Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt and Its Antiquities

CairoMuseumAs the political turmoil in Egypt engulfed President Mubarak and brought about his ouster, a number of media stories surfaced about the desecration and looting of the country’s priceless artifacts.  Although some destruction did take place at the Cairo Museum, it appears that the police and the personal appeals of antiquities head Zahi Hawass helped to minimize the damage.

While the modern significance of Egypt’s role in the Middle East is important, many people closely link Egypt with such cultural icons as pyramids, sarcophagi, mummies, ushabti and scarabs.  Indeed, beginning at least in the 18th century, scholars, plunderers and tourists have been drawn to these treasures.

Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt during 1798-1801 promoted this attraction.  A spectacular outcome of the French incursion was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the great decipherment tool for hieroglyphics.  The large stone eventually made its way to the British Museum, which later created a world-class department of Egyptology.

There were various archeological expeditions to Egypt throughout the 19th century, searching down river near Cairo as well as up river at Thebes, Luxor and Karnak.  When American baseball entrepreneur A.G. Spalding brought players on a round-the-world promotional tour, they visited Cairo and even played a game at the pyramids in 1889.

Among the growing number of guidebooks that began to surface was one entitled Cairo of To-Day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and its Environs, published in 1899.  The book includes typical information:   getting to Cairo, accommodations, health issues, visiting sites, and several now-amusing advertisements.

The author says of a hotel located at the Pyramids, Mena House, that “it must be admitted, if I may be permitted to act as advocatus diaboli, that if the Pyramids had to be vulgarised they could not have been vulgarised better (or less) by the English capitalist who is responsible for the undertaking.”

Apparently, any such “vulgarization” did not deter J.R. Packard.  I have his copy of this guidebook with several personal annotations, including one on July 25, 1900, noting that he was “waiting at ‘Mena House Hotel’…during a heavy rain storm which lasted 12 minutes, accompanied by thunder and lightning.”  I can visualize this tourist poised to visit the great monuments.

My two brushes with ancient Egyptian history came in New York and in Cairo.  In 1979, I was one of the throngs who stood in long lines to see the magnificent King Tutankhamen artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This exhibition helped to make “King Tut” a household name in the United States and archeologist Howard Carter, who unearthed these gems, a minor celebrity. 

In the mid-1980s, I journeyed to Egypt, where I saw the three pyramids and the Great Sphinx at Giza (unfortunately, I passed up the opportunity to ride a camel there).   I also visited the incredible but overcrowded and clearly underfunded Cairo Museum.  Thousands of historical pieces were everywhere but, alas, often poorly preserved.

Presumably, greater preservation techniques have been employed since.  Also, it can be hoped that any further upheaval in Egypt will spare these great artifacts.  For although the entire world enjoys them, such treasures are part of the Egyptian people’s heritage.

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