Born in 1918 in Alexandria, Dr. Gamal Mokhtar has devoted his life to promoting the cultural heritage of Egypt. As one of the country's most prominent and passionate advocates of Egyptian culture, Dr. Mokhtar has directed numerous national and international conservation projects and blockbuster museum exhibitions. Through his work as a diplomat, educator, and public official, he has guided the development of national cultural policy and has promoted Egypt's cultural legacy throughout the world.
Dr. Mokhtar was Chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and First Under Secretary of State from 1972 to 1977, after serving as Under Secretary of State for Monuments and Museums from 1968. Prior to this he was Chairman of the Department of Ancient History at Cairo University. Presently he serves as Professor at Alexandria University; Chairman of the Department of Cultural and Archaeological Heritage of Egypt's National Council of Culture, Arts, Literature, and Media; Member of the Supreme Council of Culture; Vice President and Editor of the UNESCO International Committee of the History of Africa; and advisor to UNESCO on the monuments of Mauritania and Bangladesh. Dr. Mokhtar lives in Cairo and in Alexandria.
Jane Slate Siena: You were instrumental in establishing the partnership between the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO).
Gamal Mokhtar: Yes, and we began with the tomb of Queen Nefertari. I became interested in Nefertari's tomb when I first served as Under Secretary of State in 1968. Schiaparelli excavated the tomb in 1904 and found the wall paintings to be in a fragile condition. During the 1950s, there were many studies in the tomb and there is visible evidence of restoration from this period today. From 1967 to 1977, I myself made several studiesone with experts from Poland, two or three with ICCROM, and a couple with Egyptian specialists. None of these, however, were successful.
We knew we needed strong help from outside, both financially and technically. Then came a gift of one million dollars from a prominent personality. The check arrived while I was abroad. When I returned, I found that about three-quarters of the money had been allocated to other cultural activities, and that only one quarter was left for the restoration of Nefertari's tomb. This was not sufficient so I used these funds to complete the Luxor Museum and to develop the Light and Sound Spectacle at Karnak. After approaching the Saudi Arabians and others, I remembered Luis Monreal and his experience in Egypt, both as a young archaeologist and as Secretary General of the International Council of Museums in Paris. Dr. Ahmed Kadry, EAO Director General at the time, and I contacted him and his staff at the Getty Conservation Institute, where we learned that their interests converged with ours. At last, I thought, we have found the right partner.
You looked at many options for Nefertari. Why did you think the partnership with Getty would work?
The GCI wanted to bring the best experts in the world to analyze all the problems before the wall paintings conservators were allowed to work. This approacha comprehensive analysis of all the factorshad been missing previously. This was really the first conservation project in Egypt to begin correctly, with a full analysis of the reasons of decay and the actual conditions of the tomb prior to conservation. Under the supervision of then GCI Special Projects Director Miguel Angel Corzo, the work was carried out in phases that corresponded with the reality of the tomb's condition, and was monitored at every step.
After the multidisciplinary team assembled all the data, the actual conservation work began in close collaboration with the local authorities.
Yes, the work went very smoothly because the GCI did more than cooperate, they invested in the local institutions by working directly with our experts. And the GCI was not in a hurry. They brought the patience and resources to go slowly but surely. This project has established a new level of conservation in Egypt, which will serve as a model for other sites in Egypt and throughout the world.
Monuments in Egypt have long captured the imagination of the public, scholars, and restorers. Some of these monuments have stood for over 4000 years and have endured numerous restoration attempts. Why are they in danger today?
Let's take the famous case of the Sphinx for example. This monument was restored in Pharaonic, Roman, and modern times. The historic problems of sand and wind continue as they have for centuries, but the pollution and human influence of this century are hastening the monument's decay. The new factorsexhaust fumes from cars and buses, industrial development, tourists who smoke, eat, drink and walk on the stones, and performing arts spectacles that bring the vibrations of loud music, lights, and thousands of people at a timeare the problems, not the history of previous work on the monument itself.
