This book by the noted Egyptologist Dr. Wafaa El-Saddik, Protecting Pharaoh’s Treasures, published by The American University in Cairo Press, is about her life in Egyptology, pursuing one’s dream, overcoming corruption, sexism, and so much more. Here is the fascinating story of one who became the first woman Director General of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is remarkable for any woman to head a major world class museum, but even more so in a Muslim country. The book also provides answers to some of the questions about the Arab Spring of 2011 and its lingering effects on Egypt’s economy through its major tourist attractions, the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.
Wafaa takes us on a journey back to her childhood, growing up in the 1950s, in a small village in the Nile Delta. We are given a real picture of what life was like in the early 1950’s, but greatly changed for many with the Suez Canal crisis, when Israel invaded Egypt and attempted to remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. We are given an understanding of the profound effect this had on the Egyptian people.
Insight into the British influence in Egypt and the many foreign Egyptologists who have staked their claims to Egypt’s buried treasures gives the reader a better understanding of attitudes reflected today.
We learn of Wafaa’s Muslim faith, a very personal one, which is about helping those less fortunate, standing up and doing what is right, and not being swayed by the corrupt actions of others. She credits her mother’s guiding words to her: “the only path is the straight path.” We see her faith put into practice in the programs she started for the blind and disabled, and in the Children’s Museum she envisioned and created in the basement of the museum.
Talking freely about her choice of not wearing a head scarf, Wafaa believes that social pressure to do so is an encroachment on her freedom and faith. To be the only woman in the Egyptian Museum who did not wear a head scarf says something about thinking for oneself while still holding to one’s principles and faith.
Originally studying to be a journalist, Wafaa switched to archeology after a field trip to Luxor and Aswan rekindled her interest in ancient Egypt which she had since a child. In pursuing a Master’s degree, she had her first trip out of Egypt in 1973, assisting a British mission in a dig in Benghazi, Libya, learning excavation techniques and gaining practical scientific knowledge. Her career in Egypt began soon after, when she was offered a position as an inspector in the Antiquities Department. From the bottom rung, she worked her way up and was tapped at a young age to be host to many dignitaries, royalty, and heads of state who traveled to Egypt wanting to learn about its ancient and glorious history. No doubt, her ability to speak several languages and her reputation as a gracious and knowledgeable host had something to do with it! She eventually continued her studies in Vienna, obtaining a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Vienna in 1983.
There are wonderful stories of her years at the Egyptian Museum, including seven years as its Director General. She faced many challenges, from managing more than 300 in staff, to dealing with the publicity hound Zahi Hawass and many government bureaucrats including Mubarek, to the difficulties in orchestrating the traveling shows of Tutankhamen’s treasures in cities around the world. In addition to her work, Wafaa has achieved a happy marriage and raised two successful sons.
Anyone with an interest in people, archeology, and Egyptian history (both ancient and modern), will find this a book they cannot put down and gives one hope for Egypt’s future. It includes many excellent photos from the life of a remarkable woman, a role model for women everywhere. The book, originally written in German with Rudiger Heimlich, was translated by Russell Stockman.
Protecting Pharaoh’s Treasures
Dr. Wafaa El-Saddik
Top photo of the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt from Bigstock