Sharon's Journey

August 04, 2007

Signing Off, For Now

And so this little experiment draws to a close. I am heading to a quiet place to begin writing in earnest, and will not be posting regularly in this space. I have much enjoyed sharing my discoveries and adventures with you across the ancient world, and have been very gratified by your supportive responses. I will still be checking email for anyone who needs to find me. Thanks for reading, and -- until we meet again. S.

August 03, 2007

Medici, the Devil


ROME -- You might think that it is difficult to meet a bona fide antiquities smuggler. It is not. Giacomo Medici, convicted here of smuggling and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 10 million Euro fine, was perfectly happy to meet me and explain his view of the world. Medici, for those who do not know, is notorious. He is, of course, the title character in the book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, “The Medici Conspiracy.” The photos seized in 1995 from his Geneva gallery have been the basis not just for his conviction, but for restitution claims against the Getty and the Met, and the criminal trial against Marion True. According to prosecutors, he was a key link in a chain of tombaroli (tomb robbers) and once-respectable dealers who laundered illegal pieces then sold to private collectors and museums. So here is the very man. A handsome, trim 69-year-old, Medici claims innocence of a particular kind: the charges against him were false, he said, and not supported by hard evidence apart from the photos, which he said were misused by prosecutors. His sense of outrage is like a physical presence. At his daughter’s apartment, where we met, he said: “Did I do wrong things? Maybe. Not maybe, yes. But not what they accused me of. And that’s hypocrisy.” Slowly he worked himself up into a fury, until finally he stood in the middle of room, his legs planted, his arms spread wide, shouting: “Medici, diavolo! Medici, diavolo! Medici, diavolo!”  Twelve years after the raid on his gallery, Medici’s case is still pending, on appeal. Many believe he will win on the basis of a recent change in the statute of limitations. “The past is past,” said Medici. “They were sleeping, all these governments. Now, justice must be done in source countries. They must defend their artifacts. But for 35 years, Giacomo Medici was perfect, and now all of a sudden he is the devil. How is it possible?” (Photo is of Medici in front of the Euphronius krater, returned to Italy by the Met; he denies having been involved in its sale, which was part of his conviction.)

August 02, 2007

Getty Folds Its Cards

When Maurizio Fiorilli told me Monday that he was close to an agreement with the Getty on the 52 disputed items in their collection, I didn't imagine that they were this close, though he did have a fax from Getty director Michael Brand on his desk with a review of the draft agreement. Today, Elisabetta Povoledo reports in the Times on the Getty's agreement to hand back 40 pieces of its antiquities collection to Italy. She writes: "Full details of the accord were not made public, but the 40 pieces include 26 works that the Getty had unilaterally agreed to return to Italy last November.... A fifth-century B.C. statue of a cult deity usually identified as Aphrodite, one of the Getty’s prized pieces, is among the works to be returned to Italy, the Italian Culture Ministry and the museum’s governing trust said in a joint statement. But discussions on the fate of another statue, a fourth-century-B.C. bronze of a young athlete that was pivotal to the breakdown of earlier negotiations, have been temporarily put aside so that an Italian court can conduct an inquiry on how the artifact was found and how it left Italy in the 1960s." This is a major blow to the Getty, and has to be seen as a significant landmark in the overall tug-of-war between American museums with antiquities collections and source countries such as Italy. Fiorilli made clear to me that this is not the end of the road for Italy's pursuit of items it believes have been looted, though he wouldn't say which museums (or curators) are next on his list. It also raises global questions about the Getty collection, and its ability to feel secure about challenges to provenance. Fiorilli told me that Italy had the evidence to demand the return of 300 pieces, but was contenting itself with this.

July 31, 2007

The end of True's Trials?

