Humanity begins with things.—Michel SerreS
The invention of the artifact—embedded as it was within a broad network
of institutions—enabled European archaeologists and curators, adminis-
trators and casual tourists to make informed statements about ancient
Egypt. Critically, these were also claims on modern Egypt. Likewise, as
Egyptian elites began to take the lessons of Egyptology to heart, they
developed a powerful language for articulating a new sense of Egyptian
identity encompassing experiences and aspirations that were profoundly
personal and also collective. We cannot miss the ironies of the process
of cultural translation and adaptation which allowed the same group of
cultural artifacts, narratives, and images to mean such different things to
different actors: Pharaonic Egypt was no less a source for contesting colo-
nial hegemony than it had been for legitimating it. As we saw in the work
of Tahtawi and ‘Ali Mubarak, cultural Pharaonism was central to Egyptian
responses to growing European power in the Middle East even before di-
rect colonial rule. In the autobiographies and fictions of nationalist intel-
lectuals growing up during the British occupation of Egypt (1882–1956),
the significance of ancient Egypt expanded even further: to know ancient
Egypt and, more important, to feel it were crucial within a developing
nationalist sensibility. With the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, these
sensibilities became more than assertions, they began to appear as forms
of common sense.
Even as one recognizes the forces weaving aesthetic, historical, and po-
litical claims on ancient Egypt into one another, one needs to question the
assumption that this process was natural and necessary, or that different
modes of Pharaonist discourse were identical or even always compatible.
This is yet another ambiguity I have attempted to indicate by returning to
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