Ancient Egypt for the EgyptiansHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, Egypt, ancient history, Egyptology
by Toby Wilkinson
Norton, 510 pp., $30.00
by Youssef Rakha
Palgrave Macmillan, 111 pp., $59.99
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb
a documentary film directed by James Tovell
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo moved into its peach-colored, arcaded neoclassical building in 1902. Its collections include the five-thousand-year-old Palette of Narmer—one of the earliest examples of hieroglyphics, commemorating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt—a bust of the “heretic” pharaoh Akhenaton, and the golden treasures of the boy king Tutankhamun. Its façade is inscribed with the names of famous Egyptologists, all male, all European: six Frenchmen, five Britons, four Germans, three Italians, a Dutchman, a Dane, and a Swede. The building “was a triumphant and unselfconscious monument to the Western rediscovery of Egypt,” Toby Wilkinson writes in A World Beneath the Sands, and an expression of “Europe’s implicit claim to the civilization of ancient Egypt.”
The museum stands on one side of the epicenter of modern Cairo, a large square first known as Ismailia Square—after Khedive Ismail, the ruler who built it—and renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square after independence in 1952. On January 28, 2011, as the Arab Spring swept Egypt, protesters took over Tahrir Square, the police were overpowered and disappeared, the nearby headquarters of President Hosni Mubarak’s party were set on fire, and looters briefly broke into the museum, stealing and damaging some artifacts. As the army mobilized, volunteers formed a human chain around the building all night to protect it. It was an act that made its own claim about Egyptians’ ownership of their past and the kind of pride they might be able to take in being Egyptian.
The subtitle of Wilkinson’s book is “The Golden Age of Egyptology.” This he identifies as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the study of ancient Egypt acquired its scientific underpinnings and the most famous discoveries were made; it was also when countless antiquities were transferred from Egypt to private collections and European museums, and Egyptians themselves were largely excluded from the study of their past.
The aesthetic and architectural grandeur of ancient Egypt awed Westerners. The mystery of the culture was a thrilling intellectual puzzle, its splendor something that nations and rulers yearned to possess. Although lone emissaries, adventurers, treasure hunters, and travelers from Europe began writing about Egypt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is the Napoleonic expedition in 1799 that marks the beginning of Wilkinson’s golden age. Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, declared that “Egypt was a province of the Roman Republic; she must become a province of the French Republic”: French rule would lift Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire, out of tyranny and into prosperity, and modern France would adorn itself with pharaonic glory. Alongside their military, the French assembled an “army of experts”—printers, surveyors, engineers, architects, artists, mathematicians, astronomers, naturalists, surgeons, mechanics, and two archaeologists.
The French occupation of Egypt was short-lived, but its impact was enormous. It launched a craze for ancient Egypt that continues to this day, and produced the Description de l’Égypte, a monumental series of volumes accompanied by 974 celebrated plates documenting all the knowledge of ancient and modern Egypt collected by the expedition. The French incursion and the instability it created also led to the establishment of a new Egyptian dynasty in 1805. The country’s ruler, the Albanian commander Muhammad Ali, ended Mamluk rule, secured near independence from the Ottoman caliph, and embarked on modernizing the country in an attempt to catch up with the West. He created a standing army and a new bureaucracy, developed irrigation and transportation networks, and established a printing press and the country’s first modern factories. He also took control of almost all of Egypt’s agricultural land and introduced the widespread and lucrative cultivation of cotton, using a brutal system of forced peasant labor.
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