ROME – Marion True's trial may soon be over, I was told yesterday by Maurizio Fiorilli, one of two state prosecutors leading the case, who is also the man negotiating bilateral accords on restitution with American museums. The two issues are linked. He said he is close to an agreement with the Getty over the 52 items Italy has demanded be returned. (I note that the LA Times has a similar story today.) And he said that once that is accomplished, the trial against Marion True can be expected to come to a quiet close, perhaps as soon as the next two months. He said he would withdraw the civil prosecution, and the criminal prosecutor would be expected to negotiate a jail sentence of two to three years. I was amazed at how explicitly he linked the two actions, making no bones about the fact that True’s trial is a pressure tactic to force the Getty to heel. “This is my experience,” Fiorilli said, pragmatically. “Until today, no American museum has accepted to return artifacts based on the scientific evidence.” Hence: hardball, Italian-style. He confirmed many other fascinating things that I’d learned from other sources. That will have to wait for the book.

July 30, 2007

Unravelling History

Romeobelisk Here's a very good example of the difficulties posed when you start trying to reset the historical clock, and right old wrongs. This is the famed Piazza Navona in Italy, home of Bernini's sculpted masterpieces. The  central monument, the Four Rivers Fountain, represents no fewer than three different epochs: Egyptian, Roman and Pontifical. A description of the monument explains its history and current renovation. But the legend tells us only that the obelisk, of Aswan granite, was found in five pieces in the Circus Maximus. A Latin inscription on the base attests that it was made for Domitius in imperial times (from where? how? a mystery.) It was brought to this spot in the mid-17th century so Pope Innocent X could build himself the most glorious monument in all of Rome on this piazza. And this Bernini did. Can this piece be deconstructed at this late stage? If Egypt were to reclaim the obelisk, what would become of the Bernini marble colossi, representing the four rivers of the world? I note this only because Rome has a surfeit of obelisks, and Egypt almost none, although it is also worth noting that Zahi Hawass seems to be giving Italy an utter pass on plundered antiquities. In any event, there are 13 obelisks in Rome alone, and far more today in Italy than in Egypt. (Here's chapter and verse on Rome's obelisks. Egypt now has seven.)  I'm getting a little obsessive: I did a tour of Rome's obelisks (on scooter, a most pleasant task) and found five without much trouble, not including in Vatican square, which I missed. They are of different sizes, and were brought to Rome at different times. There used to be, until recently, an Ethiopian obelisk, taken by the Italian army during its occupation of that country in 1937. It was returned to Ethiopia in 2005. Well, at least that's a start.

Message to Howard

Schultz, that is, who I hope is reading along. Howard, dearest: Starbucks in Egypt. Starbucks in Turkey. Starbucks in Greece. Now I'm in Rome: No Starbucks! I'm beginning to worry about you guys. 

July 29, 2007

Sunday Idylls

Beach COLYBITHRES, Paros – Everyone should see Colybithres; the world would be a calmer place. It is a cove facing the town of Naoussa on the island of Paros, accessible mainly by boat, a noisy junk that for $3 motors you across to paradise. Along the way, the Aegean is bright blue beneath the prow, a sunlit sapphire enveloping your gaze. As you approach the cove, the sea turns suddenly quiet and electric green, a swirl of neon liquid. The sun streams through the pale, translucent shallows and reflects the white sand below. You land, and climb over rocks, heavy, smooth, primitive stones in curved formations, jutting out into the water. And as you swim, the world spins more slowly, your heart beats to the rhythm of the tide lapping softly against the shore. In the gentle embrace of Colybithres, old couples fall in love again, new couples come to pass. And the weary spirit remembers that, sometimes, there is perfection. On Paros.

NEXT: On to Rome.

