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A world without religious conflict? What Ancient Egypt was telling us?

High above the atrium of the British Museum, in the Hotung Gallery that curves around the dome of the old Reading Room, you can – for the next four months – walk through 1,200 years of Egypt’s history: from Alexander’s conquest in 331BC to Salah al-Din’s takeover in AD1171.

Faith After the Pharaohs begins, appropriately, with three large, handsome – and strikingly similar – manuscript volumes: a ninth-century Tanakh, a fourth-century Bible and an eighth-century Qur’an.

Across the aisle, a tiny engraved stone shows Abraham (“Ibrahim” in Arabic) gripping his son ready for sacrifice while an angel holds him back. Beyond Abraham, the patriarch of the region’s Jews, Christians and Muslims, a vast landscape unfurls on the wall; its crowds and churches and mosques and fields rich with palm trees announce the locus of the show more clearly than any signpost.

What a fitting space and subject for the final triumph of Neil MacGregor, the museum’s outgoing director: to go back to the very beginning, the place and time where the great storms that swirl around us now all started.

For the aim of Faith After the Pharaohs is no less than to show the development of the idea of faith itself, how each of the three great monotheistic faiths emerged from what came before, how they ran into and alongside each other.

It aims to show how faith was articulated and expressed, and how it was used – at the level of the state, of institutional religion and of the people.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“It has always seemed to me that the default position is that people get along; that there is a huge area of our lives that we inhabit together without having to bump into irreconcilable differences.

That faith-based conflict is the aberrant position, and that it is always ignited by economic conditions or political obtuseness or manipulation.”

Neil MacGregor’s final triumph at the British Museum

The Roman state adopts the gods of Egypt: Horus and Anubis strike fancy-dress poses in Roman military costume.

A hawk-headed Roman on horseback carrying a lance is both the receding Horus and the yet-to-come St George. Christian iconography appropriates the image most popular in Egyptian devotion: the mother with the baby on her knee.

Then young Islam abstracts it all, grasps the old vivid colours and the motifs of plant and animal life and develops them into designs that will influence the look of the world from the great tapestries of Cluny to the facades with which the city states of Italy faced the Mediterranean.

As for the people, they will get help wherever they can; prayers and spells and amulets combine ankhs, crosses, old deities, 7-point diadems, the archangel Gabriel. The people will fashion talismans in hieroglyphs, Coptic, Greek and Arabic.

It is the commonality that the exhibition foregrounds.

The curators pull together objects and images from across 1,200 years and choreograph them to tell a story of what we would now call coexistence. Then, it was just how things were.

Egyptians, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, lived lives that were identical in almost everything except the details of worship and the jizya, the tax that Christians and Jews paid in lieu of conscription in the army.

They practised the same trades, used the same tools, cooked the same food, danced to the same music. They were born, married and died in roughly the same ways.

Until the hijab appeared on our streets in the late 1970s, women’s dress was an indicator only of urban/rural socioeconomic position. How, then, do you show – through a vase or a garment, a pen or a cooking pot – that families of different faiths lived more or less comfortably side by side?

Egypt lends itself well to the examination of life’s little details, however ancient.

The dry, warm climate, the clearly defined urban centres dictated by the Nile, the long and (relatively) stable history, the early establishment of bureaucracy and documentation all mean that there are a lot of objects to be found, and when found they’re well preserved.

I lingered in front of one small spell on a piece of paper; the man who had commissioned it was called Abdallah. In Arabic, that’s “God’s servant”, a name common to all: Jews, Christians and Muslims. You could not tell from the spell what religion he was and it didn’t matter; he was just a man, a mortal who needed help from a higher force.

It is precisely this idea of commonality, of shared experience and needs, that marks Faith After the Pharaohs as innovative.

I must admit I had not realised just how innovative until I saw the press notices and heard the comments of friends here in the UK. Our consciousness is shaped by our history.

The western notion that the “normal” condition of a state is to contain citizens of only one faith has for centuries been incomprehensible to the people of the “Middle East”.

First with their equable relations with their many deities, then – as this exhibition shows – with the first two monotheistic religions appearing and taking form, their prophets and stories crossing and recrossing between Egypt and Palestine, then the third religion picking up elements of the first two and achieving the political dominance to create a common language.

All these formations of faith were indigenous; the people who embraced – or were engulfed by – them had to find ways of living together. And they did.

In that old hub of the world, where ideas and communities were formed, and where prophets and gods performed, an organic equilibrium came to be. And yet, of course, the differences were there: fault lines where pressure could be exerted to divide people, to turn them against each other, to create instability that could be exploited.

