Why Egypt wants China's Sphinx replica beheaded

Egypt’s war on a Chinese replica of the Giza Sphinx has resumed after theme park owners replaced the forbidden statue's head two years after agreeing to remove it.

al-monitor A dog is seen in front of the head of a Sphinx replica, removed from its body, at a theme park on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China, April 3, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Jun 18, 2018

Egypt’s Great Sphinx of Giza is the most instantly recognizable statue associated with Egypt, and Cairo is determined that it remain so. So when a full-size replica of the famous monument reappeared in China's northern Hebei province earlier this month, Egypt's response was swift and stern.

The Sphinx has been an issue of diplomatic demarches and complaints to UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, since a Chinese theme park in Shijiazhuang put it up in 2014. The Chinese officials said that it had been constructed for a dramatic production and that it would be demolished after the filming was done.

After two years of intensive appeals to both the Chinese government and UNESCO, Cairo managed to get the Chinese authorities to remove the head from the giant statue. But another two years later, the controversy has returned. Last month, a Chinese news site reported that workers at the theme park had been seen reattaching the statue's head.

Egypt protested that the Chinese authorities should have requested a permit from the Egyptian government and is now seeking to destroy the statue for once and all.

Elham Salah El-Deen, head of the museums sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that any country wishing to make replicas of Egyptian antiquities has to first obtain permission from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities.

Duplication without permission is a violation of both Egypt’s Antiquities Protection Law, enacted in 1983, and Intellectual Property Rights Protection Law, enacted in 2002, as well as the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Abdel Rehim Rehan, a professor of archaeology and a member of the Antiquities Committee at the Supreme Council of Culture, told Al-Monitor.

According to Rehan, international agreements such as TRIPS, a World Trade Organization agreement that both Egypt and China signed, protect intellectual property rights. Egypt has the right to sue any country that duplicates its antiquities without permission.

Under Egyptian law, Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities is the only body entitled to produce modern versions of antiquities and issue permits for other entities or countries to produce replicas in accordance with its requirements.

“We monitor the replica creation process and make sure that the replica meets our standards,” said Salah El-Deen. She explained that under Egyptian law, replicas identical to the original antiquities are forbidden. “What China is trying to do is to create a very similar antiquity, which violates Egyptian law and international regulations,” she added.

Another ministry official said that Egypt would file another complaint to UNESCO against the reconstruction of the famous Egyptian monument.

While the Egyptian authorities debate cultural heritage rights, the tourism sector focuses pragmatically on whether the duplicate, like others around the world, could harm Egypt’s tourism industry.

“Many museums all over the world, including the most famous ones, are filled with replicas of Egyptian antiquities. The Egyptian government has to take action against this because many tourists go to such museums to see imitated Egyptian monuments and they do not come to Egypt to see the original ones,” Hossam Akawy, the owner of a tourism company, told Al-Monitor.

Akawy also said that by establishing a replica of the Sphinx, China can drum up interest in a large numbers of tourists from Asia. “That is why Egypt has to take this matter very seriously,” he added.

Adel Nagi, another tourism company owner, claims just the opposite, saying that China is creating a major promotional campaign for Egypt by erecting the replica. He told Al-Monitor, “The replica is proof that the Chinese people are fond of Egyptian culture and civilization, and its construction will attract many tourists from China, which has a large population.”

Egypt’s tourism industry has been wobbling since the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. A Russian plane crash over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015 worsened the industry's situation, with Russia, Britain and Germany suspending flights to Egypt.

Egypt has taken a raft of measures over the past few years to attract tourists, including beefing up security at the country’s airports and floating the Egyptian pound, a move that left tourism in Egypt more affordable. Last month, a senior government official told Reuters that Egypt’s tourism revenues surged by about 83% in the first quarter of the fiscal year 2018, compared to the same period a year earlier, to stand at $2.2 billion.

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