Reading The rape of the Nile, quite a fascinating book. It's rather surprising how recent these events were — we are talking about the mid-19th century, what, about 150 years ago? In prospective, the history of Egypt and its glorious monuments have been around for much longer than that.
reality of the past
What really bothers me, however, is how the people at those days were treating these ancient artifacts back then — just like the horror propaganda I have been told about China's treasure being looted and trashed by barbarians of both foreign and domestic origin (and admittedly much more by the domestic ones), the same theme of sadness was playing in Egypt, over and over and over again. Pyramids were used for quarrying building materials, and artifacts were given as a token to influential whoever the ruler was trying to please. At the end of the day, no one was looking at them as arts of unreplaceable value. They were free gifts left over by ancient anonymous — cheap as dirt, and only meaningful to one when it could bring glory, fame, profit, or the things s/he wants at that given moment. There was no perpetual value, no inherited value, certainly no emotional value worth preservation, and much less of responsible value by making them available for the generations to come → consume and dispose them now, by me, period.
"unfairness", in a hindsight
But then, if you feel it is clear now to see how terrible those deeds were, I kept wondering how to justify this view when I'm really reading all these from a distant present, or to say looking from a rear view mirror. I hold a different prospective than those in the book at the time. You can call it a progress of civilization as we are now understanding more of its history (since no one was even able to read the Egyptian words till the Rosetta stone, and even that took a few decades before it was deciphered), thus its importance and value. But does it state that it's not fair to those people we call barbarians these days since they were really operating in a disadvantage comparing to what we know today? Well, then why being fair is a measure of good or bad anyway? who said it must be fair? If you throw these out, then how does one look at so called history and opinionate it one way or the other? After all, each holds his own life experience as the only foundation he could relate and refer to. So it becomes a completly random chance that someone's reference happens to match the one that later gets realized and is labelled as a human progress, which then leads them standing out as the pioneer and a great mind, while in reality, who the heck know what it is going to be tomorrow!?
right of the advanced
Further, when western museums were the buyer who drove all the tomb
robbers and antique traders, the sad reality back then was that local
folks didn't give a fxxx of all the mummies and monuments. So now fast
forward 150 years, it is just not reasonable
to blame them for collecting them in the name of
steal. Their argument is valid — the antiques did have a
better chance to be preserved and to survive, and they did have a
better vision (if can be called enlightened) of the future than
others. But this leads to another dilemma.
Does it then mean that a so called advanced group or society should be in position to take over things from a less advanced group so to maximize the overall benefits of, what, society? human race? history?... I don't find a word to describe this. But you see what I'm driving towards right? This argument definitely feels, not right morally, but right factually. Let's say we let them do that, and the future proves they were right ← both of these are pretty SIGNIFICANT assumptions. But does it mean that the less advanced group will be locked in their inferior position/class forever? If I enjoy the benefit of taking over others' stuff, what incentive do I have to educate them and lift them up out of their existence so to compete with me!? Isn't this the exact thought any privileged subject has and wish to maintain, forever!? So the elites rule us all, because even you are the privileged one, chances are you are not the single top guy of the food chain, then by this reasoning it derives that you will also be ruled, crashed, bullied, and wasted, maybe just with a slight less degree of destruction, but the idea is the same. Well, then why do you want to promote that!?
history === myth
How confusing! I think this whole mess of arguments really lead to the problem that there is no compass in my life these days and the line between right and wrong is completly blurred (or just disappeared). I lost faith in the future, has serious contempt of the present, and has a shaky feeling of the past. Santayana warned that " Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." But what you learned from history isn't really a truth or even fact, but a hindsight of judgement which itself could just be a complete wrong in the next few decades because of the prospective shift. Then, what could one really learn from so called history, if anything?
马未都说："历史没有真相，只残存一个道理". Now even this seems over optimistic. There isn't even a 道理, just a story, a legend, a myth. So to this point, history doesn't really matter much, nor it has any value in anything. Its left over artifacts are valuable, when they have a market (which means someone wants it for $$). If no one wants it, oh well, they are just a whole pile of dirt regardless what they are named, mummy, gold, or whatever.