And that fault line, when it was used, was invariably used politically, and used by power.

It is unbearably sad when a good and beautiful quality, in this case diversity, becomes a vulnerability used against its possessor.

Do I digress?

The founding principle of the act of parliament that set up the British Museum in 1753 was to allow visitors to address through objects, both ancient and more recent, questions of contemporary politics and international relations.

Visitors to Faith After the Pharaohs will, I think, find themselves doing very much what parliament intended. And even though the exhibition presents itself as being at a remove from politics, nothing really can be.

It has always seemed to me that the default position is that people get along; that there is a huge area of our lives that we inhabit together without having to bump into irreconcilable differences. That faith-based conflict is the aberrant position, and that it is always ignited by economic conditions or political obtuseness or manipulation.

Today, in the Hotung Gallery, I’m surrounded by reminders of this. A short introductory film shows scenes of young Christians protecting Muslims at prayer and young Muslims carefully encircling a church. It doesn’t tell you that this footage was shot in 2011, the year of the revolution.

On New Year’s Eve 2010, a bomb went off during midnight mass in a church in Alexandria. It killed more than 20 people. Christians, of course. The police arrested a young Muslim Salafi, tortured him to death and said he’d confessed.

Later, investigations proved what we had known all along: that police agents had planted the bomb. This was not a solitary incident. So, in the great spirit of the revolution, where people tried to take control of their lives and their destinies, both communities made a point of visibly protecting each other against the regime’s security apparatus, which was seeking to set them against each other.

I leave the film and tweet as I walk. We’re pushing a Twitter Storm for my nephew, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and several young activists serving sentences in President Sisi’s prisons – ostensibly for “protesting” but really to isolate and break them.

I stop in front of the great mural of the ceiling of the church in the Red Monastery. Just before I left Cairo I went to a service for the Martyrs of Maspero, the 27 men murdered by the regime in October 2011 on a peaceful protest in front of the Egyptian Radio and Television building.

Alaa first came to the attention of the generals when he and his comrades took over the morgue where the bodies of their friends were lying. Both the state and the church wanted to record “death from natural causes” and the young activists prevented them. While the massacre was happening, state television was screaming at viewers that Christians were attacking the Egyptian army and Muslims should come out and defend it. They didn’t

Consider how religions start out as revolutions, rising against the established regime and aristocracy. If they’re successful they’re adopted by the state. Then – if the citizens are lucky – part of the religious establishment will maintain independence and a distance from the state. In that distance there may be room for people to negotiate their lives.

A book in a case in the next room brings me back to the exhibition and a moment of pleasure: the wonderful horned, hairy, paunchy demon in the late 14th-century Kitab al-Bulhan could be straight out of a Manga comic of today, and triggers happier thoughts of shared and divergent imaginations

And then, on my phone screen, a young woman sits on the ground in Jerusalem. Ten – I count them – ten Israeli soldiers stand round her. She’ll be accused of trying to knife them.

In front of me a Hebrew bible in Arabic script and on the wall an image of the lost-to-Egypt treasure of the Jewish Geniza. Images of dead boys and girls come in all day long.

The Guardian letters page is taken over by arguments about the cultural boycott of Israel. There it is: the supreme, living, example – right in the heart of our world – of a political conflict masquerading as a faith war.

Why did old-style British colonialism, with its last bit of strength, drive wedges round the heart of the region and say: here – against the tradition of 2,000 years of history – here there will be a homeland for a people of only one religion?

If, as the useless caveat postulated, this would not be at the expense of the existing population, then what need was there for it?

Jewish Egyptians (as Faith After the Pharaohs shows), Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis already had their homes in the region – alongside Christian and Muslim Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians etc.

Perhaps the idea – the colonial idea in 1918 – was to settle European Jews in the region?

But, even so, where was the need for this special dispensation? The region had received Jewish refugees from the Spanish inquisition and various European persecutions across the ages.

In fact, when the first shiploads of European Jewish refugees arrived in Haifa in 1936, the Palestinians welcomed them as simply a new wave of an old phenomenon. What then? Just the last gasp of empire?

The creation of Israel in 1948, the actions leading up to it, the judiciously placed bombs of the infamous Lavon affair, the Suez war – all political events that tore the Jews out of the fabric of Egypt.

Early on in the exhibition there is a sixth-century manuscript fragment of Theophilus of Alexandria triumphantly sitting on top of the Temple of Serapis with the god still inside – and into my head immediately came an image I saw in Jerusalem: a glass display case, inside it a large model of the imagined Third Temple.