July 28, 2007

The Human Cost

Marion I spoke briefly by phone yesterday to Marion True, the former Getty curator now dangling in the legal winds in Italy and Greece. And I spoke at great length to her friends, dotted around the island. Every story has two sides. Yesterday I heard the story of a much respected, widely beloved scholar who devoted 23 years of her career to improving the Getty’s poor reputation in the museum world by aggressively promoting scholarship, funding conservation all over the ancient world (the Sphinx, for example, in Egypt), giving poorly-paid Greek archeologists grants to study at the Getty institute, holding colloquia like the one to investigate the authenticity of the Getty’s disputed kouros (bought before her time). Her acquisition decisions were reviewed by a scholarly steering committee and approved by the museum director. It was True, they say, who pushed the Getty trustees to announce they would stop buying antiquities in the mid 1990s, because she felt it fed the smuggling trade (her critics say the Getty conveniently did this only after acquiring the Fleischmann collection, a largely unprovenanced group of treasures). Now, the friends say, she has been hung out to dry. That much appears to be true. The Getty is paying for her team of 5 lawyers, but have urged her to keep quiet and not defend herself. Her friends say the Getty’s aim is to protect the Getty, not True. It is a tragic tale, however you slice it: either the insidious corruption of a Harvard-educated, lover of history by the prevailing norms of a see-no-evil antiquities trade. Or the public crucifixion of a competent curator who played by the rules – and the rules lived in a grey zone -- and then found herself in the cross-hairs when the rules changed to black and white. No one in Paros, even those who don’t associate with True, think there is any substance to the charge that she had looted antiquities in her Paros home. And yet there are looted antiquities in the homes of wealthy Greeks, all over the country, who are essentially untouchable. I have been thinking a lot of what it must feel like to be Marion True, of the crushing of an individual when institutions collide. Is Marion True corrupt, or is the entire system corrupt? Her friends say she has, at points, been suicidal. There is a visible human cost to the tectonic shifts in the world of patrimony and cultural identity.

July 26, 2007

Paros Nights

Paros PAROS, Greece – The sun is quickly sinking over the bay of Paros, a honey-orange ball easing its way beyond the undulating hillside of this island. The light has cast a pinkish hue over the water, while a huge ship – Blue Star Ferries – slides into the port, with tourists mainly eager to mount scooters and head for the beaches. But Paros is a center of antiquity, home to many rich archeological sites, many of them fairly recent finds. Still, it’s most famous as the source of the finest marble used in the ancient world, a pale translucent stone which allows light to reflect from within. Parian marble was used, for example, for the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and many other monuments (including many by Praxiteles, whose exhibit was inaugurated last night in Athens). Paros is also the place where Marion True, the former curator of the Getty, has her second home. I am here to learn more about True, how she is viewed now that she is accused of a crime. For many years True mixed with high society, befriended the local archeologists and collectors alike, doling out grants and buying for the museum. Last year her home here was raided by police, who claim to have found illegal antiquities there. True says the pieces were in the home when she bought it, apparently a common custom around here, and that she’d informed the authorities when she bought the house. Few are willing to associate with her today. As one former friend said, anonymously, told me: “Well, when you have power, you have many friends….” Still on trial in Italy for related alleged crimes, True comes to Paros, but is seldom seen.

July 25, 2007

Thanks, Readers

Quick word of thanks to you readers who have been so responsive to and supportive of this blog. Coincidentally, several of you wrote in today to ask me to include friends' emails on the bloglist, which of course I'm delighted to do. Hopefully I'm doing something right. Tonight I was at the opening of a new exhibit of the Greek sculptor, Praxiteles. Met the usual collection of diplomats, government officials and archeologists. (Cocktail small talk by archeologists is incomprehensible. May as well be Greek. Wait, perhaps it was Greek.) One Greek expert on sculpture gave me what she called the conventional wisdom on Marion True, the ex-curator of the Getty now on trial in Italy, and after that, Greece. "She's a crook," said this archeologist, in a surprising display of vitriol. "In Greece her name is mud." Tomorrow: Paros, where Marion True has her vacation home.

The Acropolis and the 21st Century Museum

Pandersmall This is a view of the Parthenon from inside the new Acropolis Museum, where frantic construction continues on the $170 million museum being erected at the base of the historic hill. The museum, monolithic from the outside but spacious and airy on the inside, is a grand statement to the world about Greece's ability to care for its own monuments, and most particularly its most iconic treasure, the Parthenon. The man in the photo is Dimitris Pandermalis, the president of the new museum, an archeologist who has spent seven years getting this museum built. (It's late in coming, plagued by lawsuits and other such.) The top floor, where this photo was taken, is the key: its shape echoes the Parthenon itself, and it will array the marble friezes, sculptures and pediments from the building on a life-scale model, all encased by glass. So here's the rub: Greece wants England to return half of the Parthenon sculptures, which have been at the British Museum since the 1820s, taken by Lord Elgin. The British Museum is not considering doing so. This story has gone on for decades. But now Greece has an appropriate place to display them, and is attempting to reunite all the Parthenon pieces scattered in various museums around the world. Here (below)Pandersmall1 is how Pandermalis intends to exhibit the frieze of the Parthenon, with the actual sculptures at the height shown here, and with plaster casts of the many friezes still at the British Museum behind a grey scrim. You can't help thinking of that as another deliberate gesture, and as the scrim as a kind of shroud. Pandermalis, however, is anything but emotional. "It's the pride of the nation," he says quietly. "But I prefer to be silent on the issue."

