Egypt in exile

interior with the sculptures of the pharaohs
(Photo: Envato Elements)
interior with the sculptures of the pharaohs

Tarek Osman

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

To reflect on how a civilization thought about the divine is to look it into the eyes, attempting to delve into its soul.

Those who attempted that deep look before often philosophized (to put their understandings into relatable analogies), sometimes romanticized (to conceive the civilization’s soul with their hearts as well as with their minds), and in some cases even eroticized (bringing their fantasies of what is secular into realms the civilization had reserved for what is sacred).اضافة اعلان

In Egypt, as in the most elevated understandings of true humanity, the secular and sacred merged, two gates that lead onto two essences of a whole that is one. But that journey into Egyptian thought – and soul – is for another time. Today’s article concerns how those who had philosophized, romanticized, and eroticized often took ancient Egypt away from its milieu into a historical and geographical exile.

The geographical exile was in exporting artifacts to the West, with Paris, London, Rome, and Washington DC, the prime destinations. For the exporters, the artifacts were spirited away from the mud and sand into which they had sunk for centuries, to be displayed with glamour in humanity’s new centers of power and glory, and crucially of knowledge. In the minds of many, the exporting out of Egypt was saving the remains of ancient Egypt from ignorance and bringing them to where they would be looked after, and perhaps more importantly, understood.

But this entailed a historical exile. Obelisks in the West, say in Paris or Washington, brought with them subtle meanings, for those who know how to look. They certainly added glamour to the milieus into which they were placed. But these were not their milieus. Meanings do not survive intact out of the contexts into which they were put. Plots do not carry their true weight if they were told, as opposed to unfold in a book.

Ancient Egypt is a book with many chapters feeding into each other. It is a book whose pages are to be read on the walls and ceilings of temples and tombs all over the land. The artifacts, statues, and obelisks that were siphoned away were given new lives where they were taken. But they were pages torn off from that book.

The torn off pages are missed. But given the tremendous scale of the civilization and what it has left us in Egypt – the weighty erudition in the book - the torn off pages do not cut off the book’s narrative.

Away from the country, the torn off pages remain full of informing and enchanting knowledge, but they become individualized items in a civilization that was whole and that directed toward wholeness.

One can stand in front of the obelisk in Paris’s Place de la Concorde. The observer admires, and the observed awes; and for those like Goethe who look to immerse themselves, who look to participate, the obelisk will inspire. But the obelisk was not made to stand alone; it was part of a bigger construct, put in the midst of a larger scene. Placed at the Place de la Concorde, the obelisk stands in dignity, retaining the knowledge that ancient architects and authors placed on it. Yet, it stands separated from the narrative it was designed and written to be a part of.

This separateness dictated historical exile, which in turn severed the meanings entailed in the features of ancient Egypt (its temples, tombs, and artifacts) from the flow of history on that land.
Meanings do not survive intact out of the contexts into which they were put. Plots do not carry their true weight if they were told, as opposed to unfold in a book.
The separateness was often intentional – certainly it was needed. The Egyptologists who had opened the heavy gates of the ancient civilization after centuries of heavy closure and rust accumulation, understandably saw what they had discovered as utterly disconnected from modern Egypt. For them, they were resuscitating the civilization from the silent recesses of history. The differences between what was in the distant past and what is in contemporary Egypt was so vast, that, the modern Egyptologists reckoned, fully separate the ancient civilization from the present culture.

This led to the culmination of geographic and historic exile - viewing ancient Egypt as not really Egyptian in the modern view of today’s Egypt, but rather as a global civilization, a period of advanced knowledge that happened to have existed on that land, and that was now totally gone. In this view, the remains of that civilization are disconnected, in almost everything, from today’s Egypt. And so, with this understanding of ancient Egypt, the Concorde obelisk could stand well alone in Paris away from its home in Luxor – because in this understanding, modern day Luxor is no longer that obelisk’s home.

Ancient Egyptology could not have conceived such thought, such separation between old and new. Early students of ancient Egypt, such as Pythagoras and Plato, realized that there is a continuous flow of knowledge that is a fundamental feature – and meaning – not only of ancient Egypt, but of the knowledge that ancient Egypt was a representation of. To effect such a separation and see periods and products of that civilization as individualized, disconnected from their milieu, was a colossal failure in understanding the civilization and the knowledge entailed in it.

But like any failure, it is corrected – for there indeed were modern Egyptologists, in and out of Egypt, who grasped and respected the continuity, the wholeness of the civilization. For them, ancient and modern Egypt are false constructs; there is only one Egypt, whose historical flow and geo-political coherence are but ever-present features.

Tarek Osman is an author, essayist, and broadcaster.

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