Revolutionizing Egyptology: The sociopolitical changes in Egypt and their impact on Egyptology

The first open forum topic on the website of the Hellenic Society for the Study of Ancient Egypt (EEMAA) revolves around an article by Dr. Nikolaos Lazaridis (CSU Sacramento) and contributions by Ms. Marwa Helmy (KU Leuven) on the impact of the Revolution of January 25 in Egypt on Egyptology. The article is entitled "Revolutionizing Egyptology: The sociopolitical changes in Egypt and their impact on Egyptology".

Revolutionizing Egyptology:
The sociopolitical changes in Egypt and their impact on Egyptology

Nikolaos Lazaridis
Assistant Professor of Ancient History, California State University, Sacramento

with contributions by
Marwa Helmy
PhD candidate in Egyptian Archaeology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

As we speak, several countries in the Middle East are witnessing ongoing protests, both peaceful and violent, against the existing political regimes (1). These surging movements revolve around a hope for radical change, kindled a few months ago by the first examples in Tunisia and Egypt, in which cases the regimes were wholly or partially toppled.

There is surely no need to recount the details of the Egyptian 25 January revolution, whose events we had the opportunity to follow minute by minute. Although modern in its every manifestation, the revolution materialized involving symbolically and literally Egypt’s celebrated cultural heritage: it functioned as the main stage for this revolution as the Cairo Museum and its gardens in Tahrir square featured in most snapshots of the demonstrations and also featured in this revolution as several of its sites, such as Tell el-Daba, Saqqara, Dahshur and the Cairo Museum itself, were targeted by bands of looters and were defended by locals.

With these events in mind, we are addressing today two main questions: (a) How are Egyptian antiquities and Egyptology being impacted by the ongoing developments?, and (b) How can Egyptology respond best to the changes brought about by these developments?

How are Egyptian antiquities and Egyptology, as a discipline, being impacted by the ongoing political developments?

The first, most obvious and direct impact these developments had on the Egyptian cultural heritage and Egyptology relates to the aforementioned successful or unsuccessful attempts at looting archaeological sites and their storehouses. A full account of artifacts that have been stolen and retrieved since the beginning of the protests in Tahrir has not yet been officially announced, since inspectors and archaeological missions are still assessing the loss (2). Whatever the exact number of these artifacts is, the situation is very disquieting. Egyptologists have relived through daily reports and photos their worst nightmare: the looting of sites under excavation or survey, the disappearance of already, or not yet, catalogued artifacts, as well as the stress of leaving the site after the end of the season without knowing whether it will remain undisturbed until the team returns. Hence Egyptologists around the world, most of which had to cancel their missions in Egypt due to security issues, faced the frustrating dilemma of cheering for the potential changes in Egyptian society or fearing these changes, as no one can guarantee what will happen to the sites until a new regime comes to power. Although the antiquities market has been warned for coming across these newly looted Egyptian artifacts (3), the fear remains that eventually some of these artifacts may find their way to private collections.

Regardless of whether the attempts at looting and selling Egyptian artifacts have been successful or not, Egyptologists are, on the one hand, concerned with the unethical targeting of archaeological sites, exploited as potential sources for personal profit, but on the other hand, are happy to see that this unethical attitude is not adopted by most of the locals who instead of partaking in the looting considered these attempts criminal and hence, in more than one instances, tried to protect the sites.

The second direct impact these developments had on Egyptian cultural heritage and Egyptology relates to the turmoil in the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which was targeted due to its evidently inefficient response, by leaving sites and museums at the mercy of looters, as well as to its political association with Mubarak’s regime. Briefly, the results of this were: a) the resignation and immediate (within 27 days) reappointment of Dr. Zahi Hawass as the SCA’s Secretary General (4), b) the redesign of the SCA as a more political entity, turned now into an independent ministry, c) the ongoing physical and online protests by SCA’s employees against its Management (5), and d) the ongoing publication of scandals involving SCA members (6).

In the face of these developments Egyptology awaits to see how the new SCA arrangements will affect the way it manages the cultural heritage, as well as their own work relationship. Egyptologists are worried about the degree of the SCA’s corruption and mismanagement, glimpses at which they get with the accusations published in the Egyptian media. Although our job is not to point fingers, we are concerned about the way in, and degree to, which SCA’s association with the old regime and its notable flaws has until now been affecting its management of the Egyptian heritage.

