Egyptians and their Heritage: The Broken Bond

Golden Mummy Parade of 22 royal mummies to their new display location at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. © AP Photo

The glamorous Golden Mummy Parade was held in April of this year in the streets of Cairo amidst extravagant celebrations, and well-choreographed and pre-recorded dance and musical shows. The whole event was made to celebrate the move of the 22 royal mummies from the old museum in Cairo, known as the Egyptian Museum, to the newly established Cairene National Museum of Egyptian Civilizations. The news of the parade reached several media outlets around the world instigating a multitude of reactions from individuals belonging to different social and cultural groups.

Some criticized the idea of parading deceased ancestors, while others looked at it from the perspective of showcasing contemporary Egyptian power legitimacy, and another group saw the parade as a “nationalist event celebrating Egyptian history […].” [1] Each person viewed the event according to their own background, understanding, and experience. It was an interesting time for me as I eagerly looked out for reactions amongst my very diverse, incoherent group of social media acquaintances. Certainly, the event brought out Egyptians’ view of their own heritage. Thus, it would be interesting to briefly look into the background of modern Egyptian sentiments and perspective of their history to contextualize the Golden Mummy Parade within the larger sociocultural framework of modern Egypt.

Still from national Egyptian TV showing a group of performers parading ahead of a cart transporting one of the 22 royal mummies.
Choreographed show of the parade airing live on national Egyptian TV.

Moving the mummies from their previous location to the new museum came as part of the government’s grand plan to redesign the touristic landscape of Cairo. By doing so, the government aimed to revive this industry, which has taken yet another hit since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic [2].  Tourism provides a much-needed economic gain for the country, with a share amounting to 11.9% of Egypt’s GDP in 2018 [3]. Tourism relies primarily on feeding foreigners’ fascination with an Orientalized and romanticized version of Egypt. The tourism-related motivation for this ceremony was made explicit in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s tweets prior to the parade urging the world to watch the event. A sentiment that was also constantly mentioned by local TV presenters during their commentary throughout the event. In fact, tourism lies at the heart of most decisions made by the Egyptian government regarding archaeology. This marriage between tourism and archaeology was materialized in the merge of the former Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, the governing body in charge of antiquities services and archaeological activities, with the Ministry of Tourism to become the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in 2019 [4]. In doing so, the government confirmed that for Egypt, archaeology and tourism are one and the same. 

Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted: “I call for all Egyptians and the whole world to watch this unique event, inspired by the spirit of the great ancestors, who protected this nation and created a civilization for humanity to be proud of. Let us continue on the path we started … the path of development and humanity”
Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted: “I call for all Egyptians and the whole world to watch this unique event, inspired by the spirit of the great ancestors, who protected this nation and created a civilization for humanity to be proud of. Let us continue on the path we started … the path of development and humanity.”

However, placing archaeology in the same category as tourism and economic profitability leads to two main undesirable outcomes: commodifying heritage and alienating modern Egyptians and thus denying their agency to construct their heritage. Both outcomes have already been noted to have manifested in the parade by several non-Egyptian reporters and commentators. These journalists highlighted the absence of the public on the route of the parade, and the regulations that were put in place to keep Egyptian spectators away from the path and confining them to their residences at the time of the event. Not to mention all the remarks made about the stereotyped title “The Golden Mummy Parade,” as well as the romanticized themes portrayed in the event intended to appeal to foreigners’ view of ancient Egypt. This desire led to the treatment of the ancestors’ mummies and history into a commodity to increase tourism. These criticisms are indeed not entirely unfounded. But the ugly truth is that these local governmental decisions and attitudes are, sadly, a consequence of the colonial and post-colonial manipulation of Egyptian heritage. Commodifying heritage and alienating the local population in Egypt have been intertwined in archaeological practices since the 18th century. There has always been an enormous gap between modern people in Egypt and their ancient Egyptian heritage. It is that disconnect which makes the discovery, study, and use of that heritage of interest only to foreigners.

Photo of the barricades positioned along the way of the cars carrying the royal mummies to keep pedestrians from interfering with the parade. © Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images

In the early 20th century, British archaeologist Flinders Petrie proposed the “dynastic race” theory to explain the rise of ancient Egypt. Petrie suggested that the native African predynastic race was replaced by a more advanced race from Mesopotamia allowing the establishment of the state and civilization of ancient Egypt [5]. The “dynastic race” narrative of a much advanced, humane, and superior culture that preceded modern Egyptians survives in modern Egypt, albeit with a nationalist twist. Today Egyptians who are proud of their heritage tend to believe in the superiority of their ancestors, which ultimately makes history nothing more than a myth. This aggrandized interpretation of history has created a gap between modern and ancient Egyptians that remains unacknowledged by some Egyptians, while celebrated by others who appreciate being separated from a polytheistic culture. Whether it is due to the nationalistic views of history held by some Egyptians nowadays, or their total rejection of anything to do with the past, foreign archaeologists prefer to avoid communication with locals about their heritage.

The ‘dynastic race’ narrative of a much advanced, humane, and superior culture that preceded modern Egyptians survives in modern Egypt, albeit with a nationalist twist.”

