World Egyptologists meet in the Netherlands

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

The 13th International Congress of Egyptologists opened in the Netherlands on Sunday to discuss the future of ancient Egypt.

Egyptologists meet in the Netherlands


Scholars, archaeologists, Egyptologists, heritage aficionados, history enthusiasts and students from around the globe gathered in the heart of Leiden in the Netherlands on Sunday, as the much-awaited 13th International Congress of Egyptologists (ICE) commenced with grandeur and scholarly fervour. 

The prestigious event promises to be a captivating journey through the mysteries and marvels of ancient Egypt as well as its future.

The opening ceremony was held at the renowned Leiden municipal concert hall the Stadsgehoorzaal, which is a monumental venue in the historic centre that was built in 1891 and has a neo-Renaissance façade. 

It was testimony to the importance of Egyptology as an ever-evolving field of study. Dignitaries, renowned Egyptologists, and esteemed academics from various disciplines graced the occasion, reaffirming the significance of understanding Egypt’s enduring legacy.

The opening addresses were by organising committee President Olaf Kaper, President of the International Association of Egyptologists Willeke Wendrich, the mayor of Leiden, and the Egyptian Ambassador to the Netherlands Hatem Abdel-Kader. They were followed by keynote lectures by distinguished guests the former Egyptian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri, and scholar Ola Al-Aguizi. 

In his welcoming address, Kaper expressed his excitement at the historic gathering, adding that he hoped the congress would achieve its goals and inspire and ignite a new passion for Egyptology.

He remarked that Leiden has been home to Egyptology since 1818, when the first collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities entered the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. The world’s first professor of archaeology, Museum Director Caspar Reuvens, thus ensured that Leiden grew to be a national and international centre for the study of ancient Egypt.

From 1910 onwards, Egyptology has been taught at Leiden University, and the field has continued to flourish until today. Part of the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, the Egyptology Department teaches all phases of the ancient Egyptian language and culture. Annual field-work projects in Egypt are organised in Saqqara, Luxor, and the Dakhla Oasis. The Leiden Papyrologisch Instituut was founded in 1935, with its emphasis on Demotic legal material, in combination with Greek texts.

The Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten (Near East) was established as an independent foundation in 1939, aiming to provide essential services for the study of the ancient Near East and Egypt. The institute was integrated into the Faculty of Humanities in 2018.

From 6 to 11 August, 850 scholars, archaeologists, heritage experts, Egyptologists and students from 32 countries including Egypt, are gathering for the 13th ICE to share knowledge about Egyptology and the secrets of the ancient Egyptian civilisation, considered the oldest and one of the greatest civilisations in the world. 

They will also engage in discussions that aim to shed light on various aspects of this fascinating civilisation in an attempt to meet the theme of this round of the congress launched under the title of “The Future of Ancient Egypt”.

According to the 13th ICE’s website, the congress aims to reflect current scholarship and open a dialogue on Egyptology in a wider sense. It is first and foremost a platform to present the latest research in Egyptology, being the showcase of present-day and future research within its many branches.

A collection of 400 scientific research papers is being presented at the ICE’s 13th session, covering climate and climate change in antiquity, digital Egyptology, Egyptology and interdisciplinary research, Egyptology and museology, Egyptology and the dissemination of research, the historiography of Egyptology, the illegal trade in ancient Egyptian artefacts, inclusion and diversity in Egyptology, the international reception of ancient Egypt, and protecting ancient Egyptian heritage.

The congress is organised by Egyptologists form Leiden University, the Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO), the Leiden Papyrological Institute and the Leiden National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden) under the auspices of the International Association of Egyptologists (IAE).

OPENING: The first day of the congress featured keynote addresses from distinguished Egyptologists, setting the stage for the days to come. 

In his capacity as president of the 12th ICE, Khaled El-Enany, former Egyptian minister of tourism and antiquities, delivered a speech entitled “Looking Back to the 12th ICE” at the opening ceremony, reminding the audience of this very successful round. El-Enany also talked about the two volumes of the proceedings of the 12th ICE published by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in collaboration with the SCA. 

The two-volume publication presents a selection of 137 contributions encompassing the themes of the congress. El-Enany thanked all the staff who had worked to organise the 12th ICE and those who had edited and published the proceedings edited by Burt Kasparian and Al-Aguizy and introduced by El-Enany.

Waziri delved into the latest discoveries and restoration work carried out by the SCA in previous years in his speech to the Congress, as well as efforts made to develop services to visitors in an attempt to enhance the experience of archaeological sites and museums in Egypt. He also summarised Egypt’s efforts to recover antiquities that had been stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country.

As the congress enters full swing, the participants will be engaged in parallel sessions, each focusing on different aspects of Egyptology. Topics range from recent archaeological findings and historical linguistics to the influence of ancient Egyptian art and religion on neighbouring cultures. 

One of the highlights is an open forum on the future of ancient Egypt. This will address a number of matters related to the discipline of Egyptology that pertain to the mission of the congress. 

One main question is the place of ancient Egypt in contemporary society and academia, and if it will be relevant in the future. Participants can chime in on the question of whether there is a need for further exploration. They will engage in discussion to answer questions such as the contributions of Egyptological research in the study of ancient history, the knowledge of ancient Egypt entrenched in popular images of the culture, characterised by royalty, pyramids, and mystery, whether Egyptological research should be restricted to the study of objects in museum collections that favour monumental and aesthetically pleasing objects, and to what extent is research limited to the excavations of single tombs and temples.

