A century after Tutankhamun, the Egyptians want to step out of the shadows
In the iconic photo, Brit Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and in the shadows…
In the iconic photo, Brit Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and an Egyptian stands in the shadows.
This snapshot from the beginning of the 20th century illustrates well how two centuries of Egyptology looked like according to the experts: on the one hand the western scientist who discovered treasures alone; on the other hand, small Egyptian hands, absent from the story of the unveiling of the mysteries of the pharaohs.
Egyptology, which was born in the colonial era, created “structural inequalities” that “resonate today,” emphasizes Christina Riggs, an Egyptologist at the University of Durham.
But as the world celebrates the bicentennial of the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Frenchman Jean-François Champollion and the centenary of Carter’s discovery of the tomb of the child pharaoh Tutankhamun, voices are being raised in Egypt to highlight the Egyptian contribution to these explorations .
way of reclaiming their history, just like preserving the heritage in their country or returning treasures considered “stolen” by westerners.
The Egyptians who excavated “did all the work” but they “were forgotten,” laments Abdel Hamid Daramalli, excavator in Qurna (south), where he says he was born on a scribe’s tomb.
“It is as if no one had tried to understand ancient Egypt before,” agrees Champollion, who announced on September 27, 1822 that he had deciphered the Rosetta Stone, researcher Heba Abdel Gawad, specialist in Egyptian heritage, to.
In the famous photo, “the unnamed Egyptian could be Hussein Abou Awad or Hussein Ahmed Saïd,” explains Ms. Riggs.
These two men, along with Ahmed Gerigar and Gad Hassan, were the mainstays of Carter’s team for nearly a decade, but no expert today can name the faces photographed.
“The Egyptians remained in the shadows, anonymous and transparent in the way they told their story,” the historian sums up.
However, one name emerged, that of Abdel Rassoul.
First Hussein, who as a child is said to have unknowingly discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb on November 4, 1922 on the west bank of the Nile in the necropolis of Thebes (today Luxor) in Qurna.
Versions vary: he stumbled over it, his donkey stumbled over it, or he knocked over a water jar exposing a rock.
Local mythology also states that in 1871 his ancestors Ahmed and Mohammed discovered the 50 mummies of Deir el-Bahari, including those of Ramses II.
Hussein’s grandnephew Sayed Abdel Rassoul, who was found by AFP in Qurna, bursts out laughing at the stories.
Does it “really make sense” to think that a child with a jug of water could make such a discovery? he asks. However, “some kept archives, but we didn’t,” he says.
However, Christina Riggs recalls that on the rare occasions when a discovery has been attributed to Egyptians, it was “children” and “tomb robbers” when they weren’t their “beasts”.
“Archaeology is above all geography,” explains Ms. Abdel Gawad. And in this area, she says, the local farmers have a trump card: “They know the terrain and its relief” and can “use the sediment layers to determine whether there are buried objects”.
Thus the excavation work was passed down from generation to generation at Qurna, where the Abdel Rassoul live, and at Qift, north of Luxor, where the residents were trained in archeology by the British William Flinders Petrie in the 1880s.
One of them was the great-grandfather of Mostafa Abdo Sadek. In the early 20th century he settled 600 kilometers north of Qift to excavate the necropolis of Saqqara near the Pyramids of Giza.
He, his children and grandchildren have spent a century helping to unravel the mysteries of dozens of tombs, says great-grandson Saqqara, himself a renowned archaeologist.
But they “were hurt,” Mostafa Abdo Sadek continues, waving photos of his ancestors whose names are no longer in the history books.
– “Children of Tutankhamun” –
“The Egyptians have been erased from the historical record because of the cultural occupation of Egypt over the past 200 years,” says Monica Hanna, dean of the Aswan College of Archaeology.
We have to consider “the historical and social context of Egypt under British occupation,” Nuance Fatma Keshk, lecturer at the Institute of Oriental Archeology in Cairo.
In the early 20th century, against the backdrop of growing anti-colonialism, the pharaonic legacy served to strike the nationalist chord. The Kulturkampf becomes political.
“We are the children of Tutankhamen,” sings the diva Mounira al-Mahdiyya in 1922 – the year of the discovery of the tomb of the child pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings and the year of Egypt’s independence.
