Cultural diplomacy: The expression of national identity

Gihane Zaki
Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

Gihane Zaki continues her exploration of cultural diplomacy by considering its connection to national identity.


A good deal of attention has been paid recently by scholars to the intersection of politics and culture over time and to demonstrating the importance of the cultural dimension in the panorama of national strategies. This has been part of an attempt to gather evidence on the vitality of this pairing throughout history since it has always been present implicitly as a practice.

During the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, European ambassadors used to convey, alongside their political interests, the image of the grand seigneur of knowledge and the arts, one that enhanced their prestige as “cultured gentlemen” and consequently the branding of their respective countries. 

By the middle of the 19th century, the professionalisation of the diplomatic service had put an end to the appointment of “men of letters” acting as diplomats on the ground and brought about a kind of shift that had moved diplomacy to being an expression of national identity and of public reflection within international dialogue. 

Cultural cooperation also took on a new importance in the sense that we can see it today: it was no longer a matter of limited dialogue between high-ranking intellectuals, politicians, and members of the elite, but instead was an expression of national identity aimed at an international public.

As time passed, the cultural dimension became the guarantee of confidence and reliability within intergovernmental relations and offered a parallel track to traditional diplomacy, with its warmth, depth, and intensity engendering close bonds and strong communication.  

In the 2000s, cultural diplomacy saw its first appearance in the academic curriculum and as a core value of policymakers. However, some uncertainty and lack of clarity remained on the way the notion is used, what its practice involves, why it is important, and how it has been described by eminent scholars in recent works. 

As the third millennium moves forward, there has been a real investment in public diplomacy and the domain of art and culture. Governments invest time, energy, and resources in optimising the power of culture as an ingredient in their country’s success. This specific power of culture was coined by US political scientist Joseph Nye in 1991 when he talked of the “soft power” that nations can exert, defined as the capacity to influence, attract, and build trust with others through a wide range of cultural activities.  

However, each government has to decide how it wishes to be seen by the rest of the world and how it wishes to engage in an arena that is increasingly complicated and crowded with information, reflection, and projection. 

The importance of cultural relations as a vital tool of diplomacy is now recognised at the supra-national level. In 2016, the European Commission published a report on international cultural relations, for example, with the aim of supporting culture as an engine for sustainable social and economic development and promoting cultural and intercultural dialogue as a way of building peace in the minds of people. 


MYSTERIOUS EGYPT: The image of Egypt is perceived as an important point of reference in the development of national identity in the Western world, though this has been complex and involved many factors. 

According to traveller Richard White, Egypt occupies a special location in-between historical and geographic regions, Africa and Asia, and East and West. As a result, the country seems to be “everybody’s past,” he wrote.

Popular tales about Egypt and its history, especially ones recalling eternal love, the quest for immortality, the perfect life, and justice all over the world, have touched people’s spirits worldwide and reflected their innermost desires. What is sometimes called “Egyptomania” today is used to express these longings in a visual way through art and architecture, including objects such as obelisks, sphinxes, and pyramids, and through other expressions like clothing and jewelry. 

The term is a combination of the Greek words Egypto (Egypt) and mania (madness or fury) and refers to the widespread enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian civilisation. There was already a kind of magical fascination with it among the ancient Greeks, as is reflected in Herodotus’ Histories written in the 5th century BCE and the Bibliotheca Historica written by Diodorus Siculus in the early 1st century BCE.

In 31 BCE, the Roman Emperor Augustus conquered Egypt and Egyptomania arrived in Rome. A few years later, Caius Cestius, a Roman high official, erected a pyramid-shaped tomb (18-12 BCE), and the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) visited Egypt himself in 130 CE and built an Egyptian temple in Antinopolis in memory of Antinous, who was venerated as Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld.

While interest in Egypt was widespread very early in history, exploration of the country began relatively late. The Danish traveller Frederic Norden ventured as far as the First Cataract of the Nile in 1737 and wrote important notes about his journey, and the English-born churchman Richard Pococke was among the first to deliver firsthand information about Egypt in 1743.

Interest in Egypt was thus already high in 1798 when the French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and commissioned the monumental scientific work called the Description de l’Égypte, which began appearing in Paris in 1809 and led to a new burst of Egyptomania. 

Impetus was added in 1822 after the French scientist Jean-François Champollion succeeded in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs using the so-called Rosetta Stone that Napoleon’s troops had found in 1799. This was the beginning of scientific Egyptology.

Artists like the Englishman John Martin specialised in paintings that evoked the sublime, and he used Egypt in 1823 to display the emotion and drama of the Biblical narratives in visual terms, portraying it in an apocalyptic light. Martin included Egyptian monuments in his painting of the Seventh Plague of Egypt, which illustrates Moses calling down a plague upon the ancient Egyptians and their pharaoh. 

In Egyptomania, Martin found a rich and new vein of the sublime by combining it with images from Egyptian history. Prints of the Seventh Plague of Egypt were widely circulated and became very well-known at the time.

In the early years of the 19th century, Egyptomania pervaded the Western world, and many other artists, writers, and composers also used ancient Egyptian themes. Scientific expeditions, and enterprising individuals such as the Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni, brought back objects for new museum collections, while artists like David Roberts and early photographers revealed modern Egypt to the world. 

International exhibitions, beginning with London’s Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, also fostered Egyptomania by presenting reproductions of ancient Egyptian buildings and exhibiting Egyptian artifacts. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the erection of ancient Egyptian obelisks in London (1878) and New York (1881) contributed to another peak of Egyptomania in the 1870s and 1880s.


EGYPT AND THE WORLD: Egyptomania also spread across the rest of the world. 

In St Petersburg in Russia, the gateway of the Tsarskoe Selo Palace exemplifies the Egyptian Revival style as it was inspired by the Temple of Khonsu in the design of architect Adam Menelaws. The iron gate and cast iron columns of the gates were covered with hieroglyphs and shaped like an ancient Egyptian pylon. 

The power of ancient Egyptian symbolism was also used to allay fears of new urban projects, like the use of pylon and obelisk motifs in the construction of suspension bridges. Cemeteries such as Highgate in London, built in 1839, were inspired by ancient Egypt’s time-defying symbols, being decorated with pylon gateways and temple-shaped mausolea.

Lotus friezes and decorative objects using hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian motifs were designed. Jewelry sported scarabs, cartouches, and sphinxes, and china services bore Egyptian symbols.

The French actress Sarah Bernhardt played Cleopatra in 1890 as a traditional seductress, while a story by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1892 helped to popularise the figure of the evil reanimated mummy. Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, created for the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1871, was neither the first nor the last ancient Egypt-based opera. 

With the beginning of the third millennium, and as Egypt has become better understood, designers have aspired to greater historical accuracy and painters have rendered ancient Egyptian monuments more faithfully. The tales, myths, legends, and mysterious reliefs of ancient Egypt have remained popular and have continued to arouse curiosity. 

Throughout the 19th century, culture and politics were closely associated in the rivalry of the Great Powers of the time, particularly in the colonial context. However, following the end of  World War I, the notion of culture came to be understood as a means to pursue ideological competition, a trend that increasingly became central in international politics.

* The writer is member of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee and a researcher at the French National Research Centre CNRS-Sorbonne University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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