Athens' Historic Hotel

Gbhotel I need to take a moment to tell you about the spectacular, historic hotel where I'm staying for a few days in Athens. The hotel Grande Bretagne is linked in every way with the tumultuous changes that have transformed this country from a dusty outpost of the Ottoman Empire into a modern, independent Greek state. It opened for business, roundabout 1874, in response to the need for luxury accomodations for rich European travellers exploring the origins of Western civilization. (I picked up a fantastic book in Egypt with travel writings from the time, including a list of recommended dos and donts. The writer recommends leaving your maid at home. "No lady who values her peace on the journey, or desires any freedom of mind, or movement, will take a maid," someone named Harriet sagely wrote in 1846. "What can a poor English girl do who must dispense with home-comforts, and endure hardships that she never dreamed of, without the intellectual enjoyments which in her mistress compensates for the inconvenience of Eastern travel?") Happily, by the 1870s, this was resolved, in Greece anyway, with the opening of this hotel. The Grande Bretagne, a seven-floor palace in colonial style, has long been a landmark along Syntagma Square, just beside Parliament, but today it is something even more special. The Greek family that owns the hotel, the Laskiridis, undertook a massive renovation in 2001. The entire hotel was closed for a year and a half, and gutted. It is fair to say no expense was spared to transform the place into the glittering gem it now is, with a rooftop pool, a terrace with a breathtaking view of the Acropolis, antique furniture, heavy silk drapes in the rooms, beautiful linens, towels. I could really go on, but I won't except to say the spa is not to be missed. The family, I am told, sunk $130 million into the renovation, a gesture to luxury and the art of living, rather than a savvy business decision. Beyond all that, the staff is both professional and warm, from the concierge to the security staff, always ready to solve a problem or offer advice. This is one of those rare places that are worth the trip.

July 23, 2007

The Getty Wreath No More

Gettysmall My heart still aches over the loss to Los Angeles of this exquisite piece.  It was, however, apparently looted. And bought by the Getty Museum. And demanded by Greece. And sent back in March of this year. Here it is, in the National Archeology Museum in Athens. 

Athens, and Athena


Stumbling bleary-eyed to the rooftop of the Grand Bretagne Hotel, a stately, Baroque palace of a hotel in the heart of Athens, I squint as the bright sun floods the terrace. And there, as if you could touch it, is the Parthenon on its rocky outcrop. A crane is perched next to the famous palace of Athena, where a new round of restoration is ongoing, and just below, a big square box has risen from the ground, the new Acropolis Museum, where work feverishly continues. More on the Acropolis later, but first: Athens. Hellishly hot, dusty, and, unlike Turkey, organized and English-friendly. Country by country I inch closer to Europe. Am I here? I think so. “Sometimes we’re Europe, sometimes we’re not,” explained Smaro Topoula to me today, a tour guide with a raging interest (also, a degree) in cultural patrimony. Greece, it seems, has a palpable inferiority complex: still nursing their anger at the Turks, who occupied them for hundreds of years and caused them to miss the Renaissance; skeptical of the Americans, whose hegemonic power makes them the modern day equivalent of what ancient Greece once was; and resentful of the Brits, who stole their Parthenon marbles and act as if Greece should thank them for doing so. This complex is not noticeable on the surface, but it is visible in ways large and small. Not least of which is the hulking, new building that will house the friezes and other treasures of the Parthenon. “It’s a disaster,” Smaro told me. “Such a loud thing. We need to prove that we’re the direct descendents of Pericles. That’s what this is about. And that bothers me.”