The case is positioned so you can, if you wish, gaze through it to the Dome of the Rock and imagine the seventh-century building razed to the ground, the Temple rising in its place. What will be the cost of that event, that sounds so outlandish but draws closer by the day?

The thoughts in my head are dark as I leave the gallery. But, against them, something out there – in the crowds in the museum’s atrium – something hopeful set itself.

Crowds of people, varied in dress and language and colour and age and economic ability, entering freely into this space, comfortable and engaged and talking and debating.

In his 13 years as director, MacGregor has brought together the talents of the BM’s brilliant staff and the scope of its extraordinary collection to position the museum firmly as “a museum of the world, for the world”. Global, not only in its audience, reputation and collection, but in its concerns. And in the museum’s visitors I see a notion of what a globalised society could look like, and what wisely led cultural institutions can do to enable it.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s personal. That we, in Egypt and in the Middle East that is so discussed and analysed and exhibited in the west, are fighting, personally, daily, not just our political battles, but the very powerful interests that would turn these political battles into zero-sum, faith-based warfare.

With the appearance of the post-postmodern nightmare of Daesh (I refuse to use the name Isis), these interests have scored a victory. But the battle is not the region’s alone. It belongs to the world.

Cultural interventions, such as Faith After the Pharaohs, that use top-drawer resources with goodwill and imagination are vital to any hope that contemplating the past will lead to informed and progressive attitudes to contemporary politics and international relations.

Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs is at the British Museum, London WC1B, until 7 February. The British Museum/The Guardian public forum: Coexistence and conflict: can Egypt’s past inform the future? is on 8 December at 7pm. britishmuseum.org. Ahdaf Soueif is the author of Cairo: a City Transformed (Bloomsbury) and a trustee of the British Museum.

 

 

Bones for Archaeologists? New breed of Egyptian experts?

Osteology taking ancient Egypt into 21st century?

Five years ago, if archaeologists digging up Pharaonic ruins in Egypt found any human bones, they would usually throw them away.

“Most Egyptian archaeological missions looked at human remains as garbage,” said Afaf Wahba, a young official at Egypt’s antiquities ministry.

Osteology, the study of bones, is standard practice on digs outside Egypt – and Wahba wants Egyptian teams to follow suit.

After a 5-year campaign, each Egyptian province is now meant to have an osteologist, and Wahba hopes the ministry will found its own osteology department.

But, as she put it: “I am struggling to inform people in the SCA [the ministry’s governing body] that human remains are very important.”

The Pyramids at Giza
Tourists at the Pyramids of Giza. Until recently, few Egyptian experts had significant field training. Photograph: Steven Allan/Getty Images

Wahba’s mission is one example of a generational shift that optimists hope can slowly reform Egypt’s bureaucratic state institutions, not least its ministry of state for antiquities (MSA).

The MSA has ultimate jurisdiction over arguably the planet’s most impressive collection of monuments and museums, hundreds of sites including the tomb of Tutankhamun, the mosques of medieval Cairo, and – in the Giza pyramids – the last remaining wonder of the ancient world.

“It’s a bit like English Heritage, the British Museum and a university research department rolled into one,” said Chris Naunton, the head of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), a British charity that supports Egyptian archaeology.

Yet despite its power and potential, the ministry – like many Egyptian institutions – is often accused of being a quagmire of paperwork. Foreign archaeologists complain they sometimes can’t import the equipment they need, or export rock samples for analysis.

Taking such samples to foreign laboratories is banned and, as a result, local digs are overlooked by international donors, who prioritise projects with access to the latest research techniques. “Bureaucracy is such a monster in Egypt,” said Giulio Lucarini, an archaeology professor whose digs are among those affected by the ban based in Cambridge.

golden sarcophagus of the Tutankhamun
Officials look at the golden sarcophagus of the Tutankhamun after the mummy of the boy king was taken out of its sarcophagus and displayed to the public in 2007. Photograph: Mike Nelson/EPA

Local archaeologists have their own frustrations. Many want better field training, more opportunities for promotion, and say their ideas for reform are rarely listened to.

“If you want to do something, you go to your boss, and from his boss to another boss – and so on to get permission,” said Moamen Saad, another young ministry official, of the process of starting a new project.

Decision-making is opaque.

Activists say Egypt’s oldest pyramid, the Djoser at Saqqara, has been ruined by a ministry-sponsored restoration effort. The ministry denies the charge – but without independent arbitration, no one can know who is right.

According to Naunton, “there is very little mechanism for criticising the ministry for what it does. And that’s not very healthy”. When you’re talking about a big government institution, you should be able to say: maybe there’s another way of doing that.

But hope is on the horizon. A new generation of officials, a new approach to archaeology at Egypt’s leading state university and a new ministry leadership has given archaeologists hope that things may gradually change.