I am quoting the "epilogue" chapter of the book, which I feel draw a clear picture of paradox of history that barbarians whom we so disgust today, who looted the Niles with selfish motivation ONLY, in the end became the driving force, though brutal and even uncivilized judged by these days' standars, created a repository of treasure, even unintentionally, so we living in this century still have some to look at and to admire. If left to the rightful owner of them (the locals, but who said they have the right?), many we see today would have been long gone, consumed as a trivial heating bundle in winter and supersititious medicine, whose usage and purpose we scorn even more I suppose, comparing to their dark fate of being moved from their origin to a foreign location as monument, as cash machine, as a ladder to fame and fortune for some, but in the end, as an inheritage of mankind.
Over a hundred and fifty years have passed since Giovanni Belzoni shook the dust of Alexandria off his feed for the last time. But many familiar scenes would greet his eyes if he were to return to the Nile today. The pyramids still tower above the floodplain, while the Sphinx crouches at their feed surrounded by curious tourists. The sun still rises in a gray dawn, lights up the vast spaces of the desert, and highlights the fertile green and cultivated land by the banks of the Nile. The shimmering heat of midday embraces the heavy air of temple and royal bomb in the same way that it has for centuries. White-sailed river vessels retrace the course taken by Belzoni's ramshackle boats and pass the scenes of this greatest exploits. There is a sense of timelessness about the Nile that transcends the passage of years or the stirring events of history. The visitor to the Nile can smell the same smells as the Ancient Egyptians, of hot dust and damp reeds, of the river itself as it flows smoothly toward the north. Every year, like clockwork, the Nile comes down in flood, ensuring the fertility of crops and perpetuating agricultural practices that are often little modified from pharaonic times. One can almost sense that elusive feeling of equilibrium and ma′et, that sense of rightness so highly prized by the Ancient Egyptians as they identified with their unchanging environment.
Belzoni had come to the Nile at a time when the full extend of the glories of Ancient Egypt had just been revealed to the world for the first time. The coolections of Napoleon's savants had electrified the scholars of Europe and a craze for things Egyptian had swept the cultivated drawing rooms of European capitals. The Rosetta Stone had reached the British Museum; the Louvre in Paris had just unpacked its spoils from the Nile. A surge of nationalistic lust for the precious and exotic was filling these museums and those in other countries with all manner of curiosities and the finest artistic achievements of Western civilization. And Egyptian antiquities were at the top of the curators' shopping lists. Thus the scramble for Ancient Egypt began, a campaign of looting conducted in the name of diplomacy and leisured cultural inquiry, which soon degenerated into an orgy of destruction, greed, and outright profiteering. As in other parts of the world, archaeology began as treasure hunting and then slowly evolved into a scientific discipline armed with all the specialist methods and techniques of the twentieth-century fieldworker. But by the time the scientific archaeologist arrived, much of the Ancient Egypt was gone forever, devoured by the voracious maw of the treasure hunter, unscrupulous collection, or curious tourist.
Napoleon's mena were only human in their desire to collect Egyptian antiquities, for the urge to collect and posses is one of the more passionate of human desires. Time and time again the early archaeologist was overcome with a passion to excavate, loot, or just remove the past to another place, where he could caress it and contemplate its glories without the disturbing qualities of its original context. Soon European antionalism and the petty ambitions of dislomats and statesmen became involve in the collecting business, as many nations sought to acquire a fine repository of the most beautiful, exotic, and valuable manifestations of Ancient Egyptian civilization. It became fashionable to be knowledgeable about Ancient Egyptin all its nostalgic and fascinating glory. Egypt was the epitome of ancient civilization, that of a strong and powerful society that had oppressed the Israelities, suffered from the Mosaic plagues, and taken a conspicuous place in the established order of world history. Unfortunately, knowledge coincided with ownership and profit in many people's minds.
