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Uproar after scholar bans excavation of Egyptian mummies

As Egypt carries out intensive excavation works, leading to major discoveries in recent months, an Egyptian Al-Azhar scholar stirred a heated debate after stating that displaying mummies is against Islam.

Egyptian scholar Ahmed Karima recently sparked heated controversy after he banned the excavation of tombs of ancient Egyptians at a time when Egypt is struggling to revive its vital tourism industry from the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, said the exhumation of graves is prohibited under Islamic teachings. “Extracting the bodies of the ancient Pharaohs and putting them on display in return for dollars from visitors is forbidden,” Karima said in televised statements Jan. 19 on state-run television.

Karima said digging up the graves violates the dignity of the dead and the Islamic religion forbids their desecration. “Bodies of the dead cannot be exhumed unless for the purpose of scientific search,” the scholar said.

“The grave is a blessing from God to house the human being after his demise,” he added.

Karima said Islam calls for honoring the human being after death. “Museums can exhibit the treasures of the Pharaohs, talk about [their civilization] and about the mummification, but without displaying their dead bodies.”

Ayman Ashmawi, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, declined a request by Al-Monitor for comment.

Renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass lashed out at Karima, saying his religious views apply to tomb robbers, not archaeologists. “We do not excavate the graves of Muslims, Christians or Jews,” Hawass said in Jan. 20 statements to Egypt’s Sada al-Balad channel. He said archaeologists and the Ministry of Antiquities are working to revive the greatness of the Pharaohs and their civilization.

“The opinion of Sheikh Karima can be applied to thieves who tamper with graves and destroy mummies, but archaeologists work to immortalize these people, as they restore their coffins, graves and mummies, because the presence of these coffins inside the wells exposes them to decomposition and fragmentation,” Hawass said.

Hawass, a former minister of state for antiquities, said Karima’s statements were only meant for publicity and fame. He added that putting the ancient mummies on public display was not humiliation of the ancestors.

“The mummies will be exhibited at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in a civilized way, with a detailed explanation of each mummy and the historical era in which it lived,” he said.

Liberal columnist and TV host Khaled Montaser, who is known for his Reformist views, was also critical of Karima’s religious view. He said Karima’s opinion was negative propaganda before the planned inauguration of the Egyptian Grand Museum.

The museum, one of the largest in the world, is set to be opened later this year and will showcase nearly 60,000 artifacts, with 5,000 relics from Tutankhamun’s collection, including 2,000 artifacts that will be displayed for the first time.

The Egyptian government is pinning high hopes on the Grand Egyptian Museum, near the Giza Pyramids, to boost the recovery of the tourism industry, which has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani said Jan. 4 that the number of tourists to Egypt dropped to 3.5 million in 2020 from 13.1 million in 2019. Revenues of the tourism sector also plunged last year to $4 billion, with nearly a 70% drop due to the virus outbreak.

A key source of foreign currency, the tourism industry accounts for up to 15% of Egypt’s national output. In an effort to revive the vital industry, Finance Minister Mohamed Maait on Jan. 6 allocated 6.3 billion Egyptian pounds ($400.7 million) to support the tourism, culture and aviation sectors during the pandemic. Maait said 3.2 billion pounds ($203.5 million) were allocated to the tourism and cultural sectors and 3.1 billion pounds ($197.1 million) to the aviation sector to help them withstand the repercussions of the pandemic.

The Egyptian government has carried out extensive digging operations in recent years, resulting in a string of archaeological discoveries, reviving hopes that the findings can boost the recovery of the tourism industry.

The debate about public display of ancient mummies dates back decades. In 1980, then-President Anwar Sadat ordered the Royal Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum closed, saying that the display of the remains violated religious concepts and desecrated the dead. The ban remained in place for seven years before the ancient royal mummies were put back on display again in 1987. Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981.

Hajjaji Ibrahim, archaeology professor at Tanta University, agrees with Karima that the practice of exhibiting the ancient mummies of the Pharaohs must stop.

“There is nothing in traditions or Islamic teachings that allow the public display of the dead bodies to visitors,” Ibrahim told Al-Monitor by phone. “We can exhume the tombs for the purpose of scientific research and put the bodies back [in] the graves.”

Ibrahim continued, “All the dead and their graves have dignity, and this must be respected. This applies to all, whether Islamic, Christian, Greco-Roman or ancient Egyptian.”

Ibrahim disputed the argument that archaeologists were working to celebrate ancient Egyptian civilization. “The achievements of the Pharaohs can be exhibited, but not their dead bodies,” he said.

He wondered, “Would those who support the public display of the royal mummies at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization agree to have their bodies exhibited after their death?”

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