In January of 2011, Egyptians from all walks of life expressed their long-oppressed feelings of anger. The first cracks in 30 years of dictatorship began to appear. It was a movement that prompted El-Saddik to write the book.
“The people who have worked toward a different Egypt for so long — decent, hardworking people of integrity — finally have to be given a chance. There have been, and still are, such people in Egypt, even among us Egyptologists in the antiquities service. They have distinct notions about a different Egypt. It was high time to open the drawer and lay on the table all the things that had had to wait too long.”
Her last meeting with former strongman Hosni Mubarak in October 2010 in Rome reveals what went on behind the scenes. Only five weeks before the Egyptian president’s state visit to Italy, El-Saddik was summoned to select ancient Egyptian artifacts for the exhibition in Rome. Deemed not spectacular enough, her selection was not approved. Zahi Hawass, who was chief of the antiquities office at the time, was now in charge of putting together a selection but he announced that a conflict of interest prevented him from attending the event. El-Saddik had to go to Rome after all and she was left to deal with a number of problems. The on-loan items were not insured, there was no exhibition catalogue and her co-workers had no visas. However, she remained positive, saying: “In my years as director of the Egyptian Museum I had learned one thing: If it has anything to do with the president, everything possible will be done, money is no object.”
After having worked “like dogs” to prepare the exhibition, El-Saddik was briefed that the visit should not take more than 15 minutes. Mubarak was tired and had problems standing up and Silvio Berlusconi was visibly not interested in the exhibition. When El-Saddik tried to draw their attention to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, she told both Berlusconi and Mubarak that “all those who have flouted the laws and offended those nearest to them are gobbled up by the devourer.” At that moment, she wrote, Mubarak smiled and photographs were taken. Who would have guessed then that by February, Mubarak would step down as president of Egypt?
The making of an archaeologist
When El-Saddik began university, she wanted to be a journalist. During a break, she went on an excursion to Luxor and Aswan organized by the faculty of archaeology. That trip changed her life as she decided to major in archaeology and was no longer interested in a journalistic career.
She quickly earned a reputation as somebody who stood up to figures of authority.
When President Anwar Sadat ordered that the upper part of the Khafre Pyramid be cleaned so it would become the same color as the pyramid’s lower part, she refused to follow the order. The chief inspector of the Giza precinct admonished her, saying: “Why haven’t you finished the job? How can you dare oppose a directive from the president?”
El-Saddik answered firmly: “How can you dare to order such nonsense?”
The inspector threatened to dismiss her so she filed a report explaining that the stones used for the construction of the lower and the upper part of the pyramid were from different quarries. The stones in the oldest part of the Khafre Pyramid came from the pyramid plateau, whereas the remaining stones were taken from the Tura limestone quarries. This clearly explains why the stones have different natural colors.
A few days later, the cleaning project was called off and this incident did not impact her career negatively. On the contrary, in 1976, El-Saddik became the first Egyptian woman to direct an excavation.
When El-Saddik was eventually appointed as the director of the Egyptian Museum in 2004, she wasted no time in doing an inventory of the objects piled up in the vast cellar of museum, which covers an area nearly the size of two football fields.
“The Egyptian Museum’s cellar is the stuff of legend…. For nearly 100 years it served as the central storeroom for all the artifacts awarded to Egypt in the division of finds,” she wrote.
To this day, Tutankhamen’s treasure remains Egypt’s most famous exhibition. After its worldwide tour between 1972 and 1982, a sculpture from the tomb’s treasure was damaged and the government issued a travel ban on the relics. That ban was lifted when Mubarak needed $500 million for his Grand Museum. El-Saddik curated the exhibition “Tutankhamen, the Golden Beyond” which toured the world and brought in around $100 million.
“Protecting Pharaoh’s Treasures” is a journey through El-Saddik’s life in Egyptology. As she looks back at the history of her country, we discover an amazing woman. She is truly in a league of her own.