The Egyptians try to reclaim their history

The Egyptians try to reclaim their history

It’s one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century: British archaeologist Howard Carter inspecting Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus in 1922 while an Egyptian member of his team crouches nearby in shadow.

It is also an appropriate metaphor for two centuries of Egyptology, full of tales of brilliant foreign explorers discovering the secrets of the pharaohs, with the Egyptians relegated to the background.

“The Egyptians have been erased from the historical narrative,” archaeologist Monica Hanna told AFP.

Now, with the 100th anniversary of Carter’s shocking discovery – and the 200th anniversary of the deciphering of the Rosetta stone that unlocked the ancient hieroglyphs – they are demanding that their contributions be recognized.

The Egyptians “did all the work” but “were forgotten,” said chief excavator Abdel Hamid Daramalli, who was born “over” the Qurna tombs near Luxor who is now in charge of excavating.

Even the birth of the colonial era of Egyptology – set exactly in 1822 by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion who deciphered the code of the Rosetta Stone – “whitens history”, according to specialist researcher Heba Abdel Gawad, “as if there were no attempts to understand ancient Egypt until the Europeans arrived ».

The “unnamed Egyptian” in Carter’s famous photo is “possibly Hussein Abu Awad or Hussein Ahmed Said,” according to art historian Christina Riggs, a Middle East specialist at Durham University in Britain.

The two men were the pillars, along with Ahmed Gerigar and Gad Hassan, of Carter’s excavation team for nine seasons. But unlike foreign team members, experts can’t put names to faces in photos.

– ‘Unnoticed and nameless’ –

“The Egyptians remain unnoticed, nameless and virtually invisible in their history,” Riggs insisted, arguing that Egyptology’s “structural inequalities” still reverberate today.

But an Egyptian name became famous as the alleged accidental discoverer of the tomb: Hussein Abdel Rasoul.

While it doesn’t appear in Carter’s journals and journals, the story of the water boy is presented as a “historical fact,” Riggs said.

On November 4, 1922, a 12-year-old – commonly believed to be Hussein – found the top step to descend to the tomb, presumably because he tripped, his donkey tripped, or because his jug of water washed away the sand.

The next day, Carter’s team exposed the entire staircase, and on November 26, they peeked into a room full of gold treasures through a small breach in the tomb’s door.

According to an often repeated story, half a century earlier two of Hussein’s ancestors, brothers Ahmed and Mohamed Abdel Rasoul, found the Deir el-Bahari deposit of over 50 mummies, including Ramesses the Great, when their goat fell into a crevasse. .

But Hussein’s great-grandson, Sayed Abdel Rasoul, laughed at the idea that behind the discoveries there was a goat or a boy with a jug of water.

Riggs echoed his skepticism, arguing that on the rare occasions when Egyptology attributes great discoveries to Egyptians, these are disproportionately children, tomb robbers or “quadrupeds”.

The problem is that others “held records, we didn’t,” Abdel Rasoul told AFP.

– ‘They were wronged’ –

Local farmers who knew the contours of the earth could “tell from the sediment layers if there was anything there,” said Egyptologist Abdel Gawad, adding that “archeology is primarily about geography.”

Deep knowledge and excavation skills had been passed down for generations in Qurna – where the Abdel Rasoul remain – and in Qift, a small town north of Luxor where English archaeologist William Flinders Petrie first trained locals over the years. 1980s of the nineteenth century.

Mostafa Abdo Sadek, a chief digger of the Saqqara tombs near Giza whose discoveries were celebrated in the Netflix documentary series “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb”, is a descendant of those diggers at Qift.

His family moved 600 kilometers (370 miles) north in the early 20th century to excavate the vast necropolis south of the Giza pyramids.

But his grandparents and great-uncles “were wronged,” he said, showing their photos.

Their contributions to a century of discoveries in Saqqara have remained largely undocumented.

– ‘Sons of Tutankhamun’ –

Prevented for decades even from studying Egyptology while the French controlled the country’s antiquities service, the Egyptians “have always served foreigners,” archaeologist and former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass told AFP.

Another Egyptologist, Fatma Keshk, said we need to remember “the historical and social context of the time, with Egypt under British occupation”.

