Peddling ancient prejudices about Egypt

Rumours about looting and beheaded mummies give credence to the idea that Egyptians don’t respect our global cultural heritage.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics World

The protests in Egypt had hardly kicked off before a shocking image of two mummies’ heads began to circulate, alerting the world to the likely looting of the National Museum in Cairo.

The National Museum by Tahrir Square – the site of the heaviest of the clashes between pro-democracy protesters and Mubarak-supporters over the past two weeks – is home to the most important ancient Egyptian art in the world. Soon after the first protests in the square on Friday 25 January, accounts of pillage started spreading. News reports, email circulars, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates about damage and looting at the museum, as well as at the Alexandria library and at Egypt’s main archaeological sites, caused great alarm. The allegations were numerous, shrill and conflicting.

When nine people broke into Egypt’s National Museum on 28 January, it was quickly reported that looters had beheaded two priceless mummies. The story spread like wildfire, accompanied by photographs of the human heads; one against a background of bones. Looking like people with their mouths half open as if in pain, the bodiless heads seemed to cry out against the brutal threat to cultural heritage.

Speculation about their identity was soon rife. Discovery News reported that ‘the mummies of King Tutankhamen’s great grandparents might have had their heads ripped off as a result of the recent turmoil in Egypt’. The source of the speculation was University of Oxford Egyptologist Margaret Maitland’s blog. Maitland wrote that, having studied the TV footage, she and fellow experts thought the heads may belong to Yuya and Tjuya, the great grandparents of Tutankhamen and ‘two of the best preserved mummies from ancient Egypt’. Other experts then eagerly piled in with their theories. The picture was a fake, claimed one. The head belonged to the mummified body of a teenage girl, suggested another.

After much conjecture it turned out that the long-dead pharaohs are still wrapped up, unharmed, with their heads firmly attached to their bodies. What seems to have happened is that the museum robbers picked up two skulls that are usually kept in a store room to test a CT scanner and then left them behind. It appears that the robbers were on the lookout for items to sell, targeting the gift shop in particular.

During the break-in, some exhibits were damaged, but the mummies were unharmed. Depending on which report you read, between 20 and 70 objects are now in need of some repair and restoration. This is by no means a good thing, but it is far from a calamity.

Of course, there is good reason for concern; the uprising is far from over and we do not know exactly what has happened so far to all of the precious and vulnerable antiquities at Egypt’s historical sites. We know from experience that artefacts can come to harm during conflicts. In Iraq, as the US military took over Baghdad, looters took advantage of the exposed museum, stealing and smuggling thousands of artefacts out of Iraq. To this day, there is a thriving illegal trade in antiquities and hundreds of important objects may have been lost forever. So it is not surprising that people worry and, due to the chaotic nature of political turmoil, it is hardly surprising that confusion abounds.

Even so, when false rumours are spread (and widely believed) as quickly as in this case, it reveals that certain presumptions and prejudices are at play – and they are far divorced from what is actually happening on the ground. The concerns about looting, wanton destruction and heads being ripped off mummies reveal ugly prejudices about the Egyptian people and the supposed proper way of caring for cultural heritage.

The rapid repeating of unverified information without proper scrutiny, across social media and blogs as well as in mainstream news outlets, suggests a broader fear of an unpredictable mass and the idea that museums in this part of the world are unsafe. There is a presumption that Egyptians just don’t quite know how to care for cultural heritage while they concern themselves with making trouble in the name of democracy.

Yet, from the reports coming out of Egypt, it sounds as if the people have also tried to protect the museums, despite being engaged in a fierce struggle to topple a 30-year-old corrupt regime. Other accounts suggest that it was government-hired thugs who looted the museum as a way of discrediting the protests to the outside world. Certainly, as this issue is a focus of global attention, it is likely to be politicised and manipulated to different ends. After all, the archaeologist Zahi Hawass, who has been studiously reporting on the state of Egypt’s historical treasures since the uprising began, was over the weekend suddenly appointed minister of antiquities by the embattled president, Hosni Mubarak.

There is an additional danger in the assumptions held by outsiders. It’s implied in an imperious tone that the Egyptians have a duty to the entire world to protect their museums. One possible outcome of this attitude is a call for ‘something to be done’ by external agencies.

Again, we know from experience that this can happen. Since the failure to stop looting in Iraq, heritage professionals have started working with the international forces to highlight locations of potential destruction so that they can be safely guarded. So Western academics are essentially collaborating with the army, becoming military advisers in the name of saving art and artefacts. This is going a step too far in the name of saving the material past. Whatever the importance of cultural heritage, the future is more important than history.

Now, Western cultured observers need to stand back, stop speculating and panicking, and let the Egyptian people write their own script.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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Topics World


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