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Of people and things: Egyptian protest and cultural properties

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | February 4, 2011

In a post on the Berkeley Blog, Samuel Redman makes an argument that urges protection of antiquities be emphasized in the face of current events in Egypt, arguing that mummies are “shared global heritage”.

I addressed similar questions in writing a  post on my Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives blog about unconfirmed reports of possible damage to a unique tomb, that of the woman identified as the wet nurse of Tutankhamon. But in writing my post, I subordinated questions of the destruction of antiquities to the critical moment facing Egypt today, which concerns the future of living men and women.

Redman’s  commentary came in reaction to widely publicized images of heads of two mummies, one against a background of human bones, in the Cairo Museum, following the brief incident a week ago when as-yet unidentified hoodlums entered the museum, broke several glass cases and damaged some artifacts.

But there are several problems with this story, and with emphasizing it at this moment.

First, as Neil Silbermann, long-term scholar of cultural heritage policy reminds us forcefully in a series of posts on his blog, we need to stop and consider what leads us to place a higher value on antiquities than on the lives of the contemporary people who have not benefited from the big business made out of archaeology. Silbermann writes that

the fact is that the administration of antiquities in Egypt has been part and parcel of an arrogant and capricious regime. Past folds into Present in an insidious way. The monuments and relics of Ancient Egypt have not been administered for the good of the Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative (of a “timeless” Egyptian essence) that has been used in so many ways to justify the autocratic centralization of the Sadat-Mubarak regime.

We need to be cautious about what interests are being advanced in these stories, which on closer examination get more complicated than at first telling. In a DiscoveryNews blog post Rosella Lorenzi writes:

the mummies have become the symbol of the world’s concern for ancient Egyptian cultural heritage…The shocking image of their heads lying on the floor of the Egyptian Museum with broken bones scattered all around have been haunting Egyptologists and mummy experts for a week.

While one of the mummy heads reportedly matched that of a previously photographed undamaged mummy, the shocking image of the second mummy head may owe more to the original investigators in the 19th century:

the well cut neck might indicate that the head was already loose, torn from its body long ago. Indeed, that was a typical practice of the 19th century.

Neither head appears to be associated with the bones pictured in the same images. They do not seem to be, as originally rumored, from royal mummies on display. Again quoting Lorenzi:

Wafaa El Saddik, former director of the Egyptian Museum, confirmed to Discovery News that the mummies had been in a research lab.

Beyond my worries about advancing a story that is at present lacking in confirmed facts, and subject to politically motivated interpretation, I am bothered by a post urging protection of Egyptian antiquities out of concern for their status as “global cultural heritage”. The claim that antiquities are a global heritage is highly contested, used (among other things) by those who traffic in antiquities to justify the removal of objects from the countries that own them, against the laws of those countries, to protect them when, it is claimed, the source country cannot.

The argument easily slips into a kind of patronizing view of Egypt as a backward steward of things that don’t properly belong there. Even gentle commentaries written by well-meaning authors concerned first and foremost about Egypt’s antiquities suggest that the protest will be “tainted” if cultural properties are damaged and “sympathy could be strained by further destruction of a historic material culture”.

And on the extreme right wing, the outright accusation– countered by every bit of evidence– is that those protesting denial of their rights to self-determination are responsible for the one break in security at the Cairo Museum, either actively or simply because they came out to speak up for their rights. (I was going to link to one of these blogs, but decided I don’t want to encourage them. Go ahead, find them yourself. That’s what google is for.)

This is valuing things over people. The human rights violations taking place in Egypt simply have to be our first concern. Even UNESCO– charged with protection of cultural properties listed as World Heritage Sites– insisted in its statement of concern about Egypt on respect for freedom of expression. And UNESCO put these human rights first:

“My compassion goes first to the victims of the civil unrest and their families,” said UNESCO director Irina Bokova, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that according to unconfirmed reports, a total of 300 people have died in the anti-government unrest.

This is a proper order of priorities.

Then, if we want to turn to consideration of why antiquities are at risk at this moment, we would need to do a great deal more analysis of the kinds of circumstances that can lead to what Simon Schama calls “desecration” at a time of revolution.

We might want to remember that it was the enforcers who attacked the peaceful crowds yesterday, reported to be organized by Mubarak by such reliable sources as the New York Times, who indiscriminately threw molotov cocktails into the crowds and into the property of the museum (where they were extinguished before damaging the museum).

We won’t know for some time what damage was actually done to Egyptian antiquities. Zahi Hawass is now on record several times claiming that, outside of the initial break-in at the museum, Egyptian archaeological heritage is actually being protected by a combination of heritage workers, the people, and the army.

Cairo isn’t Baghdad: the people of Egypt are seeking rights we all cherish, and even as they do, they are trying to protect those things that the rest of the world is too easily elevating over the safety and rights of people.

As an archaeologist, I will regret any losses. But as a human being, I will not agree that we should make the mistake of treating people as less valuable than things.

Comments to “Of people and things: Egyptian protest and cultural properties

  1. Egypt has been part and parcel of an arrogant and capricious regime. Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative; the mummies have become the symbol of the world’s concern for ancient Egyptian cultural heritage… The shocking image of their heads lying on the floor of the Egyptian Museum with broken bones scattered all around have been haunting Egyptologists and mummy experts for a week.

