An Egyptologist’s View: Egyptians continue protecting their ancient heritage


Yesterday, Newsweek published an article by Peter Der Manuelian providing an Egyptologist’s view of the state of Egypt’s antiquities.  Recently instated Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard University and director of the awesome Giza Archive, Der Manuelian deftly addressed the reinstatement of Dr. Hawass as Minister of Antiquities, understandably highlighting the positive elements.  While there are few who love everything that Zahi has done (although I know some who do), most appreciate at least some of the many changes that have occurred under his direction.

While Hawass has his detractors, it seems clear that few others could fill the post at this delicate time. What the public may not know about him is that, behind all the onscreen bluster, aggrandizing press releases, and saber-rattling at intransigent museum directors around the world, he has worked tirelessly for decades to secure the monuments, implement site-management plans, construct new provincial museums and storage magazines, modernize -collections-management systems, improve the standards of Egyptian scholarly publications, and provide health insurance, training, and employment opportunities for the next generation of Egyptian Egyptologists.

Der Manuelian was also quick to point out that Hawass is just one of the many Egyptians that deeply treasure their heritage.

Hawass is, of course, not alone in promoting renewed Egyptian pride and awareness for the country’s ancient and distinguished history. One might see a manifestation of these collective efforts in the “human chain” of ordinary Egyptians who protected the Cairo museum during some of the most violent days and nights of the January revolution. While thefts, damage, and pilfering commanded the international headlines, there are true Egyptian heroes all up and down the Nile who in recent weeks have selflessly guarded the ancient sites, sometimes at great personal risk, in the absence of police protection. Their stories are the ones we should be reading; they deserve the gratitude of all who care for Egypt’s pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic heritage.

These numerous reports of ordinary Egyptians guarding their antiquities, which come from all areas of the country and occurred from the earliest days of the revolution, lead Der Manuelian to advise:

But for those in the West, let us try to allay our fears for the antiquities sites. Egypt’s cultural heritage will not go the way of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, no matter how religious in flavor the new government might become. Egyptians are doing more, with their native expertise, to claim their heritage than ever before.

This viewpoint may initially seem optimistic in the face of the reports of severe looting at some sites, but the plain fact of the matter is that it is astonishing that there hasn’t been MORE looting during this period of significant upheaval.  This alone is undeniable testament to the majority of Egyptians who cherish and jealously guard their ancient heritage.  We have seen what CAN happen (and what could certainly happen anywhere in similar circumstances); the world watched in horror as the National Museum of Iraq was ransacked in 2003 and, although the losses were fortunately not as dire as first indicated, thousands of items are still unaccounted for.  Guarded by a human chain during the height of the violence, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo emerged virtually unscathed in comparison.  As has been pointed out on the Elginism blog, this cultural climate must be remembered by those who might try to use the current circumstances to refuse the return of artifacts proven to rightly belong to Egypt.

There is no doubt that many Egyptian sites have suffered terribly in the last months, and there is really no way of knowing what we have actually lost.  Information unrecorded and objects not photographed are truly lost when destroyed.  However, it seems that control is being regained.  Dr. Hawass has already petitioned the Egyptian authorities to remove all illegal constructions that have been erected during this unsettled time, foreign archaeological expeditions have returned (such as those at Saqqara and Abusir) to assess their sites or never stopped working in the first place, and tourists are again visiting Egypt’s museums and monuments.  More data will continue to emerge from archaeological expeditions and antiquities authorities; much of it will surely be devastating to hear, but it is a relief to have verified information after weeks of rumors.  No matter what, we must be grateful for what has survived the millennia and all the events that separate their context from ours.

Scholars must focus with renewed vigor on recording the artifacts and monuments so that if those artifacts may be damaged or lost, regardless of cause, the data will be preserved.  We cherish the careful epigraphic projects and detailed colorful copies of tomb paintings executed in the late 19th-early 20th centuries because many of the originals have been destroyed or have changed considerably due to exposure to the elements and touristsThe Art of Counting aims to continue this tradition of meticulously recording Egypt’s monuments and artifacts so that the information may be preserved for future generations while providing a proven method for quantifiably analyzing the iconography of the imagery using advanced statistics.

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The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.