Wahba and Saad personify the new broom. Wahba’s enthusiasm for osteology could shake up the ministry’s approach to research.

Saad wants to improve the practical education given to young ministry employees.

Archaeology courses at Egyptian universities are theory-based, so new recruits arrive at the ministry with no experience of archaeological digs. Apart from a week-long course in the Sinai desert, the MSA does little to beef up their skills.

Saad wants to change all that.

In 2012, while working at the temples of Luxor, he and local colleagues set up their own field training school, giving 100 officials a new set of skills they would have found hard to come by elsewhere.

Now Saad wants to replicate the scheme elsewhere. “This is my dream project – to do it again and again,” he said. “Lots of colleagues gave me a hand. Now I want to give a hand to my colleagues.”

A member of the Egyptian special forces stands guard in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in January 2011 after would-be looters broke in.
A member of the Egyptian special forces stands guard in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in January 2011 after would-be looters broke in. Photograph: Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

Then there’s 33-year-old Mohamed Gamal, formerly a curator at the Grand Egyptian Museum – one of two unfinished Egyptology museums that are being built to supplement the cluttered, decades-old Egyptian museum in Tahrir Square.

Like many observers, Gamal feels it isn’t yet clear how the three museums will complement each other – so he is developing a masterplan that, if adopted, may finally give each of the trio a clear and unique mandate.

A very simple question that is always asked is: why do you have two new museums in the same city? What will you do with the [old] Egyptian museum? During the last few years, no one from the Egyptian side had a good answer,” said Gamal. “So the proposal I’m working on I hope will have the answer.”

Gamal, Saad and Wahba are not alone. They reckon they are part of a group of about 60 up-and-comers, all intent on helping the ministry reach its potential. “They have an awareness,” said the EES’s Naunton, “that there is an opportunity – if they and others like them can get into the right positions in the ministry – to genuinely reform things, to make sure that the ministry is dealing in the best way with all the challenges it faces.”

Groups including the EES are giving them a hand. In partnership with the ministry, the EES awards scholarships to some of the MSA’s high flyers, taking six young officials – including Gamal and Wahba – to Britain for workshops with leading British curators, conservators and archaeologists, and access to some of the world’s best archaeological libraries.

In Egypt itself, the Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera), an American conservation group, has spent the past decade giving field training to Egyptian archaeologists – providing the latest generation, including Moamen Saad, with an unprecedented set of field skills. This year, this change in approach spread to Cairo university, where the new head of conservation, Mostafa Attia, introduced field training for the first time.

Foreign groups such as Aera and EES are aware of the balance they, as foreigners, must strike while intervening in an industry in which colonialism casts a long shadow. But they argue the guidance they give makes Egypt less dependent on foreign expertise.

Foreign archaeologists say that five years ago, before Aera’s workshops had made much headway, you wouldn’t have been able to staff a dig exclusively with competent local archaeologists – most Egyptians didn’t have the training.

The British archaeologist Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun, in 1923.
The British archaeologist Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun, in 1923. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Now that’s changing: for the first time, digs are being staffed by Egyptians alone. “And that’s how it should be,” said Naunton. “It should be people like Moamen and Afaf who are running the foremost archaeological projects in Egypt – but until recently that hasn’t been possible, which has given the whole thing a very colonial feel.”

For its part, the ministry says it wants to modernise. It positively welcomes projects such as the Aera field schools, and the EES scholarships, according to Hisham Elleithy, who heads a department within the MSA. “When they come back from their scholarships,” he said, “they can transfer their experience to their colleagues in the museums and the sites.”

If there are failings, they’re often caused by problems beyond the ministry’s control, Elleithy added.

The 2011 uprising caused a collapse in tourism, which reduced the ministry’s revenues by 95%. As a result, it has struggled to pay its 44,000 employees, let alone embark on grand projects of reform.

The looting of hundreds of archaeological sites, meanwhile, is due to a security vacuum caused by the uprising.

The newly appointed antiquities minister, Mamdouh Damaty, is said to be refreshingly open to new ideas, and has already appointed fresh faces to key positions. “Professor Damaty has a lot of great ideas,” said Elleithy. “[He’s] encouraging the younger generation … choosing the right persons for the right places. Their age doesn’t matter – it’s their experience and ideas.”

Young officials hope this early promise results in real change. “Trust the new generation,” said Saad, in an appeal that will resonate across post-revolutionary Egypt.

Be flexible, listen to them and their ideas … Let’s test it and if it’s OK, let’s continue with it. But don’t from the beginning say no.”


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July 2021
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