In addition to these direct impacts, the study and management of Egyptian cultural heritage are also influenced by new sentiments and initiatives that the revolution has inspired. The most noteworthy of these is the general sentiment that with the fall of the regime Egypt returns to the Egyptians, meaning that now Egyptians feel more in control of their life and land, which were previously run mainly by the army and the police, and hence this sentiment dictates that Egyptians should care for their land and be proud of their national history and identity, while they should also not allow other people, that is, foreigners or unelected Egyptians, to run things on their behalf. This new national sentiment has been circulating through the now far less oppressed public media, as well as in thousands of individual messages sent out online or in print by Egyptians who have been on the side of the protesters. This has resulted not only in the unstoppable criticism of the old regime and its ways, but more importantly in actual initiatives, such as the circulation of proposed reforms in all areas of public life including the management of cultural heritage (7), as well as the voluntary protection of targeted archaeological sites. Given that this sentiment may very possibly prevail and be supported by the new regime, Egyptologists should use this as a unique opportunity to reconsider some issues that either until now have been taken for granted or have been disregarded as insignificant or irrelevant.

How can Egyptology benefit from the changes brought about by these developments?

Firstly, the recent looting attempts make us reconsider the security issue in archaeological work. What we can learn from this is that there is not enough security in the sites, mainly due to the lack of funding and appropriate training, and that instead the security depends to a great extent on the decisions of the local police. Hence when the police withdrew its forces as a reaction to the revolution, criminals stepped in the exposed sites and used the opportunity.

One way to respond to this is by expanding on the already existing SCA regulations. For instance, the SCA is currently requiring foreign archaeological missions to pay for the site’s security (consisting of unarmed ghafeers along with armed policemen), along with the SCA inspectors who must accompany them. Perhaps the SCA could redirect part of the funding reserved for its inspectors towards increasing the number of security guards all year around, even when the missions are not working on the site. However, even if this change is practically feasible, in some cases, such as the case of desert sites far away from a village or a town, security guards cannot stay permanently on site, and therefore even if their number increases, the sites will still be partially exposed to the looters’ greedy plans. Thus, the sites need the help of the local communities, who in most cases are present all year around and can monitor them better.

In order to make such local communities take an active interest in the sites, Egyptologists need to reach out to them, and try to involve them in their archaeological work. This outreach efforts can be substantiated by having missions stay a little longer on site, after they finish their seasonal work, and invite representatives of the communities, such as the omdas, school teachers, and state officials, to a tour of the site, explaining to them the importance their work holds not only for the welfare and identity of the communities themselves, but also of the nation as a whole.

The actualization of such an outreach effort, especially in the case of foreign missions, greatly depends on how familiar the Egyptologists on site are with modern Egyptian culture, its norms and conventions, including the Arabic language or information about how these communities function. If one browses through the Egyptological undergraduate and graduate programs outside of Egypt, one is struck by the almost complete absence of requirements in Arabic language and of courses on modern Egyptian society and culture. As a result, such programs breed new Egyptologists who, when they eventually visit Egypt for research or fieldwork, find themselves considerably alienated from the modern society and culture, although in some cases the ancient heritage remains still a living part of its everyday life. Not to mention that this alienation preserves intentionally or unintentionally the fragrance of romantic Orientalism long past, which since colonial times pollutes the air Egyptology breathes in.

Another striking absence from most Egyptological curricula is that of any courses on antiquities management that directly relate to the aforementioned security issues. Egyptology has to educate its offspring, as well as the general public, on the dangers of looting, the function of international antiquities markets, and of course the consequent scientific uselessness of the fruits of illicit artifact marketing which have been abducted out of their original, useful archaeological context.

Moving on to the developments with the SCA, this gives us the opportunity to rethink the relationship of Egyptology with the SCA. A disturbing feature of this relationship is the relative lack of trust between the two sides; inspectors are sent out to escort archaeological missions, playing in most cases the role of the police on site, mistrusting especially non-Egyptian archaeological missions rather than working with them and using the fieldwork experience to improve the way in which the site and its artifacts are being protected. To change this, Egyptologists must try to cooperate with SCA inspectors, get them more involved in their work, and when they see inspectors are abusing their position, report them directly to the SCA.