July 21, 2007

Losing the Lydian Hoard

Lydiasmall I travelled a very long way to get this photo of the rarest of antiquities. And it's a fake. Therein lies a disturbing tale. This is the museum in Usak, a small city in central Turkey, which houses the treasures of King Croesus in 6th Century BC, a cache of 363 gold, silver and other precious things. It is known as the Lydian Hoard. The hoard was once held by The Metropolitan Museum in New York. But after Turkey sued the museum in the 1980s, the museum agreed to its return. The hoard has been here in this small town since 1995, where it was found, and where very few ever see it. So imagine the general shock when Turkey revealed last year that the masterpiece of the Lydian Hoard, a golden broach (click on photo to see it, it's TINY)Lydia1_2  in the shape of a winged horse, was a counterfeit. Someone had stolen the original, and replaced it. Who would do such a nefarious thing? You will never guess: the museum director is accused of the crime. I spent this week unravelling this dramatic tale, and yesterday in Usak itself, following the trail to its home. The director sits in jail. A fake sits in the museum (unlabelled, by the way). Usak is ashamed. And the debate over the proper place for antiquities continues. The hoard was looted, illegally taken and shamefully acquired by the Met. And yet, when finally put in its 'proper' home, the chef d'oeuvre of the Lydian Hoard is, it seems, gone forever.

July 20, 2007

On the Bus

I’m doing something somewhat crazy – bussing it around the country. This is an education in itself. The bus system is well-organized and extremely civilized, designed for an evermore sophisticated populace. The bus I’m on is to Usak, a two-horse town in the middle of western Turkey, and it has movie service, and a server who sprinkles perfume on your hands every few minutes. In between he’s traveling up and down the aisle serving Coke and pretzels. But it’s still Turkey: men sit only with men, women only with women, and we stopped about a half-hour outside of Antalya to wait for a passenger who was late. Twenty minutes for whom? A farmer-woman who came screeching up in a taxi, chucked three massive sacks of tomatos and cucumbers in the hold and waddled on board. One last item: I started a near-riot at the ticket counter at the bus station, having bought my ticket and then forgotten it at the counter. Five guys were trying to get on the sold-out bus, and two of them grabbed my ticket and claimed it for themselves. When I realized my error I returned to face a crowd surrounding a burly man, red in the face, clutching my ticket for dear life; the cops were called, I had to literally tear my ticket out of his hand, restraining myself from slapping his clenched fist, like I might one of my kids. But I made a bunch of new Turkish friends.


July 18, 2007



I'm posting this as a special request from a reader, who remembers with awe the Alexander sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archeological Museum. This piece is a wonder, found in Sidon, Lebanon in 1873 by Hamdi Osman, Turkey's first archeologist. Alexander the Great is the figure at the far left, cape flying, horse rearing high, as he is about to spear an enemy. The workmanship on this frieze is meticulous and moving. Click on it to get a sense of the drama and passion it depicts, continuing all the way around the coffin. By the way, it's not Alexander's grave, it belonged to a subject of his, the king of Sidon. (And who thinks Turkey should give it to Lebanon, where it was found?) Only one more notable point: the museum was, essentially, empty.

Time Travel

ANTALYA -- Domestic travel in Turkey, nation of 73 million, like in Egypt, a nation of similar size (80 million), is like a trip back in time in the United States, once upon an Osama. Imagine not having to stand in a security line a half-mile long to get to the plane, not to take off your shoes and your belt and your sweater and your scarf. Imagine not having someone pat you down firmly in your private places. Imagine getting to the airport less than an hour before your flight, putting your things through an x-ray machine, and strolling to your gate, without stentorian announcements ringing through your every molecule. This world still exists. In the Middle East.


