200 years of understanding ancient Egypt — IV

Tarek Osman
Thursday 31 Mar 2022

The Egyptologists who rediscovered the monuments of ancient Egypt often saw what they had discovered as being completely disconnected from modern Egypt, writes Tarek Osman

To reflect on how a civilisation thought about the divine is to look her in the eyes and attempt to delve into her soul, which is what the previous article in this series tried to do. 

Those who have attempted that deep look often philosophised (to put their understandings into relatable analogies), sometimes romanticised (to conceive the civilisation’s soul with their hearts as well as with their minds), and in some cases even eroticised (bringing their fantasies of what is secular into realms the civilisation had reserved for what is sacred). 

In ancient Egypt, as in most elevated understandings of true humanity, the secular and the sacred merged, being two gates that lead into two essences of a whole that is one. But that journey into ancient Egyptian thought – and soul – is for another time.

This article concerns how those who have philosophised, romanticised, and eroticised often took ancient Egypt away from her milieu into historical and geographical exile. 

The geographical exile lay in exporting artefacts to the West, with Paris, London, Rome, and Washington DC being prime destinations. For the exporters, the artefacts were spirited away from the mud and sand into which they had sunk for centuries to be displayed with glamour in humanity’s new centres of power and glory, and, crucially, also of knowledge. 

In the minds of many, this exporting out of Egypt meant saving the remains of ancient Egypt from ignorance and bringing them to where they would be looked after, and, perhaps more importantly, understood.

But this entailed historical exile. Obelisks in the West, say in Paris or Washington, brought with them subtle meanings for those who knew how to look. They certainly added glamour to the milieus into which they were placed. But these were not their milieus. Meanings do not survive intact outside of the contexts into which they are put. Plots do not carry their true weight if they are told as opposed to unfolding in a book. 

Ancient Egypt, as discussed in the first article in this series, is a book with many chapters feeding into each other. It is a book whose pages are to be read on the walls and ceilings of temples and tombs across the land. The artefacts, statues, and obelisks that were siphoned off later were given new lives where they were taken. But they were pages torn out from that book.

These torn-out pages are missed. But given the tremendous scale of the civilisation and what it has left us in Egypt – the weighty erudition of the book – the torn-out pages do not cut off the book’s narrative. 

Away from the country, they remain full of informing and enchanting knowledge, but they also become individualised items from a civilisation that was whole and that was directed towards wholeness. 

One can stand in front of the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The observer admires, and the observed awes, and for those like Goethe who look to immerse themselves, who look to participate, the obelisk will inspire. 

But the obelisk was not made to stand alone. It was part of a bigger construct and put in the midst of a larger scene. Placed in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the obelisk stands in dignity, retaining the knowledge that the ancient architects and authors placed on her. Yet, she stands separated from the narrative she was designed to be a part of. 

This separateness dictated historical exile, which in turn severed the meanings entailed by the features of ancient Egypt – its temples, tombs, and artefacts – from the flow of history on that land. 

The separateness was often intentional, and certainly it was needed. The Egyptologists who opened the heavy gates of the ancient civilisation after centuries of heavy closure and the accumulation of rust understandably saw what they had discovered as utterly disconnected from modern Egypt. 

For them, they were resuscitating a civilisation from the silent recesses of history. The differences between what was in the distant past and what was in contemporary Egypt were so vast, that, the modern Egyptologists reckoned, the ancient civilisation was completely separate from the present culture. 

This led to the culmination of geographic and historic exile, viewing ancient Egypt as not really Egyptian in the modern view of today’s Egypt, but rather as a global civilisation, a period of advanced knowledge that happened to exist on that land and that was now totally gone. 

In this view, the remains of that civilisation are disconnected in almost every way from today’s Egypt. As a result of this understanding of ancient Egypt, the Concorde obelisk could well stand alone in Paris away from its home in Luxor because modern-day Luxor was no longer that obelisk’s home. 

Ancient Egyptology could not have conceived such a thought and such a separation between old and new. As was seen in the first article in this series, early students of ancient Egypt such as Pythagoras and Plato realised that there was a continuous flow of knowledge that was a fundamental feature and meaning not only of ancient Egypt, but also of the knowledge that ancient Egypt was a representation of. 

To bring about such a separation and see periods and products of that civilisation as individualised and disconnected from their milieu was a colossal failure in understanding the civilisation and the knowledge entailed by it.

But like any failure, it has been corrected, for there were indeed modern Egyptologists inside and outside Egypt who grasped and respected the continuity and the wholeness of the civilisation. For them, ancient and modern Egypt are false constructs: there is only one Egypt, whose historical flow and geopolitical coherence are ever-present features. 

The next article in this series will look at the work of these thinkers.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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