  2. Another call for global heritage?? I don’t believe that monuments and antiquities of Egypt which already BELONG to that nation can be a global heritage. Why?
    I believe that every piece of these antiquities must be back in place. When all these pieces back to their home, they will constitute a beautiful symmetry which everybody can enjoy.


    • Your use of the word “disparagement” misrepresents my original post and comment. I am contesting those who use the term “global cultural heritage” to justify certain kinds of claims: those that disenfranchise the source communities and origin countries in favor of claims by cosmopolitan agencies to represent a global perspective on things. “Heritage” is a problematic word all by itself, and pursuing it seriously (as opposed to treating it as self-evident) would require you and others to do some reading of contemporary publications in the field. Adding “global” almost always compounds the original set of problems.

      Citing Hawass out of context doesn’t make your argument stronger; it merely illustrates my point. He most certainly does not accept the idea of Egyptian antiquities being global heritage in the way I critique; he has gone to exceptional lengths to advance an argument for repossession of antiquities originating in Egypt that is at the extreme opposite end from those arguments I was commenting about in my response to Mr. Li. Your comment, while being a bit murky, clearly is not in sympathy with Hawass’s actual policy and actions, which might best be summarized as saying Egypt contains works of significance that should be appreciated by the whole world (and supported by world agencies), but that insists that the proper place for those objects to repose is in Egypt.

      I do go further than simply contesting the use of terms in my comments on the extreme reactionary bloggers, but even there, I hardly am disparaging them. If I were I would note that they are adherents to hateful beliefs that most civilized people gave up a century ago. Now that would be disparagement– but not for their considering Egyptian antiquities global heritage. It would be for their jingoistic and nationalistic sentiments. Which I certainly do disparage.

  3. It is agreed that “[w]e need to be cautious about what interests are being advanced in these stories.” However, one interest not mentioned is that Zahi Hawass has almost absolute control over Egypt’s antiquities and that anyone not agreeing with him risks being banned from Egypt and having his/her career ended. Fortunately, Berkeley is unlikely to suffer any academic banishment because (1) our collection doesn’t have anything Dr. Hawass wants and (2) our professors write blogs that keep us in the pro-Hawass column.

    Everyone agrees that the antiquities should be protected. Let’s not politicize this or bring up the straw man of an “extreme right wing.” After the dust settles (literally), there will be sufficient time for some academic to write a paper on, say, “Tutankhamun and the Politics of the Tea Party.”

    • You write “our professors write blogs that keep us in the pro-Hawass column”. For the record: this blog post is not “pro-Hawass”. Take the time to read the work to which I link, especially by Neil Silbermann. As I am not a practitioner in Egypt, I cannot comment on Egyptian archaeology from first hand experience; but I have blogged about previous statements by Zahi Hawass and you might find reading that commentary useful in judging my position.

      As for “everyone agreeing” that antiquities should be protected: my point is precisely that making antiquities a priority is not acceptable. When people say “protect antiquities”, they often mean very different things. Claiming that antiquities are “global heritage” that should be in cosmopolitan museums is problematic, and Zahi Hawass’s faults don’t justify those claims.

      Finally, the extreme right wing blog I read and decided not to publicize by linking to it is not a straw man. Straw men don’t exist. These vile people do. There is a reactionary argument for propping up dictators in places like Egypt that is equal parts a mix of US interests being served by stability at all costs, and arguments that people in other places are prone to violence. The incident at the Cairo Museum– whose perpetrators are still unidentified, and should be viewed cautiously due to disinformation promulgated by the Mubarak regime, which includes Hawass– has been mobilized by people with that view of the world, which is an extreme right wing reactionary view of the world. You may not like it, but there are fringe figures you need to acknowledge and, if their views do not represent your values, repudiate them.

  4. While I do understand your care about Mummies and their importance I wanna point on more important thing. Living people, Yes living people in Egypt that are facing death for sake of democracy, In my opinion they are more valuable than dead bodies from 7,000 years.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Again, my apologies for apparently not being clear enough. My point is precisely the one you make: “living people in Egypt that are facing death… are more valuable than dead bodies from 7,000 years” ago. Thank you for giving me the chance to underline that point.

  5. Pay Attention To The Warnings and “proper order of priorities”!:

    “Youth unemployment is driving unrest in the Middle East – and hollowing out societies from Europe to the U.S.”
    Bloomburg Businessweek, February 7–February 10, 2011

    “Politics is threatening the rule of law in the U.S. today”
    Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, February 24, 2008

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”
    President Eisenhower, January 17, 1961

    “Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity”
    Nature, September 24, 2009

    “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses”
    Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

    “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitations of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”
    Will and Ariel Durant, “The Lessons of History”

  6. As you so thoughtfully outlined there are a multitude of intersections between the past and present in the current political unrest in Egypt. Thank you for articulating an opinion so many of us committed to the preservation of the past share- that no matter how much we value our shared history, peoples’ lives are far more valuable.

    Your post also raised the important topic of global cultural heritage which at its heart I think speaks to the connection of our larger human story beyond political boundaries, but as you have pointed out is far too often used as justification for removal of artifacts from their home countries. Thanks for a great post!

  7. I agree that the world’s priorities should be with the living.It would seem to me that accusations that antiquities are being destroyed by those seeking human rights has to be examined in the light of the attacks on the demonstrators by the Mubarek sympathizers. What better way to turn world opinion against those who seek peace and freedom than to portray them as looters and vandals?

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