July 17, 2007

The Big Railroad -- Not so Fast

Cemalpulak1_2 Istanbul, city of dreams, capital of empires. You dig, you find. You find, you work. Beneath a plastic sheet creating sauna-like humidity, and misted by a length of constant sprinklers, archeologist Cemal Pulak, a Turkish-born professor at Texas A&M University, works on the find of a lifetime. When the city began digging a new, state-of-the-art railroad two years ago in the midst of the city, near the Sea of Marmara, they found what you usually do when you stick something in the ground in this part of the world: antiquities. This time, though, it was 24 ships -- 24! -- from the early 7th century AD until the 11th century AD. It is the biggest cache of ships ever found in the world. Pulak, pictured this afternoon with a graduate student, Michael Jones, showed me the 5th near-intact ship that they are excavating. This one, a 50-foot coastal vessel, went under in a storm around 950 AD, and was quickly covered in silt, maintaining everything in mint condition. For an underwater expert like Pulak, who usually has to dive underwater to examine this sort of find, this is a true gift. "Of the surviving ship, we have 100 percent preservation," he explained. The wood must remain damp during its excavation to mimic the condition when it went down, though the Sea of Marmara receded long ago. Then came a Byzantine cemetery. Then came an Ottoman-era road. Then came an orchard. Then came illegal apartment buildings, bulldozed to make way for the railroad. Which won't be built any time soon, because of the find.

Ok, this is me at the end of a long day as I chase down the story of the returned Lydian Hoard, the gold of King Croesus's time once held by The Metropolitan Museum in New York. (Cemal was a worthy detour.) Istanbulme

I highly recommend Istanbul. For me, it offers the feeling of being stimulated, engaged and drawn in, and lucky to be alive on this beautiful and complicated earth. Onward to Antalya.

July 16, 2007

I Make House Calls

Orhanduzgun This man looks rather fierce, but he is a frequent giggler-- if you can get in to see him. Here's today's adventure in Ankara. I arrived at the offices of Orhan Duzgun (left), the general director of Turkey's office of Cultural Assets and Museums. He's the guy in charge of the museums and Turkey's smuggling problems. The ministry is in Turkey's former Parliament, a lovely stone Ottoman-era building, with carpets and pictures of what looks like a harem on the wall. In fairness, I'd been warned: it's government bureaucracy AND the week of a general election, don't count on it. Still, I'd been given a meeting with him at 3, then 1:30. But when I got there, they said: Very sorry. Maybe tomorrow. Turns out he'd just landed from China, and he'd sent his other functionaries who'd gone on the trip home to sleep. Your intrepid correspondent was not deterred. I asked: Five minutes? I came all the way from the United States. (This did not sway the Louvre either, in my January visit.) Answer: No. I hovered over the desk of the lovely young assistant, Bahar, looking increasingly unhappy. Five minutes! I was not moving, dear. The story ends happily. I got 45 minutes, Turkey gets their say in the book, AND I met the German ambassador on his way into Mr. Duzgun's office, where they were to discuss Turkey's demand for a Sphinx statue from Boguzkoy, a Hittite treasure that's in the Berlin State Museum. What's the reason for the non-return? "I don't know, I'll ask him," Duzgun giggled, which made him look boyish and adorable. By the way, I was amazed to learn that he had never heard of Zahi Hawass. Hmmm.   

Ankara's Away

Ankara, what a big surprise. After the clanking, smoky chaos of Cairo, where the cars descend on one another in a cacophonous cascade, where every elegant building seems to be flanked by a slum and every swept sidewalk hides a garbage pile to its rear, Ankara feels like Switzerland. This sprawling city of 5 million in the center of the country, the modern capital that wins no one’s heart amid the romance of Turkey’s past, has broad avenues, neatly paved sidewalks and a sophisticated citizenry that strolls along in jeans and t-shirts. Little yellow taxis (with meters!) zip around the city. Strange as it sounds, Ankara does have the feel of a north European urban center, the cubic shape of the office buildings with glass facades, the pastel-colored apartment complexes tucked into the cliffsides on the way from the airport. People are out at all times of day, shopping and enjoying the balmy summer weather in cafes. But it’s east and west all mixed together. You can buy 2 pounds of cherries for $1.25, while a taxi to the airport runs you $50 (ouch). And for all the talk of Turkey’s conservative bent, in this city you do not see many women wearing the veil.

July 14, 2007

Turkey Bound

Heading to Turkey, to discover more about looted antiquities. Cairo teems below on a hazy Sunday morning. Last night the French embassy had its Bastille Day bash, 2,000 people in the garden of the embassy. A choir sang the French and Egyptian national anthems, there was disco music with throwback tunes (anyone remember "Life is Life" from the Eurotrash 80s?) and as much champagne as anyone could drink. I'll be in transit for a day or two but will weigh in as soon as I can. Adios, dear friends and readers, for the moment.