 What should be the priorities for the advancement of the field of Egyptology as a discipline in its own right, and in relation to other disciplines? Does contemporary Egyptology take its goals and its place in the wider scholarly community seriously? Are attempts at knowledge production of Ancient Egypt that reveal or dispose of the discipline’s colonial backgrounds necessary, hypocritical, or futile? 

Among other sessions are those on “Egyptology in its Third Century” by James Allen from Brown University in the US, who provides a historical look at the science of Egyptology and suggests where it might be headed in the next hundred years of research. 

NEW FINDINGS: Entitled “What is New in the Tomb of Tutankhamun,” Mamdouh Al-Damati, a former minister of antiquities, gave a lecture indicating that it is possible that the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun could contain hidden chambers and perhaps even the resting place of a lost king or queen.

 Although the tomb itself is the most remarkable find, packed with more than 5,000 different items, it is at the same time unusually small for a royal burial and may originally have been the tomb of a family member that had been reused for the burial of the young king after his untimely and sudden death. 

“This is what led UK Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves to believe that the tomb was originally for queen Nefertiti,” Al-Damati said, adding that Reeves had presented many indications that he had relied on in a publication in 2015. “I agree with Reeves, like others, that the tomb was not originally for King Tutankhamun, but I do not think that it was necessarily for queen Nefertiti, even though this would be wonderful,” Al-Damati pointed out. 

He believes that the tomb may have been originally made for one of the ladies of the royal family of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. 

During his lecture, Al-Damati said that the latter hypothesis was the reason for conducting a large number of radar surveys inside and outside the tomb of Tutankhamun in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019. Different forms of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) were used to scan the area around Tutankhamun’s tomb and identify a previously unknown corridor-like space a few metres from the burial chamber. 

“This result clearly indicates the existence of something on the other side of the north wall of the burial chamber, but the scans are unclear anomalies until now. This lecture will present the scanning results and also outline the plans for re-examining the site of the tomb again, until we reach a final and accurate result,” he said.

“Tutankhamun’s Tomb and Virtual Reality” by Pasquale Barile from the University of Bologna in Italy showed that Virtual Reality could break down invisible barriers and allow the user to “physically” enter reconstructed environments and visit tombs or archaeological sites for conservation, restoration, or logistical reasons.

She said that until recently watching a high-quality 3D film was considered to be a futuristic experience, but the passivity of the experience had proved to be a significant limitation. As a result, greater interaction was introduced through 360° vision, where the viewer, wearing special glasses, can choose what to look at. However, she said the limit of being unable to interact with the surrounding environment remained a constant. 

“Virtual Reality eliminates these obstacles, allowing the user to ‘physically’ enter the reconstructed environments,” she said. Several archaeological sites, although significant, are not known to the general public. Numerous places cannot be visited for conservation, restoration, or logistical reasons. Virtual reality allows us to break down these invisible barriers, with the tomb of Tutankhamun, KV62, being a case in point. 

The impossibility of seeing the tomb with the funerary items inside it is a significant limitation for visitors, she said, a limit that virtual reality has now managed to erase. Thanks to 3D modelling software and an in-depth study of British archaeologist Howard Carter’s archive, we have created a reconstruction of the tomb of Tutankhamun as it appeared at the time of its discovery, she added. The interactive environment offers visitors a wealth of information on the funerary objects and the tomb. 

“All these features are a significant step forward in scientific popularisation. The reconstructions in virtual reality make it possible to facilitate the usability of archaeological sites, using simple and impactful language,” Barile said, adding that virtual reality has the advantage of speaking the language of the new generations, stimulating curiosity about the past. 

“Teaching Ancient Egypt in Museums” by Osama Abdel-Meguid, head of the Children’s Centre for Civilisation and Creativity in Cairo, was another notable paper that highlighted the experience of museums in teaching children by providing them with an integrated framework of knowledge about ancient Egypt’s contributions to art and science.

Museums can inspire children towards a better future for themselves and their country by creating interaction between them and elements of ancient Egypt’s cultural and natural heritage through educational experiences. 

The Children’s Museum in Cairo aims to provide a rich historical experience for children through various educational means in a simplified manner, to create a state of connection between them and their history and introduce them to the greatness of the ancient Egyptian civilisation based on the idea of direct interaction between children and artifacts, he said.

Jennifer Cromwell from Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK focused in her lecture on the rise of the study of the modern reception of ancient Egypt during the 21st century, with recent conferences and volumes examining ancient Egypt in science fiction, heavy metal music, Victorian literature, architecture, and videogames, among other topics.

She pointed out that board games had not received much attention, and it was also notable that, unlike video games, board games have been overlooked in volumes on public history. Board games have several features that other forms of popular culture do not have, she said, including their materiality, collaborative, as well as competitive play, and the ability for players to reinterpret and modify the rules. As such, they present exciting opportunities to engage players with different aspects of Egyptian history and culture. 

Cromwell presented the preliminary results of the project “Playing Ancient Egypt”, which explores how these games can be used within an educational setting from primary to tertiary to support both teaching and learning. Particular focus was on the games “Cleopatra and the Society of Architects” (2020), “Imhotep: Builder of Egypt” (2016), “Egizia: Shifting Sands” (2019), and “Nefertiti” (2008). 

The ICE, one of the world’s most important scientific conferences in the field of Egyptology, is held every four years in a different country to discuss the latest findings from Egyptological research. Egypt hosted the 12th round in November 2019, as well as the first round in 1976, the fifth in 1988, and the eighth in 2000.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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