Questions of National Identity. In response to, and support of, a recent EES seminar

Yesterday (12 June) I listened to a very interesting discussion hosted by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) on the subject of “Good Archaeology, Bad Archaeologists?” (for discussion online see #EESUnpackingColonialism).

The talk began with a very frank and honest re-assessment, by the Society’s Director, Dr Carl Graves, of the EES’ work and place in history, focussing on the colonial context in which it began and has been operating, arguably, ever since. The EES is part of the wider problems that are part of the legacy of colonialism. So how should this be addressed?

25114674308_7f8daa781f_c

An image of Swiss Egyptologist, Edouard Naville, excavating the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri in in 1890s. Dr Carl Graves used the image in the webinar to illustrate the colonialist aspects of the EES’ work. Image ©EES and available via Flickr here.

Carl emphasised that in attempting to redress the situation the lead should be taken not by the anyone from the colonialist nations – to avoid compounding the problem of European / western domination and control – but by those from the colonised nations, in this case Egypt. And so, the audience was then treated to an excellent and very thought-provoking discussion led by Heba Abd el Gawad, an Egyptian Egyptologist (follow Heba and the discussion on Twitter, here).

Heba posed some very interesting questions about what should constitute Egyptian heritage. Carl had noted the view that ancient Egypt was seen by the west as part of its own heritage, whereas more modern (Arab, Muslim) Egypt was seen as being something different, ‘eastern’ and therefore ‘the other’.

It is true that there has been an inappropriate / awkward / unhealthy divide between various different parts of Egyptian history, the divisions being chronological but also relating to a certain dynamic between indigenous Egyptian people and influence from outside: ‘pharaonic’ (pagan) = ‘Egyptian’; Ptolemaic (Graeco) -Roman, Coptic (Christian), Islamic = something different.

Egyptology – a discipline spawned, practiced and mastered by the west (a situation that largely obtains to this day) – focusses mainly (albeit not exclusively) on the first of these, and has succeeded in spreading and promoting knowledge of this one aspect of Egypt’s past around the world, to the exclusion of the others. This has been highly successful, to the extent that there is now very widespread interest in pharaonic Egypt, to the detriment of the other parts of the country’s heritage.

As an example, as noted in the discussion, the ‘Egyptian collection’ in most archeological museums focusses only on pharaonic objects, and few contain much if anything from later periods. Similarly, organised tours to Egypt focus on ancient monuments but pay little attention to other aspects of the country’s heritage or more modern identity.

(Incidentally, as someone who has often worked in the tourist industry in Egypt, it seems to me that Egypt may be inadvertently complicit in this. Most tourism is industrial in scale with large numbers accommodated in large, luxurious hotels, conveyed around the country in big air-conditioned buses, and shepherded around the sites in large groups. Tourists are otherwise encouraged to stay in their hotels including in the evenings when they might otherwise take the opportunity to explore the streets and find a local restaurant or shops, and not to explore the cities and towns they might be staying in. Some attending the webinar commented that when they had had the opportunity to explore the streets in Egypt they had enjoyed it very much. The authorities may feel that large groups provide the best return financially, and/or are easier to control when they can be kept within hotels and buses in their groups. But this encourages a separation from the real, modern day Egypt – which has very much to offer of course – and the fantasy that the country is all about ancient sites with perhaps a waiter in a tarbush to reinforce a few colonial ideals.)

Heba set out to confront this issue, showing a series of images of Egypt which challenge the stereotypes. Are images of sparkling white laundry, shop-window displays of lingerie, or an ancient figure carrying a gas cylinder, representative of Egypt? Yes.

The question here seems to be one of national identity. How should Egypt present itself? This is not a question for me to answer, except to say that history and heritage, of course, have a significant role to play.

(On the identity that Egypt may wish to construct, however, I note that several large sculptures (an obelisk from Tanis and series of sphinxes from Karnak) have recently been erected in Tahrir Square, the location of the current national collection of antiquities (until the Grand Egyptian Museum takes its place when it opens next year), but also the focus of the protests that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and numerous expressions of protest in the years that followed.)

Meanwhile, in the UK…

Questions of national identity are also relevant to my own country of course. The news here is currently dominated by stories of the protests connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the demand for a fairer and more tolerant society in which everyone is treated equally, regardless of their ethnicity or any other aspect of their personal history and heritage. As part of the protest, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, which had stood in the centre of Bristol since 1895 was pulled down by activists and thrown in the river Avon. Sadly, the suggestion of local artist, Banksy, that the statue be re-erected but only as part of a lasting image of its toppling, is not to be taken up, I gather.

There has been a backlash against this, most notably from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who argues that removing statues is tantamount to trying to alter or censor history (see his tweets, here). His argument is crashingly naïve. The existence of statues, and their erection, placement and maintenance, is not an unbiased record of historical events. They reflect a story which someone has chosen to tell. Someone chose to celebrate these individuals and their actions (and not those of others). The choice to create, erect and find a place (usually somewhere suitably prominent of course) was made in the past, but keeping them there is a choice also. It says, ‘this was the story we wanted to tell then, and it remains the story we want to tell now.’

The question for us, then, as it is in Egypt, is, ‘what are the stories we want to tell?’. The story of someone like Edward Colston is very important in 2020 but not because he is someone we should celebrate, but someone whose activities we now consider despicable and a lesson for all humankind in how not to do things. That story is not best told by exhibiting a statue of him in a prominent public position – such images are intended, and understood, to depict people whose achievements should be celebrated, or events that have changed history in a positive way.

Knowledge and understanding of the past could not be more important in this, and it is incumbent on those of us who have some expertise in the field to try to ensure that we take the opportunity to help move society forwards. Subject specialisms might not necessarily be directly relevant to the issues of the day, but Egyptology is, as noted above, essentially a colonialist pursuit in its origins at least, and I was pleased to see that John P Cooper (someone who may be familiar to anyone reading this page from his work on the Nile and navigation in the medieval period, and the recipient of an EES Centenary Award a few years ago), had contributed powerfully to the debate on the urgent need for colonialism and empire – warts and all – to be taught to all children in British schools, in a letter to The Guardian recently (here).

What aspects of our history might inform our national identity now? One that is more inclusive, fair, tolerant, aware of the failures of the past, of our part in some of the ills of the world, and how we have profited from the kind of actions what we could never now, in good conscience, repeat?

A big thank you to the EES, Carl Graves, Stephanie Boonstra and Heba Abd el Gawad for such a thought-provoking discussion and for bravely tackling such difficult and sometimes divisive issues. There’s a lot for us all to learn and this fascinating and important conversation will no doubt continue for a long time. Be sure to be a part of it via #EESUnpackingColonialism, @GawadHeba, @excavatedegypt and
Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage – آثارنا المتغربة.