The increasing number of calls for transparency and a healthy government in Egypt should inspire Egyptologists to initiate a sincere dialogue with the SCA, in order to wipe out any previous traces of mistrust and abuse from both sides. Such traces include, on the one hand, examples of arrogant attitude of foreign missions towards the SCA, when instead of trying to cooperate with the inspectors who escort them on site, they are happy to be left as much as possible alone, encouraging the inspectors’ negligence. On the other hand, the SCA often abuses its power it holds over being the sole responsible for granting archaeological permits and thus any criticism towards SCA’s actions is greatly discouraged (9).

The troubled and rather insincere relationship between foreign archaeological missions and the SCA has deeper roots in the overall relationship between Egyptian and foreign Egyptology. There is, indeed, an apparent gap between Egyptian and foreign Egyptological scholarship, due to differences in the educational system and the subsequent level of research. Unfortunately, this gap manifests itself in various academic contexts, such as international conferences or publications, in which often the foreign part of Egyptology appears to be looking down upon Egyptian scholars, initiating a vicious circle of alternating signs of intimidation, mistrust, and arrogance from both sides. Needless to say, this gap can be bridged through more sincere cooperation between the two sides, and especially with the academically privileged foreign side including more Egyptian colleagues in their work and programs. What we propose here is a boost in the cooperation between Egyptian and foreign universities, with active exchange programs and the incorporation of a balanced number of trainees from both sides in fieldwork. In other words, foreign missions should be inviting a number of Egyptian students in their fieldwork, and vice versa.

The bridging of this gap in Egyptology will clear the air in scholarly circles and strengthen ties between Egyptian and foreign universities. Foreign students will have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the modern Egyptian context of the ancient heritage they are studying. By combining this strengthening of ties with the addition of courses on modern Egypt in foreign Egyptological curricula, the new Egyptologists will be able to examine one more stratum of cultural context that may be influencing their interpretation of the sites and their material. They will be able to use Ethnography and Cultural Anthropology in their studies, scientific approaches long disregarded in Egyptological work (possibly due to the aforementioned alienation of Egyptology from modern Egypt). By making Egyptologists aware of the role modern Egypt plays in the survival and interpretation of ancient Egyptian antiquities, this bridging of the gap in Egyptology will deliver the final blow on the already half broken, due to the works of Historicism and Postmodernism, mirror of Orientalism and cultural exceptionalism of Ancient Egypt. Moreover, it will certainly improve the relationship between Egyptology and the SCA and hence contribute to the safer and more efficient management of Egypt’s ancient heritage.

As Egypt slowly returns into the hands of the Egyptians, Egyptology should be there to assure this new Egypt that the growth of our discipline does not revolve around political agendas, memories of a colonial past, or current ethnic differences, but is rather solidly based upon our universal and sincere care for studying, understanding, and preserving its rich ancient heritage.


(1) This essay is based on a paper we delivered at the recent conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) in May 2011 in Berkeley, CA.

(2) A rough estimation is given in K. Weeks, “Can Egypt protect its ancient monuments?”, Newsweek May 01, 2011, available at

(3) See S. Quirke et al. “Egyptologists speak out”, March 7, 2011, available at

(4) On March 3, 2011 and March 30, 2011 respectively. See D. Vergano, “Zahi Hawass confirms resignation”, USA Today, March 5, 2011, available at

(5) See N. el-Aref, “Antiquities ministry employees protest against pay”, Ahram Online, February 10, 2011, available at

(6) See, for instance, N. el-Aref, “Accusation against minister of antiquities referred to prosecutor-general”, Ahram Online, February 22, 2011, available at

(7) See, for example, the Facebook group “Reform of the Ministry of Antiquities & Heritage Initiative”.

(8) See

(9) See, for instance, the reaction to the recent article by P. der Manuelian, “Of pyramids and protesters”, Newsweek, April 10, 2011, by L. Rothfield, published on his personal blog on April 24, 2011 (available at