One of the most fundamental sources of difference between my home and this new place is in how people relate to their cultural past. In Egypt, ancient history seems to be everywhere, displayed in sterile glass cases in countless museums, and on maps that spill out from tour agencies. Just as the pyramids rise up out of the suburban sprawl of government housing developments, the grandeur of ancient death cults exerts an unmistakable allure for Egyptians and outsiders alike, interlaced in daily life and yet representative of people’s inability to grapple with a belief system so primitive and archaic and yet so present in their landscape.
Ancient history weighs heavily upon many Egyptians. The tourism industry uses foreign fascination with ancient Egypt as a support for the modern economy. Hotels claim artifacts for lobby decorations and men on the street hawk mock papyrus wall hangings. Even cell phone stores have statuettes in their display cases, juxtaposing the spiritually mysterious with the electronically advanced. Sometimes one feels like Egyptians on the street are consigned to their roles in Indiana Jones and The Mummy: brokers for a culture not really their own that ceased to be thousands of years before them.
But I’m unable to choke up this “ancientophilia to fundraising alone. The Citadel of Qaitbay in Alexandria, where the entrance fee is three dollars for foreigners and seventeen cents for Egyptians, is swarmed daily with hundreds of domestic tourists. Egyptology is a reasonably popular subject of study for university students here, and Pharoanic influence is seen everywhere from the modernist sculptures of Mohamed Mokhtar to Coptic Christian liturgy, which claims affinities with the traditions of the pharoahs.
Several people have made sure to explain that the military coup of the early 1950’s was the first time since before the ancient Romans that Egypt had been ruled by ethnic Egyptians. The many foreign rulers that governed Egypt represent a cherished set of influences, some Egyptians say, but nothing is as important as “self-rule.” Egypt is thus defined as both worldy and proudly nationalistic, with many finding an awkward fit in between.
Walking around the antiquities museum below the Alexandria library this became clear when a tour guide showed us the oversized bust of Augustus and proudly declared that “we hate the Romans here; Ancient Greece respected our religion, but the Romans just abused us.” My Palestinian friend Yacoub quickly interjected: “but I think the Romans had a pretty impressive civilization too!,” a comment that illicited frustration from the guide, who quickly retorted “yes but look how they ruined Egypt!” I wasn’t sure what exactly to “look” at.
I quickly realized just how ambivalent this Ancient history is for some in the modern Middle East who care to engage with it. The guide, clad in a hijab, was clearly Muslim and not a believer in ancient Egyptian mythology, and yet she could not help but highlight the ideas of “respect” and “glory” attached to her affinity for her perceived ancient ancestors.
I then tried to find common ground, but then I remembered that not even colonial-era America, only a bit past two hundred years ago, elicits any sort of antagonism against the British of that era. We may glorify our ancestors and their fight against outsiders, but at the end of the day we don’t really care that much about it.
For Egyptians, even if they don’t think about these issues, they have to confront the fact that many outsiders see their home more as an archaeological dig site than a modern nation. Their collective “glory” is in the deep recesses of the past, ancient, Islamic, colonial or otherwise, and this can’t be an easy situation to inhabit.