In a sense one cannnot blame the museum curator or collector of a century and a half ago for the attitudes that they possessed. Everywhere they looked they saw statuary and temples being broken up and tombs being looted for jewelry. In Egypt nothing was safe. But a papyrus carefully unrolled in the secluded comfort of the British Museum was safe from destruction, cushioned with the awesome security of the greates museum in the world. After all, as Wallis Budge pointedly remarked, a mummy displayed in the British Museum was very priuvileged compared with his cousins in the looted tombs of Thebes. No on could desecrate a British Museum mummy or tear it apart. The outrageous tactics of private purchase and surreptitious excavation in definance of authority were condoned in the comfortable certainty that they were the only practicable way to save Ancient Egypt from extinction. What need, asked many people, did the Egyptians have for their past? After all, the pasha's government was destroying and giving it away all the time. And the fellahin seemed to have no respected for tomb or temple or any identity with the Ancient Egyptians themselves, only in the value of their corpses. There was non of the local nationalistic sentiment that had stirred vigorous public outcry in Greece when Lord Elgin removed the marble friezes that bear his name in the British Museum from the portico of the Parthenon. The well-heeled museum collection and tourist of a century and a half ago was fully aware that the Ancient Egyptians themselves had helped themselves to the contents of royal tombs. They had viuolated their most sacred places and the royal sepulchers for gold and a guaranteed source of wealth that would enable them to meet life's day-to-to needs. The ancients had treated the past with a causal cynicism that had been inherited by their successors, a cynicism that was mathed with equal contempt by the nineteenth-century collector. It is a miracle that anything at all has survived for us to enjoy.
Without questin, however, much of Ancient Egypt's magnificent splendor was saved from oblivion by the aggressive policies of Wallis Budge and other — witness, to mention only a few instances, not only Belzoni's collections, but also the Papyrus of Ani, the best and most complete version the Book of the Dead, and the thousands of Coptic manuscripts in the Louvre and the British Museum. By displaying their acquisitions, the officials of major European museums, however unscrupulous their methods, made possible a heightened awareness of the need to learn about Ancient Egypt and to save it for proterity before it all vanished forever.
Fortunately, when one looks back over the history of Egyptology one views a landscape peopled by giants. Jean Francois Champollion and John Gardner Wikinson unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphs. August Mariette excavated for the Louvre and then became the first jealous guardian of Ancient Egypt for serious scholar and tourish alike. Flinders Petrie introduced modern excavation methods to the Nile. The genius of Champollion and the passionate vagor of Mariette resulted in the gradual creation of an organization designed to thwart destruction and inevitable oblivion. Egypt became the first Near Eastern country to possess a national museum, even if it began life as a ramshackle shed in a back garden in Cairo, and even if its contents were occasionally donated to influential visiting dignitaries. Gradually the diplomats turned from antiquities to political activities, while more and more people came to look rather than loot. Egypt itself became an interesting place to visit, with the great pyramids and temples as part of a backdrop for a thoroughly entertaining vacation.
In a sense, it was the tourist and the educated dilettante who saved Ancient Egypt. Egypt's first Antiquities Ordinance was promulgated in 1835 and was largely ignored by those it sourght to control, for there were no mechanisms or facilities to enforce it. Ironically, it was the looted antiquities in European museums that caused a rising tide of public opinion to react against the orgy of destruction. People had admired the fine statuary in the Louvre, felt that such fine achievements belonged to the world at large and that everyone had the right to enjoy them. There was a slow realization that fanatics like Mariette were correct, and that the flaboyant director of the Bulak Museum was right to offend the covetous Empress Eugenie with here imperious demands. Besides, tourism was good business for everyone: for the properity of foreign trade, for European political interests in the near East, for the Egyptians, and for the tourists themselves. How could there be any tourism if there were no temples, tombs, or museum collections for the visitor to admire?
