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In Moving Mummies, Egypt Celebrates Its Pre-Islamic Heritage

Egypt has just turned a mummy move into a state event. Twenty-two mummies — 18 pharoahs and four queens — each in its own motorized capsule, and moving from their old museum to a new one that had just opened, were driven through the streets of Cairo, and the international media captured the event for broadcasts around the world. They were being taken to a new museum, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat, where they will now be displayed. A report on the move is here: “Ancient Egyptian mummies paraded through Cairo on way to new museum,” Reuters, April 4, 2021:

A grand parade conveyed 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies in special capsules across the capital Cairo on Saturday to a new museum home where they can be displayed in greater splendor.

The convoy transported 18 kings and four queens, mostly from the New Kingdom, from the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat, about 5km (3 miles) to the south-east.

Authorities shut down roads along the Nile for the elaborate ceremony, designed to drum up interest in Egypt’s rich collections of antiquities when tourism has almost entirely stalled because of COVID-19 related restrictions.

The elaborate move, covered by the foreign media, was a way to promote Egypt’s pharaonic past to the world, and especially to those who might be enticed by such a spectacle to visit Egypt as tourists. Tourism has collapsed because of COVID-19, which has so greatly restricted international travel, and this has taken a terrific toll on Egypt’s economy. The mummy parade constitutes the opening salvo in a campaign to win back tourists now that the pandemic seems to be receding.

As the royal mummies arrived at the museum, which was officially inaugurated on Saturday, cannons fired a 21-gun salute. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stood by as the mummies filed past on vehicles bedecked with golden pharaonic motifs….

We chose the Civilization Museum because we want, for the first time, to display the mummies in a civilized manner, an educated manner, and not for amusement as they were in the Egyptian Museum,” Hawass said.

Archaeologists discovered the mummies in two batches at the complex of mortuary temples of Deir Al Bahari in Luxor and at the nearby Valley of the Kings from 1871….

Who were those archeologists who unearthed the temples and the tombs? They were not Egyptians, but Europeans, English, French and German. The most famous one was Howard Carter, the Englishman who discovered and excavated the Tomb of Tutankhamen. Egyptians themselves, as Muslims, had little interest in the tombs, except insofar as they could, as grave-robbers, loot them of whatever of value they contained. For the tombs were pre-Islamic, from the Jahiliyya, or Time of Ignorance, and thus, for devout Muslims, unworthy of respect or study. For those devout Muslims, the pyramids and the pharaohs were of little intrinsic interest. But in the 20th century, impoverished Egyptians, hoping to improve their economic wellbeing, realized that the pyramids and pharaohs were what drew the free-spending foreign tourists to Egypt, and that made them worth preserving, exhibiting in museums, and advertising worldwide as tourist attractions.

“By doing it like this, with great pomp and circumstance, the mummies are getting their due,” said Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo.

“These are the kings of Egypt, these are the pharaohs. And so, it is a way of showing respect.”

The “mummies are getting their due,” the “kings of Egypt are being shown respect” by the government not only to swell the state coffers with tourist dollars, but to promote the narrative of an Egypt that honors and studies and is proud of its long history prior to the arrival of the Arabs bearing Islam. Among the crowds in Cairo, whether allowed to be onlookers or watching the parade of mummies on television, there were unlikely to be many members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Why should they care about those non-Muslim rulers from the Time of Ignorance? Everything, for the MB, as for most devout Muslims, begins with the appearance of Muhammad in the 7th century. That is when history starts. Egypt’s cultural memory can be seen as an endless mental tug of war between Islam, as represented by Al-Azhar University, and Egyptian nationalism, as represented by the Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The very name of the new museum conveys the message that the pharaohs and their pyramids are an integral part of “Egyptian civilization,” and not merely an episode in the pre-Islamic past to be made available to foreign tourists for the money they bring in, but otherwise to be ignored.

The El-Sisi regime in Cairo understands that promoting an interest, and national pride, in Ancient Egypt, helps to undermine the centrality of Islam in the Egyptian narrative; the history of Ancient Egypt is a weapon in the war against the Islam-besotted members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be fascinating to see whether, and if so how, Egyptian schoolbooks could be rewritten to give respectful attention to the pre-Islamic period of the nation’s existence.

And it would also be interesting to know if Egyptian students will be taught about Taha Hussein, Egypt’s leading intellectual and writer in the 20th century. It was in the 1920s that Hussein, a leader in the literary movement called the Egyptian Renaissance, wrote on Pre-Islamic Poetry, in which he argued that parts of the Qur’an were inauthentic. This caused a great outcry, and aroused the intense anger and hostility of the religious scholars at Al Azhar and many other traditionalists; Hussein was accused of having insulted Islam. However, the public prosecutor stated that what Taha Hussein had said was the opinion of an academic researcher and no legal action was taken against him, although he lost his post at Cairo University in 1931. His book was banned but was republished the next year with slight modifications under the title On Pre-Islamic Literature (1927).