July 13, 2007

The Architect of Khufu

Hamyunu2 We are diligently tracking down the origins of the masterpieces that Zahi Hawass wants to borrow, and eventually reclaim from Western museums. There is no legal claim to the statue taken from the pit where my archeologist guide, Essam, is crouching. This is the mausoleum, or mastaba, of Hamiunu, whose statue is now at a museum in Hildesheim, Germany. Hamu-who? Precisely. None of us know the name of the man who designed what is perhaps the greatest monument ever built by mankind, the Great Pyramid, some 2500 years before the birth of Christ (his grave, unmarked today, overlooks his masterpiece, but consists of nothing but a pile of mud and sandstone). Hamiunu designed this for his pharaoh Khufu, or Cheops in Greek, who was buried within. The pyramids, subject of poetry and legend for millenia, deserve every drop of ink and bead of sweat ever expended on them. Should the sole knowledge we have of its designer be located at the museum being built nearby? That's the question. On another front, I also interviewed a lawyer today who is working on a new law that would allow Egypt to sue for artifacts it believes were stolen, much as Greece and Italy have been busy doing. The law is expected to be introduced in the fall. More fireworks can be expected to follow. (photo copyright: sharon waxman)

July 11, 2007


Zodiac Here it is, the famous ceiling of the zodiac at the Temple of Denderah, north of Luxor (in black). Except it isn't. The real ceiling was hacked out of this space in the early part of the 19th century because of its extreme rarity: there are few (I'm told none, but I'd want to check) examples of the zodiac sky in Egyptian antiquity, and this is a dense and beautiful one. How it was taken from here is another ugly story from the Age of Explorers, and it is one of five objects that Hawass has asked to borrow from Western museums for the opening of a new museum in Cairo in 2012. The Louvre is considering the request, but everyone knows that Hawass really wants it back permanently. The original, in the Louvre, is not black; it has been cleaned (the replica here is badly done, and mimics the smoke that once covered the walls), and makes no mention of how it got there. Which is true for most of its Egyptian collection. Denderah Temple, by the way, is immense. This is a tiny room on its rooftop dedicated to Osiris. But the temple is massive and a work of great majesty. The ceiling in its main, pillared hippostyle hall is 54 feet high. (photo copyright: sharon waxman)

Love in Luxor

Apparently, cross-cultural love has become quite the thing in this tourist town on the Nile. The latest trend is retired English ladies taking up residence, and finding love with young Egyptian men. (I saw one such couple around midnight in the lobby of my hotel. She looked relaxed.) This is resulting in marriages and some complicated situations, when the English lady finds out her young lover, or husband, already has a wife and children elsewhere. Scandal ensues. But it's not always a tragedy. In one case I'm told about, the lady died and the young Egyptian man ended up inheriting her Luxor home, and her 5 million English pounds.

Tomb Raiders

Amenophis1_4 This is a rare photograph, taken inside the tomb of Amenophis III in Luxor's Valley of the Kings this week. The tomb is not excavated and as such is closed to the public; and photos are not permitted in any tombs at all. (Also, the tomb is pitch black, so I am amazed it came out this clearly.) But the director of the site, Mostafa Wazery, opened it and allowed me to take pictures to illustrate the mutilations that have happened in the past two centuries by European adventurers. The cut-out is one of five heads of the pharaoh that were taken some time after the tomb was identified in 1829, a particular sacrilege because this tomb is otherwise in exquisite condition, with bright colors and beautifully preserved scenes of the pharaoh as he goes to the afterlife. (Click on the photo to see it more fully.) This tomb is a stunning 3,400 years old. The Louvre, apparently, has the five cut-outs of Amenophis. Zahi Hawass has asked for them back. The tomb will eventually be excavated and opened, and he feels they should be restored. This is one case where I would have to agree. This second photo is from the facing wall. Amen3 (photos copyright: sharon waxman)

July 10, 2007


Well, I've definitely got that I-should-be-blogging feeling, it must be bred by this form of media. I am in Luxor, the modern-day city that was once Thebes, capital of pharaohs, and a stone's throw from their tombs in Valley of the Kings. I am technologically not able to share from here the amazing images I saw today, and was able to photograph with special permission (the tombs are absolutely banned to photography). Suffice it to say it involved 19th century graffiti and other colonial-era outrages; nonetheless, the tombs I saw of Seti I and Amenophis III were stunningly beautiful. Tune in tomorrow, when I go up-river to Denderah, for details.

