Saturday, October 11, 2008
Who owns ancient Egypt? A 21st century Arabic nation? Or the world?
I was haunting the British Museum again and fell to wondering, as I looked around the Egyptian hall of sculptures: if extremists had their way, would they obliterate these remains from the so-called age of ignorance before Islam?
Modern Muslim Egyptians live in fearful tension with their ancient past, it occurred to me, looking up at a colossal head of Rameses.
Not long ago, Egypt's Grand Mufti issued a fatwa against sculpture. Egypt's ancient sculptures are forbidden by Islam, he said. Sculptors are doomed to receive the harshest treatment on Judgement Day.
Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities distanced itself from the fatwa, saying that the sculptures they preserve and showcase are not for the purpose of idolatry but to provide a window on history. "We display statues so they can be studied and so people can get to know their heritage. This is Egypt's national heritage. We don't display them for worship."
A number of influential sheikhs supported the mufti, however, while intellectuals and artists in Egypt were said to have called the fatwa laughable.
Could firebrands one day use this as an excuse to harm treasures of history that belong to all of humankind?
The Taliban in central Afghanistan demonstrated the peril of antiquities in the hands of idealogues. They used explosives to destroy the sixth century Buddhas of Bamyan, a pair of colossal standing Buddhas carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, irreplaceable examples of Indo-Greek art.
Antiquities authorities in the Arab Republic of Egypt wonder why Western museums are less than eager to repatriate their Egyptian collections to Egypt, yet who can see what lies ahead for this Islamic nation?
In spite of recent hectoring by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities to return artefacts to Egypt from the museums of the world, modern Egypt's exclusive claim on the civilization of the pharaohs is shaky.
Where is the link of this 21st century Arabic society with ancient Egypt? Not religion, not language, not politics, probably not even temperament, certainly not philosophy or social structure - let alone shared basic assumptions about equality between the sexes - not artistic tradition, not even the rhythm of life regulated by the ebb and flow of the Nile... the construction of the Aswan High Dam severed that link forever.
Today's new antiquities grab is as questionable as the first rape of the Nile by colonial powers. It's a form of rampant nationalism and, in more enlightened times, disagreeable in my view.
It's also counter-productive for today's Egypt. The very presence of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the museums of the world spurs thousands to visit Egypt every year.
Why kill the goose that laid the golden sarcophagus?
Feeling a surge of protectiveness for the civilisation I love, I suddenly - unreasonably, perhaps - wish that the British Museum's ancient Egyptian galleries were ten times their present size, along with those of the New York Metropolititan Museum of Art, The Louvre, Berlin Neues Museum and Turin Museum.
And yet I like a great many Egyptians very much and I love the land of Egypt itself and its sites of antiquity and I value the feeling of place that connects me with the past. The Nile Valley is still the biggest and best museum of earth.
The issue of who owns the past is a complicated one...