Taha Hussein was an intellectual of the Egyptian Renaissance and a proponent of the ideology of Egyptian nationalism along with what he called Pharaonism, believing that Egyptian civilization was diametrically opposed to Arab civilization, and that Egypt would only progress by reclaiming its ancient pre-Islamic roots. He was thus more than simply a secularist; he saw Egypt as being held back as long as it remained wedded to Islam, instead of returning to its own true, non-Arab sources in the pre-Islamic period of its existence.

Pharaonism is the name Taha Hussein gave to his belief that Egypt had taken a wrong turn when the Arabs arrived, bearing Islam, and Egyptians began to think of themselves as part of the Arab people, which Taha Hussein claimed was untrue. Egyptians might speak Arabic, and many were Muslim (Hussein was careful to include the Copts as part of the “Egyptian people”) but in his view, this did not make them Arabs.

Many Egyptians in the 1920s and 1930s, following Taha Hussein, did not accept the notion that Egypt was a part of the Arab lands, nor would they acknowledge that the Egyptian people were part of the Arab nation.

As one of the most prominent Egyptian nationalists and anti-Arabists , as well as Egypt’s most notable writer of the 20th century, Taha Hussein had a great influence among Egyptian intellectuals. In 1931 he wrote:

Pharaonism is deeply rooted in the spirits of the Egyptians. It will remain so, and it must continue and become stronger. The Egyptian is Pharaonic before being Arab. Egypt must not be asked to deny its Pharaonism because that would mean: Egypt, destroy your Sphinx and your pyramids, forget who you are and follow us! Do not ask of Egypt more than it can offer. Egypt will never become part of some Arab unity, whether the capital [of this unity] were to be Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad.

Taha Hussein thought of Egypt as belonging not to the Arab culture but to the culture of the Mediterranean, sharing it with France, Italy, and Greece. He thought Egyptians should look back to ancient Egypt for the pre-Islamic sources of their country’s culture, and to Europeans, not Arabs, to guide their future development. Egypt had been turned aside from its proper cultural path by the arrival of the Arabs and Islam; it needed now to turn to the “Mediterranean civilization,” to which it by right belonged, a civilization antithetical to that of the Muslim Arab states, for its openness to the world of the Mediterranean, its absence of supremacism, its refusal to submit blindly to the demands of authority.

The recent solemn parade of the mummies through the streets of Cairo has been described purely as a tourist advertisement. It was much more than that. It could only have been undertaken, with such pomp, by a regime hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and their exclusively Arab and Muslim interpretation of Egyptian identity. It would never have been mounted during the brief presidency of Mohamed Morsi. It was not only a spectacular show to attract the world’s tourists, but a religious, political, and cultural statement as well. In Egypt, what the Muslims dismiss as belonging to the Time of Ignorance, the Jahiliyya, General El-Sisi, Zahi Hawass, and other secularists were determined to celebrate Ancient Egypt, and that pre-Islamic period of High Egyptian Civilization that gave rise to some of the ancient world’s most important wonders.

None of the world’s media mentioned the symbolic significance of this parade, of how the attention paid to Ancient Egypt by the Egyptians themselves is an expression of Egyptian nationalism, as distinct from an “Arab and Islamic identity” that in Egypt reached its high point during the brief reign of Mohamed Morsi. No one mentioned Taha Hussein, or Pharaonism, or how he would have teased out the greater meaning of the Moving of the Mummies for his readers. Hussein would have been pleased with the parade, a sign that Egypt had survived both the disastrous pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the similar disaster of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and was now taking pride in the pre-Islamic past that Muslims have been taught not to revere but to despise.

It would be good if the study of Ancient Egypt were now to be given greater attention in the country’s schools. There is so much to add to the pupils’ store of knowledge, that would deepen their interest in Egypt Before Islam: the architectural achievement of the pyramids; the mysterious Sphinx that could only have been created before the arrival of Islam, for the faith prohibits statues — that prohibition explains why Ottoman Turkish troops felt justified in shooting off the Sphinx’s nose; the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, with their mummified pharaohs and their queens; the cosmogony of the ancient Egyptians; the roles of the Nile and the Mediterranean in Egyptian life; the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Champollion; and so much more which, if introduced into the state curriculum, will alarm the theologians at Al-Azhar, for knowledge of ancient Egypt will help to foster national pride in the pre-Islamic period that Islam dismisses.

The Egyptian government could do more than revise its schoolbooks to put more emphasis on the history of pre-Islamic Egypt. Having moved those mummies to the Museum of Egyptian Civilization, the government could proclaim that from now on there will be an annual celebration of a National History Month, beginning with a Day of Egyptian Civilization, in which the same mummies would again be moved in those motorized capsules, this time from the new museum to the old, and then back again. And that month would be devoted in the state schools to the study of Egypt right up to the year before the Arab conquerors came, bearing their “gift” of Islam. The ghost of Taha Hussein would be pleased.

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