The studied logic and efficient bureaucracy of Britical rule in Egypt finally created, albeit slowly, a change in public attitudes within Egypt itself. Amelia Edwards journeyed through Egypt at the beginning of a long period of relative political stability, when the Antiquities Service began to develop a network of guards and active intelligence agents employed to prevent illegal collecting and the further rape of Ancient Egypt. Of course, there were incidents of scandalous corruption and brazen tomb robbing, some of them associated with respectable museums, but the tilde of public attitude and archaelogical morality had turned imperceptibly in favor of preservation and scientific excavation. Even those who chose to paint their names on the great temples were publicly excoriated for their conspicuous sins. It became harder to remove antiquities from Egypt and more fashionable to consider the Cairo Museum as one of the foremost repositories for Ancient Egypt in the world, a museum soon to be staffed by Egyptians themselves.
The stolid facade of the British Empire fostered a risiging sense of nationalism in Egypt, ad elsewhere, a latent resentment of foreign rule and British imperialism, a greater identity with the long and fascinating kaleidoscope of history that the Egyptians could look back upon. This nationalism manifested itself in political events, which are familiar to us all, but also in an abhorrence of a "cultural imperialism" that chose to remove the choicest achievements of antiquity to foreign climates. The magnificient discovery of the undisturbed tomb of Tut-ankh-Amun in 1922 merely fueled the sentiment against foreign excavation and exploitation of Ancient Egypt, although Lord Carnarvon gave the royal tomb's contents to the Cairo Museum. By the 1920s foreign expeditions were rarely found in Egypt, for there were few rewards for well-financed museum expeditions that depends on rich finds to attract generous benefactors. A long drawn-out stand-off between the acquisitors of major foreign museums and the Egyptian Antiquities Service reflected a hardened attitude, one where sharing of a unique cultural heritage with other nations was morally unacceptable. Few scholars were able to dig in Egypt on the scale that archaeologists like Petrie had regarded as commonplace. It is only recent years that Egypt has opened its doors to foreign archaeologists again, this time on a carefully controlled scale.
But now the international climate for archaeology has changed, in a world that is ardently nationalist and increasingly jealous of its diverse cultural heritages. People are far more aware of enormous contribution that the discipline can make to the proper study of humankind. Today, they wealth of Ancient Egypt is spread through the museums of several continents. Mummy after mummy, sarcophagus after sarcophagus, statue after statue, museum storerooms and galleries, are filled with the dusty remains of Egyptian antiquity. Most were acquired by private collectors and then donated to the museums, or acquired in massive field seasons, supported by private donations, where often quantity was more important thant quality. The large expeditions and casual collecting forays of half a century ago have been replaced by an illegal antiquities traffic that feeds on the law of supply and demand and the avaricious acquisition policies of large museums and wealthy collectors. Journalist Karl Meyer has documented this nefarious trade with its long ancestry in the activities of Belzoni and his kind in The Plundered Past, a devastating indictment of the mechanics of the twentieth-century antiquities trade. Meyer describes public consciousness of the seriousness of hte problem as being at about "stage zero", for the importantce of archaeology and its significance to humankind is something that is theoretically easy to understand, has been rarely discussed at length in print, and is far harder to comprehend in practice. It is certainly almost impossible to persuade taxpayers to pay for archaeology when the thorny issue of limited resources and ordered priorities comes up.
The passion ofr collecting dies hard, especially in times of recession or mushrooming art prices. Nor does it perish in the face of attitudes like those of New York art dealer Andre Emmerich who was bold enough to say in public a few years ago that he thought the United States "more than any other [country] has a special claim to the arts of all mankind." We live in what are sometimes called enlightened times, but they can hardly be described as enlightened in terms of antiquity, as long as these sorts of attitudes pervade public thinking. Many archaeologists are wondering if there is a future for the past and some fear that Ancient Egypt is faced with total extinction. But let us take heart from the immortal and inspired words of the great Jean Francois Champollion:
Egypt is always herself, at all stages in her hitory, always great and powerful in art and enlightenment. Going backthrough the centuries, we see her always shining with the same brilliance, and the only thing we lack to satisfy our curiosity is a knowledge of the origin and growth of civilization itself.
As these pages have shown, at least something has been done to satisfy Champollion's, and our, curiosity.
— by Feng Xia