(Fixes typo in paragraph 3)
* Excavation, restoration work hit by Egypt unrest
* Temples, tombs reopened to draw back cultural tourism
* Minister says threat from radicals overblown
By Tom Perry
CAIRO, Feb 15 The keeper of Egypt's
archaeological treasures sees hope for the nation's future in
its pharaonic past.
Mohammed Ibrahim, head of the antiquities ministry, likens
Egypt's turbulent emergence from autocracy to the periods of
decline that afflicted the nation on the Nile between the fall
and rise of its three ancient kingdoms.
"We have passed through similar periods like that, even in
antiquity," said Ibrahim, custodian of the pyramids, tombs and
temples that bear witness to one of the world's oldest
civilisations. "Every time Egypt passes through this period, it
recovers very quickly, very strongly."
But for now, Ibrahim's ministry, is suffering from the
repercussions of unrest that has hit the economy hard, driving
away the tourism which pays his ministry's bills.
Excavation work led by the ministry has ground to a halt
because of the financial squeeze. The unrest has also stopped
many foreign-financed digs by deterring the archaeologists.
But the 59-year old Egyptologist is upbeat: foreign
archaeologists are starting to come back. And while the periods
of decline between the ancient kingdoms could last 200 years, he
expects Egypt to bounce back much sooner this time around.
"Egypt will be something new," he told Reuters in an
interview at his offices in the medieval citadel that towers
over the mosques of Cairo's Islamic quarter.
Head of Egyptian antiquities since late 2011, Ibrahim fills
a post occupied for a decade by Zahi Hawass, who left office
several months after the uprising that swept former President
Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years of autocratic rule.
With a doctorate in Egyptology from France, his career
includes time as director of Sakkara, an ancient necropolis
south of Cairo best known for the stepped pyramid that was a
forerunner of the pyramids at Giza.
The job of managing Egypt's ancient antiquities is more
complicated today than it was in Mubarak's era. The rise of
Islamists repressed by the deposed autocrat has brought with it
calls from a radical, if tiny, fringe for the destruction of
pharanoic monuments on the grounds that are contrary to Islam.
Ibrahim says the issue has been exaggerated out of all
proportion by the Egyptian media. Investigations were only able
to uncover one such fatwa, or religious edict, he said.
Nevertheless, Ibrahim asked Egypt's Sunni Muslim
authorities, including the prestigious al-Azhar mosque and
university, to speak out.
"They all said we have more than one fatwa saying that
pharaonic monuments are not against Islam, or Islam is not
against pharaonic monuments," Ibrahim said. "So now this case is
RECOVERING STOLEN ARTEFACTS
Ibrahim has also been trying to recover artefacts stolen at
the height of the uprising in 2011. The greatest losses were at
the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, where some 40 artefacts
"We found about 15 objects, 29 artefacts are still missing,"
said Ibrahim. He takes pride in the fact that the museum housing
King Tutankhamun's treasures has been kept open through the
spasms of turmoil since the revolt to "send a positive message".
In an effort to draw back tourists, Ibrahim has reopened
tombs and temples closed for years due to restoration.
These include Sakkara's sprawling underground Serapeum, the
catacombs where mummified sacred bulls, or Apis, were buried.
The Serapeum had been closed since the late 1990s. Six tombs
have also been reopened at Giza plateau, together with the
Pyramid of Chephren, the second largest.
He says the Grand Egyptian Museum being built near the Giza
pyramids will be completed by August, 2015.
In another initiative to boost visitor numbers, Ibrahim said
the aviation ministry would soon open routes from Red Sea beach
resorts to Luxor and Aswan. "This also might encourage them to
go ... at least for a day," he said.
In Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings, Ibrahim laments
hotel occupancy rates have slumped to 17 percent in the winter
months that should mark the high season for cultural tourism.
"Egypt is still safe and welcoming those who want to come
here," said Ibrahim. "If you want to help us, the only thing we
need from you is to come back."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)