“We don’t know everything about the ancient Egyptian civilisation, which lasted some 3,000 years,” says Fatema Keshk, an archaeologist, who followed her passion to explore and learn more about ancient Egypt by studying Egyptology at Cairo University, graduating in 2006.
“There has been a lot that has been discovered and excavated that not many people know about,” she added.
Having worked for over 15 years at historic sites all over Egypt, Keshk realised that not many people today, apart from those living in rural areas whose lifestyles may share important features with those of their ancestors, learn enough about the ways in which lives today are in continuity with those of the ancient Egyptians.
“I would not argue that we are living in a way that is directly continuous with those of our ancient ancestors, since clearly who we are today is the outcome of centuries of diverse cultural inputs. However, there are still some things that are similar to those 5,000 years ago,” she said.
In addition to some forms of agriculture and the form of some rural houses, there are other things that vary from the way people cooked to the way they thought about beauty. “After all, we are still living on the banks of the Nile, and we are sharing the same geography and the same environment — more or less anyway despite global warming,” she added.
In Keshk’s view, the history curriculum at school does not do enough to introduce people today to the lifestyles of the ancient Egyptians. It is also a pity that when people do search on the Internet for material on the ancient Egyptians, they inevitably land on non-Egyptian content produced in English or French or some other language.
To rectify this situation, in which there is a lack of Internet material in Arabic on Pharaonic history, Keshk decided to step in. This month, she launched her online Egyptology bil-Arabi (Egyptology in Arabic) series of online lectures on YouTube designed to help people to learn more about the lifestyles of the ancient Egyptians.
“Pharaonic Egypt is not just about monuments — it is also about people’s lifestyles,” she argued. “We need to do more to learn about the lifestyles of the ancient Egyptians, and this was the main message I wanted to get across online.”
Her first lecture, which looked at art in Pharaonic Egypt, received a good deal of attention. “It was about an hour and was followed by 20 minutes of questions and answers. The audience that joined online was also very diverse in terms of ages and backgrounds,” she said.
When the lecture was uploaded on YouTube for further viewers, it got over 150 views in the first 24 hours. “Given that this was our launch and we did not do extensive promotion, this indicates quite a bit of interest,” Keshk said.
Another sign of interest in learning more about the lifestyles of Pharaonic times rather than just the monuments was the long list of topics that viewers of the first session of Egyptology bil-Arabi offered for the next session. “They said they wanted to learn more about art, religion, language and law,” she said. ` is now expecting a wider viewership.
But Egyptology bil-Arabi is only one of the ways Keshk has used technology to reach out with information about the way Egyptians lived in ancient times. Through the months of partial lockdown that came with the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Keshk used Facebook to prompt the interest of people in their heritage in general, Pharaonic and then Coptic and Islamic.
Through her initiative the “Place and the People” which she launched a few years back to expand the amount of information on history available in Arabic on the Internet, Keshk carried out photography-based campaigns in which she asked people to send in photographs of some historic site and recall memories or associations linked to it. The response was very impressive, she said.
“We got people sending in pictures from many historic sites, and one very interesting photograph came from the window of a young woman who lives not far from the Pyramids. She sent a picture that she took of the Pyramids from the window of her bedroom and talked about the affinity she has with them,” Keshk said.
“This was not just with the Pyramids as a grand historic site, but also as things she sees first thing in the morning when she opens her window,” she added.
PHOTOGRAPHS: The initiative also asked people to send in photographs of doors, and here too the results were very impressive.
There were “absolutely beautiful pictures from Egypt and elsewhere and particularly lovely photographs of Nubian doors with really pretty drawings on them. They reflect the mix of continuity and evolution of some of the forms of life we have been hanging on to,” she said.
For Keshk, the most stunning photographs were of museums. “There were huge numbers of photographs, with many of them coming from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. But one particularly amazing photograph came from a man who sent in a picture from the Museum of Luxor,” she said.
Mohamed Farouk, a worker at archaeological excavation sites, sent in a photograph of his father standing in front of the Luxor Museum. Like his grandfather and great-grandfather, Farouk’s father also worked at excavation sites. This particular photograph of the father, who passed away quite recently, was during excavation work on the Luxor Temple cachette of ancient Egyptian mummies.
The photograph was an opportunity to reflect on “the hands that excavated a civilisation,” in other words, the Egyptian workmen who have been working at excavation sites since William Flinders Petrie, a British archaeologist, started his excavations in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century with the support of the British occupation forces who had taken over Egypt in 1882.
Farouk’s family, Keshk said, was one of those in Upper Egypt that have been in this work for generations. The Farouks are Quftis, coming from the city of Quft, but there have been many similar families in other cities in Upper and Lower Egypt alike.
One of the things that Keshk said she was keen to look at in her work on the “Place and the People” was the experience of those who had worked on the excavations, whether archaeologists or workmen. By creating more communication between excavators and people, it will be possible to help people who live near excavation sites to talk to excavators and learn more about their work, not only about the excavations, but also about the lives of the ancient Egyptians.
In a children’s book she put out in cooperation with the British Museum, called Hekayat Shotob (The Story of Shotob), a village near Assiut in Upper Egypt where she was working with an excavation team, Keshk tells the story of a little girl who is surprised to learn from excavators working on a historic site that her own village is a place where the ancient Egyptians lived over 2,000 years ago.
Their houses had also been similar to the ones that the villagers of Shotob live in today. They also used pottery to cook in and used ceramic vessels to save water and store food, in the same way that villagers do today.
PERCEPTIONS: Keshk is convinced that it is only by overcoming the limited perceptions that many people have of ancient Egyptian and other sites in Egypt, not seeing them any longer as only sites for tourism, that people will be able to appreciate the true significance of these places.
For this reason, she dedicated the first few years of her career working for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Centre for the Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage to help create a database of historic sites in Egypt.
Today, alongside her active online campaigning that aims to share her passion for learning and sharing information about the lifestyles of the ancient Egyptians and her excavation work at many sites, Keshk is also working as a guest lecturer in several of the many new university departments that have been set up to teach Egyptology in Egypt.
“There is definitely a growing interest. The interest was already expanding when I joined back in 2002, but now it is even more,” she said.
Keshk attributes this to the wider accessibility of information that people can find online on the history of Egypt, inspiring them to want to learn more. “Information technology has an important role to play in this,” she said.
There is also “the fact that the state has been opening a lot more museums all over the country, and this is certainly helping to attract the attention of more people,” she said. She herself was not very interested in the history taught in schoolbooks at school, but she later went on to do an MA and PhD on the development of houses in Pharaonic Egypt.
“What interested me was the evolution of the functions of the houses, since this revealed a lot about the evolution of the norms of life back then,” Keshk said, hoping to pass on more of her enthusiasm about the lives of our ancestors to others in the years to come through the new tools supplied by the Internet.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly