same. Not a single custodian addressed the damage or even recognised it.
I often wonder how Mahmoud Khalil’s Museum, and similar Egyptian treasures for that matter, will fare in the long run. Chances are such historical premises will be left to rot further or be simply demolished as their masterpieces disintegrate or get robbed. A second possibility would be if one minister coughs up another round of millions for yet more renovations costing the country further expense.
The third option would be to simply train those who work on such premises in the concept of maintenance and the value of what they guard and secure. I don’t know which option Minister Helmi Al-Nemnem would take, but I’m sure with the current standards of cleanliness, maintenance and awareness, nothing at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, or elsewhere in all of Egypt, will remain standing for long.
This is a long overture of pain and sadness, but it’s a reality we need to face nonetheless. Nothing will improve, nothing will be sustained, unless not only our custodians but Egyptians as a whole realise the value of our history, communal space and national possessions. Loving Egypt — this current newfound zeal — goes hand in hand with protecting and maintaining everything Egyptian: Our heritage, buildings, monuments, and, yes, trains, metros, buses and neighbourhoods.
This is a tall order indeed; still, it is a milestone that we must cross.
It is actually very difficult for Egyptians to change their ways, but when an Egyptian identifies with his place of work, he commits to it; when another realises the worth of a site, he maintains it; and when a third values the treasures God bestowed upon Egypt, he goes out of his way to preserve them.
When Khaled Youssef, in tears, pleaded with authorities in a phone call to an Egyptian TV channel to protect the Egyptian Museum from looters, and when Egyptians locked arms to protect the museum’s premises, they exhibited the Egyptian standards we aim for.
When the 108-year building housing Professor Metwalli Abu-Hamed’s Cairo University office came under fire in July 2013, he was determined to save it even though the building warranted demolition. He told officials that they would demolish it only over his “dead body”, and then secured millions in donations from Cairo University alumnus, Sultan Bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the governor of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. Two years later this heritage building was opened again to the public and students. Let’s hope it stays well maintained.
Loving Egypt and protecting its treasures should become synonymous terms.
The writer is a political analyst.