The struggle for the country’s cultural heritage became increasingly political in the early 20th century when the Egyptians demanded their freedom.

“We are the sons of Tutankhamun”, sang the diva Mounira al-Mahdiyya in 1922, the year in which the intact tomb of the young pharaoh was found.

The same year Britain was forced to grant independence to Egypt and the hated system of partage which gave foreign missions half of the finds in exchange for financing the excavations was ended.

But just as Egyptians’ “sense of ownership” in their heritage grew, ancient Egypt became appropriate as a “world civilization” with little to do with the modern country, Abdel Gawad said.

“Unfortunately that world appears to be the West. It is their civilization, not ours.”

While the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb remained in Cairo, Egypt lost Carter’s archives, which were considered his private property.

The documents, crucial to academic research, were donated by his granddaughter to the Griffith Institute for Egyptology at the British University of Oxford.

“They were still colonizing us. They left the objects, but they took our ability to produce research,” added Hanna.

This year, Oxford’s institute and Bodleian Library are staging an exhibit, “Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive”, which they say sheds light on the “often overlooked Egyptian members of the archaeological team.”

– Razed the excavator village –

In Qurna, 73-year-old Ahmed Abdel Rady still remembers finding the head of a mummy in a cave in his family’s mud-brick house that had been built into a tomb.

His mother kept the onions and garlic in a red granite sarcophagus, but at the sight of the head she burst into tears, berating him that “this was a queen” who deserved respect.

For centuries the people of Qurna lived and excavated the ancient necropolis of Thebes, one of the ancient capitals of the pharaohs which dates back to 3100 BC.

Today, Abdel Rady’s village is nothing more than rubble between tombs and temples, the twin Colossi of Memnon – built nearly 3,400 years ago – watching over the living and the dead.

Four Qurnawis were shot dead in 1998 in an attempt to stop authorities from bulldozing their homes in a relocation program.

Eventually some 10,000 people were displaced when nearly an entire hill of mud-brick houses was demolished despite protests from UNESCO.

In the now deserted lunar landscape, 55-year-old Ragab Tolba, one of the last remaining residents, told AFP how his relatives and neighbors were moved to “inadequate” homes “in the desert”.

The Qurnawi’s stubborn resistance was ignited by their deep connection with the place and their ancestors, Qurnalli Daramalli excavator said.

But the controversial famous archaeologist Hawass, then head of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities, said it “had to be done” to preserve the tombs.

Egyptologist Hanna, however, said the authorities were determined to turn Luxor into a sterilized “open-air museum … a heritage Disneyfication” and used old clichés about Qurnawi tomb raiders against them.

Sayed Abdel Rasoul’s grandson Ahmed responded to what he called a double standard.

“The French and the British were all stealing,” he told AFP.

“Who told the people of Qurna that they could make money from artifacts in the first place?”

– ‘Spoils of War’ –

Over the centuries, countless antiquities have come out of Egypt.

Some, such as the Luxor Obelisk in Paris and the Debod Temple in Madrid, were gifts from the Egyptian government.

Others have been lost in European museums due to the partage system of the colonial era.

But hundreds of thousands more were smuggled out of the country in “private collections around the world,” according to Abdel Gawad.

Former Minister of Antiquities Hawass is now leading a crusade to repatriate three of the great “stolen” treasures: the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Queen Nefertiti and the Dendera zodiac.

He told AFP that he plans to petition them in October demanding their return.

The Rosetta Stone has been in the British Museum since 1802, “given to the British as a diplomatic gift,” the museum told AFP.

But for Abdel Gawad “it is a spoil of war”.

The 3,340-year-old bust of Nefertiti went to the Neues Museum in Berlin a century later through the partage system, but Hawass insisted it “was taken illegally, as I have proven over and over”.

Frenchman Sebastien Louis Saulnier meanwhile had detonated the Dendera Zodiac from the temple of Hathor at Qena in 1820.

The celestial map has hung from a ceiling in the Louvre in Paris since 1922, with a plaster cast left in its place in the southern Egyptian temple.

“This is a crime committed by the French in Egypt,” said Hanna, behavior that is no longer “compatible with 21st century ethics”.

bha / sbh / jkb / fg / qan

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