As foreign scholars dominated the field of archaeology in 19th and 20th centuries, and academic publications were only available in foreign languages, foreigners were ultimately deemed more knowledgeable on the history of ancient Egypt. The interaction with Egyptians only as diggers who get their daily wage for their labor, inherently confirmed to locals that the objects they themselves excavate have a value only if given to foreign experts. Egyptian locals, on the other hand, should be content with what they earn without attempting to be consulted in the interpretation, study, and analysis of the excavation. Foreign archaeologists’ disregard towards modern Egyptian culture has eliminated Egyptian agency in the construction of the past. Not to mention that it has reduced the value local Egyptians had of their own heritage to mere monetary terms.

Moreover, archaeological practices in Egypt and the Middle East were at large rooted in political agendas, which supported the involvement of Western powers in the Middle East and North Africa [6]. British and American archaeologists working in the Middle East have used their expertise in surveying techniques for surveillance and spying activities, as discussed by Lynn Meskell [7]. Hence, the persistent mistrust between Egyptians and foreign archaeologists. This is particularly evident in the requirement imposed by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to run security background checks for every member of every foreign archaeological team. The use of drones and aerial photography is also now strictly prohibited except when given military authorization, and conditionally granted by the requirement to use Egyptian military drones. There is also much resistance on the part of Egyptian government officials to grant permits to foreign teams looking to undertake community-based projects. Thus, even after community archaeology became widely adopted around the world around 50 years ago, the practice was slowly adopted in Egypt and only appeared in the 1990s [8]. These conditions have led to minimal interaction nowadays between archaeologists and the communities in which they work. With less than 5% of archaeological projects in Egypt having a community component, local communities remain distant from interacting with their heritage [9]. Those community-based projects that exist rely mainly on ‘educating’ the public and ‘reconnecting them with their heritage,’ painting foreign archaeologists as saviors of ancient Egyptian heritage, and perpetuating the same strategies deployed by earlier archaeologists who portrayed themselves as more knowledgeable than local Egyptian and possessors of the best practices and information [10].

“With less than 5% of archaeological projects in Egypt having a community component, local communities remain distant from interacting with their heritage. Those community-based projects that exist rely mainly on ‘educating’ the public and ‘reconnecting them with their heritage,’ painting foreign archaeologists as saviors of ancient Egyptian heritage.”

After the 1952 revolution [11] and the outset of the colonial regime, the nationalization of the country, including that of the Antiquities Services, took on the same practices that were developed with a colonial mindset by their foreign predecessors in office. The idea that Egyptian heritage belongs to “the world” forced the idea that it must be protected even from locals. This is where the divide between tourists and locals occurs. The nationalization of the government did not lead to Egyptian independence and autonomy, it only placed Egyptian nationals in office to work with the same attitudes and privileges foreigners had held. Ultimately it became clear that even in postcolonial times, heritage and archaeology are not for or about the local population and are instead a commodity to be exploited for tourism.

It comes then as no surprise that Egyptians seek to appeal and please foreigners, after all foreigners are the protagonist consumers of Egyptian culture. It is also tourists who bring in economic benefits to the country. While “Egyptomania” is a term used to refer to the revived interest in ancient Egypt by western societies, Egypt created its own “Egyptomania” in the Golden Mummy Parade to speak to the world with its own language. While the parade seemed to be an event that completely catered to foreigners and which excluded Egyptian citizens, commodifying the country’s own heritage and using an Egyptian-made Egyptomania, it is important to remember the extent of the damage of colonialism had on Egypt’s contemporary views towards their ancient heritage.


More information

[1] https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cairo-mummy-parade-1956993

[2] https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/2302154; https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/4/100469/Egypt%E2%80%99s-Pharaohs-Golden-Parade-A-majestic-journey-that-history-will

[3] https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/3/67255/Travel-tourism-contribute-to-Egypt%E2%80%99s-GDP-by-11-9

[4] https://en.eipss-eg.org/merging-ministries-of-antiquities-and-tourism-hopes-and-fears/

[5] Wendrich, Willeke. 2010. “Egyptian Archaeology: From Text to Context.” In Egyptian Archaeology, edited by Willeke Wendrich, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 2.; Kemp, Barry. 2018. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, London: Routledge, p. 47.

[6] Meskell, Lynn. 2020. “Imperialism, Internationalism, and Archaeology in the Un/Making of the Middle East.” American Anthropologist 122 (3): 554-567.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Näser, C. & Tully, G. 2019. “Dialogues in the making: Collaborative archaeology in Sudan.” Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, pp. 155.

[9] Näser, C. & Tully, G. 2019. “Dialogues in the making: Collaborative archaeology in Sudan.” Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, pp. 155.

[10] Näser. C., 2019. “Exploring attitudes towards the archaeological past: Two case studies from majority Muslim communities in the Nile valley.” Journal of Social Archaeology 19(3).

[11] Reid, D. M. 2015. Contesting antiquity in Egypt: archaeologies, museums & the struggle for identities from World War I to Nasser. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

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