July 09, 2007

Dinner with a Baghdad Band

A word about a languid dinner on a Cairo rooftop with a group of journalists last night, badly in need of a beer and a break. Most of them are denizens of the Iraq war -- Jill Carroll, the kidnapped journalist, now in Cairo for the Christian Science Monitor, Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post, Alexandra Zavis of the Los Angeles Times -- and several others. Most correspondents in Iraq need to leave the country from time to time to take a respite from the stress and violence. Cairo is hardly a calm and quiet place, except by comparison. All told stories of their various close calls, which frequently involved the heartache of comforting Iraqi staff in their offices as they have lost loved ones and neighbors. I told Carroll I was present at a recent Courage in Journalism award luncheon where she was an honoree (she declined to come and sent her mother); instead the presenter, Sharon Stone, shed copious tears over Carroll's travails for about 20 minutes, a grand and wildly out of place performance. Jill, slight-framed and about as uncynical a person as you might meet, said she felt adamant that she didn't deserve the award.  I was reminded of the rare and instant camaraderie journalists create in faraway places, especially in war zones. 

July 08, 2007

Zahi today

P1000017_2 Here we are in Zahi's office. (My new camera! Nice, right?) I sat for no fewer than six hours watching him work, an unbroken stream of letters, calls, signatures, meetings, convocations. No lunch break. One bathroom break. He called it the calmest day he knew in his office yet. I wanted a medal by the end of the day. Unfortunately, it was Zahi who got the medal, which was the Officer of Commander of Arts and Letters at the French embassy, followed by a cocktail party. The medal was green grosgrain with a bright enamel green star, bestowed by the ambassador. Zahi said the medal was nice, but he still would not drop his demand that the Louvre loan him the Zodiac ceiling of the Temple of Denderah. Then off he went to dinner somewhere, before leaving to the States tomorrow. I, on the other hand, will go to Luxor. (Also a useful evening, because I snagged an invite to the gala Bastille Day extravaganza on July 14 at the stunning French Embassy, a reconstructed Islamic-era palace.)

Cairo Calls

Nefertiti2_2 I'm sitting in the office of Zahi Hawass, chief of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in Cairo. His office, in the SCA headquarters on the island of Zamalek, is a garden variety Egyptian bureaucrat's bland mix of tan walls and oversized stuffed furniture. (Happily, the wireless Internet works.) But there's a curious thing in the lobby. In a large vitrine, the famed bust of Nefertiti -- see it at left -- sits in a place of honor. Strange because this is a copy, and Egypt has no end of authentic artifacts to show off in the lobby of its antiquities service. The bust has not been in Egypt since its discovery in the first part of the 20th century. It now lives in Berlin, and is prime on Hawass's list of requests for loan in 2012. Berlin has responded that the statue is too fragile to travel. Hawass does not accept this argument, and continues to push. It's Sunday, and he has been entertaining a steady stream of work-related visitors, all the while writing the introduction to a new Tut catalogue on yellow legal pads on his desk. In between, one of a handful of industrious female American interns/assistants/students traipse into his office and take requests, procure signatures or advice on a letter . Throughout, a godawful banging comes from below, where renovation -- or perhaps excavation -- is ongoing.

July 02, 2007

On the Road

And I'm off, July 1 to the end of the year, on book leave. Most exciting, I head for a month to the Middle East to investigate what is real and what is lip service in the debate over where antiquities most properly belong. I will be sharing some of my findings on this blog, and look forward to hearing back from you all, my readers. I hope to visit sites in Luxor, in Egypt, and Istanbul in Turkey, along with the Acropolis and elsewhere Greece. If time (and money) holds out, I will head to Italy to talk to the prosecutors of Marion True, the martyred ex-curator of the Getty. (Also, if the Italians are not gone on vacation.) If this sounds like a boondoggle posing as book research, all I can say is: write your own damn proposal.

a bientot to all from the road. sw.