How we use cultural property is a concern worldwide. Is Egypt a case study of manmade threats to monuments?
First, the problem is not with the tourists, but with the authorities. Visits to important tombs such as those of Queen Nefertari and King Tutankhamun should be rigorously regulated and closed for maintenance and repairs. I am very happy that the GCI and the EAO are studying this, because we need realistic visitation. Thousands of people simply cannot go every day. Second, we have new public attractionsthe light and sound shows that are so popular. We should take another look at this. The monument is more important than the spectacle. Frankly, I regret having invented the spectacles at Karnak and at Philae, where it is difficult to control the behavior of the crowds as they interact directly with the monuments. But we learn from our experiences. Hopefully the new spectacles at Abu Simbel will be properly distanced from the monuments.
This is all part of site management planning, which is a critical part of conservation.
I think in another 200 years much of the world's cultural heritage may disappear because of the human element. We are facing new challenges for which the cultural authorities are not prepared. Conservators and scientists can address historical problems, such as climate, earthquakes, and the deterioration of materials, but who is responsible for diminishing the effects of the human threats of our time? UNESCO has organized 30 international campaigns, but thousands more are needed. Unless the public becomes completely concerned with these matters, it is inevitable that we will lose many more monuments than we can save.
Conservation is particularly complex in urban settings such as Islamic Cairo.
Cairo's old city, the Islamic Quarter, is like other functioning historic cities in North Africa, Latin America, and Asia, in that it struggles to support a living population that requires city services. The problems of housing, infrastructure, traffic, water, electricity, and so on are issues for the municipal authorities. The cultural authorities cannot solve these problems, but they must participate in the decision making process if we want to protect our heritage.
How has Egypt dealt with its heritage in the past?
Very dramatically! The monuments of Pharaonic Egypt were the primary vehicles of communication, like television, billboards, and advertising signs are today. Consequently, the monuments were carefully built, protected, and even expropriated by later rulers. Christianity came and new symbols were introduced up until the time of Islam, which is so beautifully represented in Cairo. The conquest of Napoleon in 1797 led to a sort of "Egyptomania." People were completely astonished and surprised by what they began to read and hear about Egypt. The hieroglyphic codes were deciphered and Egyptology became a serious discipline of study. During the 19th century, thousands started coming to Egyptnot only scholars and travelers, but also thieves, whose caches can now be seen in major museums the world over. Today, we have hundreds of foreign and national universities excavating and documenting Egyptian monuments.
What resources are currently available to conserve and protect this vast heritage?
We have an annual budget from the government and we accept foreign assistance. The foreign assistance comes from international campaignssuch as the campaign to save the Nubian monuments when the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960sand from bilateral cooperation with governments and private agencies.
But the job here is enormous. We have prehistoric, Pharaonic, Coptic, Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and modern monumentsand important museums and libraries. During my time as EAO Chairman, I tried to promote our heritage internationally through traveling exhibitions and public relations efforts. We sent monuments and artifacts all over the world. This is why there is an almost universal recognition of the cultural richness of Egypt. And I also wanted to promote the idea that the cultural heritage belongs not only to Egypt, but to the world.
What do you consider to be the most important accomplishments of your career to date?
First, I hope that I have successfully transformed the EAO from the local level to the international one, that I have raised professional standards in Egypt, and that I have promoted a deeper international understanding of Egypt and her monuments and art.
In terms of individual projects, I would name the big international exhibits of King Tutankhamun and King Ramses II which took Egyptian artifacts to North America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Asia; the Nubia campaigns which promoted a worldwide cooperation and awareness of conservation; the Luxor Museum; the development of light and sound spectacles, in spite of everything; and finally, beginning the important cooperation between Egypt and the Getty Conservation Institute, which has brought a new era of conservation to this country.
What's next on your list of things to do?
I am working with UNESCO to see to it that more of Egypt's monuments are included on the World Heritage List. Of the over 300 natural and cultural sites inscribed on the List, only five are from Egypt. I am also continuing to promote international efforts to conserve the cultural heritage in Egypt and elsewhere in the world.