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November 04, 2004

Shufti Antiquity: Notes on Egypt

Posted by Lincoln Allison

I nearly got to Egypt in 1969. But I spent too much time in the Green Mountains of Libya with the bee-keeper to King Idris. She was an elderly English lady and the accommodation was free and comfortable. By the time my friend and I came to move on to Egypt the border was closed because of the political crisis which left Colonel Ghaddafi in charge. We had to double back to Benghazi and find a flight to Athens.

That was in the month before I took up my appointment at the University of Warwick. Now, 35 years later, in the month after I retired, with Colonel Ghaddafi still in charge of Libya, I finally made it to Egypt. Of course, like most tourists, it was not really modern Egypt I went to, but Ancient Egypt the great Pyramids at Giza, Thebes, Memphis, the Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel, etc.

The whole experience was slightly humiliating, in a containable kind of way. The young man of 35 years ago hitched lifts, ate the cheapest local food and cadged accommodation or slept in dry ditches. I know what he would have thought of the packaged Kuoni customer, obediently clutching camera and bottle of fresh water and following Mohammed or Ahmed or Houda to see the great sites. There I was, a Senior Tourist, who would have been presented with the Grand Order of World Tourism (with bar) had there been such a thing, reduced to the ranks.

Worse than that, I felt completely ignorant in my gawping. I am a former Whitbread and Radio 5 quiz champion, a man who can recite you lists of Roman Emperors or English Kings, but in Egypt I don't know my Old Kingdom from my Middle Kingdom and have the greatest difficulty in remembering when Rameses II actually lived. Tattooed ladies from South Shields and fat blokes from Essex not to mention the Headmistress who was my immediate companion seemed to know much more than I did. So many Pharoahs, gods, dynasties, legends; so little time.

For this I blame an education for which I have generally been grateful. We passed over the very ancient civilisations, in the form of a little book called From Ur to Rome (by Kathleen Gadd, published in 1936), in about three weeks when I was ten in order to spend the rest of our lives studying the Greeks and the Romans. I at least formed the impression that there was something unworthy or dodgy or not quite serious about everything before the Greeks. It is largely a question of generation. The great moments of Egyptology such as Jean Francois Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphs in the 1820s and Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun a century later are much more widely taught now than they were. I'm not sure why this is. Very vaguely, it might have something to do with a kind of PC extension towards "other cultures" as opposed to the obvious Western heritage. Much more specifically, the single most important event would seem to be the great Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1973.

However, in the spirit of making virtues out of necessities, I did come to Egypt with a fresh eye, or at least a certain naivety. Egypt expands your notion of time: suddenly you realise that there is a whole span of history as long again as the two and a half millennia that you regarded as being history. The normal substance of human life was all there in Ancient Egypt: agriculture, the alphabet, the afterlife, hierarchy, literature, the state, civil engineering.. You wander round the Cairo Museum asking yourself what the Romans actually had that the Egyptians didn't and comparing that with the more familiar question of what England in 1700 had that the Romans didn't. In the "heretical" pharoah, Akhenaten (1356-1339 BC), Egypt even had a leader whose monotheism seemed to presage the later development of those religions which still dominate most of the world. Of course, the posterity of an ancient civilisation is all a question of a decipherable language. In the Nubian Museum in Aswan the pre-Egyptian Nubian cultures are dehumanised into "type A . . type B . . and type C" cultures since we do not have, so to speak, their word for it.

Egypt did not create most of the institutions which we share with it, but took them from even older cultures, mainly in Mesopotamia, and transmitted, developed and connected them. The extent to which we have acknowledged its importance and the nature of our emphasis in interpreting it are the major themes of the principal book I took with me, Rosalie David's The Experience of Ancient Egypt (Routledge, 2000 and part of a package I received from my publishers for reviewing, in the usual way).

"The experience of Ancient Egypt" is now a mass experience. The Valley of the Kings was as crowded as a football ground when we went. The elite 1937 world of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile bore little resemblance to the traffic jams now created by having more than 350 large cruisers on the river or the queues to get through the lock at Esna though the book itself has clearly played its part in the image and appeal of the river. If you don't enjoy watching your fellow tourists then you probably shouldn't go to Egypt or should go only when it's unbearably hot. But if you want to get away from it all what you must do is to choose something which isn't quite so ancient. The "Graeco-Roman" section of the Cairo Museum was empty since no-one comes to Egypt to see that modern stuff. We were the only tourists in the beautiful new Coptic Cathedral in Aswan which was started in 1995 and will be finished next year. And to be fair we did have a 1937-type experience when hiring a felucca to take us across the river to see the "tombs of the nobles" on the edge of the Western Desert opposite Aswan: we were the only tourists there.

I was fascinated by how much more downmarket the whole experience was than were our recent experiences of cultural tourism in Europe. The working classes of Western Europe are far more visible at the Pyramids or Abu Simbel than they ever are in cathedrals and I talked to people who had not been on other "educational" holidays and probably wouldn't. They seemed to find a source of awe and mysticism in Egypt that they had not even looked for elsewhere and avidly bought up clothing and jewellery with ancient symbols. It is as if one can only find profundity in a culture at the maximum distance from one's own, a reaction which seems very strong in California. (When asked whether anyone still practices the ancient religion one of the Egyptologist guides muttered, "Only a few crackpot Americans").

Modern Egypt is present as a background and an intrusion. It is divided from Ancient Egypt by race, religion and language (a situation more analogous to Turkey than to Greece or Italy), but it makes a good proportion of its income out of Ancient Egypt. It is a place of ubiquitous and aggressive hawkers: postcards and T-shirts are thrust at you constantly accompanied by attempts to engage you in conversation in what is guessed to be your native language. The hassle is a symptom of chronic underemployment and poverty (GDP per capita about $3500pa) and they in turn suggest "the clash of civilisations". I guess most people are aware of this, but it is clear that the vast majority of tourists want to put it out of their minds and leave the country knowing far more about Rameses and Tutankhamun than about Nasser and Sadat; it would be difficult to ignore Mubarak because his picture is everywhere, but so far as I could tell I was the only person who knew he had a Welsh wife.

Yet contemporary Egypt is an important and fascinating place, the largest country of the Arab world by far with a population approaching 80 million. It is also one of the most stable with Hosni Mubarak having been in power since 1981, operating a kind of faux-democracy in which his National Democratic Party has 80% of parliamentary seats but the more Islamic and socialist parties which might form the real opposition are not licensed by the national committee on political parties. Whether he will succeed in what is assumed to be his project of establishing his son Gamal as his successor in the next couple of years is an interesting question and part of the background to it is that the record shows that Al-Quaeda and before that Al-Jihad exercise a certain fascination for elements of the Egyptian middle classes.

One thing does unite the Ancient and the Modern, however, in Egypt: Old Man River, the Nile itself. Despite the two massive dams and the resulting change of rhythm an Ancient would surely recognise it as his country by the abiding and amazing contrast between the intricate, vivid green fertility of the valley and the Delta and the utterly barren beige desert. There is no transitional zone between them, but a razor-thin line. In some places you have the most fertile land in the world on one side of the road and the most barren on the other.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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