That same year, through campaigns that mocked foreigners’ stranglehold on the national heritage, Cairo managed to end the colonial partition system that guaranteed westerners half of the pieces unearthed in exchange for funding excavations.
But then ancient Egypt was separated from modern Egypt and from there “considered a universal civilization” in a world then “summing up in the West,” analyzes Ms. Abdel Gawad.
Tutankhamun remains in Egypt, but the country “is losing the archives of the excavations,” an essential tool for any university publication, in favor of the Carter private collection, Ms. Hanna reports. “We were still colonized. They left us the objects but robbed us of our ability to produce knowledge about Tutankhamun.”
And when Howard Carter’s niece decided to donate these archives shortly after the British archaeologist’s death in 1939, she chose Oxford University rather than Egypt.
Oxford, which is currently hosting the exhibition ‘Tutankhamun: Dig into the Archives’ to highlight ‘the Egyptians often forgotten by archaeological teams’.
A mummy in the house
In Qurna, Ahmed Abdel Rady, 73, recalls that as a child he found the head of a mummy in a niche of the house installed in one of the tombs of the Thebes necropolis where he grew up.
My mother, he told AFP, broke down in tears and begged me to treat “this queen” with respect. However, he continues, she stored onions and garlic bulbs in a granite sarcophagus.
Today the village is just a ruin where, between graves and temples, the Colossi of Memnon, built more than 3,400 years ago, seem to watch over the dead and the living.
In 1998, bulldozers landed to demolish the small mud and brick homes of the 10,000 residents, beneath which lay graves mostly dating from 1500-1200 BC. come from.
Clashes with police kill four residents who refuse to be evicted. Because they are closely linked to the pharaonic heritage, the people of Qurna have protested so fiercely against the demolition of their village, says Abdel Hamid Daramalli.
But the fight for history is also at the expense of the Egyptians, despite criticism of Unesco at the time. “It had to be done” to protect the heritage, stresses then Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass.
In 2008 almost all of the remaining houses were demolished and its residents were resettled far from their livelihoods around the archaeological sites and the lands of their livestock.
According to Monica Hanna, it was their reputation as “grave robbers” that prompted authorities to transform Luxor into an “open-air museum.”
Sayed Abdel Rassoul has suffered since family members were caught selling archaeological pieces under the cloak long ago.
“The French, the British, they all stole,” says his nephew Ahmed. “And who even told the people of Qurna that they could make money selling Pharaonic coins?”
“Spoils of war”
Countless antiquities have come from Egypt over the centuries.
Some, like the Luxor Obelisk in Paris or the Debod Temple in Madrid, were offered to friendly countries by the Egyptian government.
Others were sent to European museums as part of the colonial sharing system.
And hundreds of thousands are being smuggled into “private collections around the world,” says Ms. Abdel Gawad.
This is the new crusade of former Minister Hawass, who launched a petition for the return of the Rosetta Stone and Dendera Zodiac in October. He has already collected 78,000 signatures and promises a new petition for the bust of Nefertiti. Because these three pieces have been controversial for decades.
The Rosetta Stone, a stele found in 196 B.C. Engraved in ancient Greek, Demotic Egyptian and hieroglyphics, dating from 1800 BC, has been on display in the British Museum in London since 1802 with the inscription ‘Taken from Egypt by the British Army in 1801’.
A spokesman for the British Museum assures AFP that it is “a diplomatic gift”. For Ms. Abdel Gawad it is “spoils of war”.
Germany claims that the bust of Nefertiti ended up in the Neues Museum in Berlin during the colonial division. For Mr. Hawass, this sculpture, dated 1340 B.C. and brought back by German archaeologists in 1912, “brought illegally out of Egypt”.
The zodiac of Dendera finally reached Paris when the prefect Sébastien Louis Saulnier sent a team in 1820 to unseal this bas-relief from a temple in southern Egypt with explosives.
More than 2.5 meters wide and high, this depiction of the heavens has hung on a ceiling in the Louvre since 1922, while a plaster copy replaces it in Dendera. “It’s a crime,” accuses Ms. Hanna.
What was acceptable then, she adds, “is no longer compatible with 21st-century ethics.”
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