We have spent the last couple of weeks traveling through Egypt visiting the great monuments built by Egyptian pharaohs a few thousand years ago. The fact that stood out the most for us was that almost always the tomb or temple was ‘rediscovered’ by a European or American. We started wondering why these monuments were forgotten in time and why there were no Egyptian rulers or civilians who made an attempt to find these great treasures. So we started actively looking for clues to figure this out.
We could get some historical perspective from our guidebook, nuggets from the Egyptologists we met and some from the internet. As has been common throughout history, conquerors in Egypt have destroyed or modified the conquered traditions. Egyptian kingdoms destroyed their predecessors’ structures. For example, King Thutmose III did his best to destroy the complete historical record of the Queen Hatshepsut (who is his step-mother and aunt) by chiseling out all her images. Romans, believing they are the best civilization in the world, caused great destruction to the Egyptian monuments – burning down old buildings or defacing many figures.
After Christianity waged a war against pagan religions and won in 4th century AD, many great Egyptian monuments lost their significance. They were completely neglected and fell into ruins. In time, many were covered by sand or submerged in water by shifting of the Nile River. There was no effort made in the Christian and then Muslim era to find or protect these treasures. One of the Muslim sultans even went about destroying one of the pyramids at Giza but left little more than a dent after a few months of work.
It fell upon the European surveyors or archaeologists to make a concentrated effort to revive interest in these monuments. Many of the best finds were by sheer coincidence – somebody found a hole in the ground or a stray animal ran into something – but it was mostly the Europeans digging and documenting these artifacts.
Our own experience in Egypt leads us to believe that if not for the tourism potential these sites would have been destroyed or still in ruins. When the artificial lake Nasser was created with the construction of a new dam over the Nile River in 1950s, a great many additional monuments were in danger of being submerged under water. Fortunately, UNESCO intervened. They literally moved the important monuments stone by stone and reassembled them on higher ground.
There is a general sense of disdain and neglect about these monuments. Giza city is already crawling up to the Great Pyramids complex and the area near the entrance is unbelievably filthy.
In the Egyptian museum in Cairo, the guards ignore kids playing with old artifacts or folks climbing on statues for pictures. At many monuments, you can bribe the guards to take pictures when it is prohibited or access areas that are off-limits since they are in need of preservation. So we wonder why the Egyptians don’t care about their own splendid traditions.
One possible explanation may be that you need a society to have post-religious views to appreciate artifacts that don’t conform to the current religious practices. Islam forbids idol worship and paganism. Most of the Egyptian kings pronounced themselves as Pharaohs (or Gods) and the monuments were built to promote that view. So you have to look at these monuments in a non-religious context to cherish them. May be Islamic Egypt is not there yet. But I know that in many parts of Hindu India, the attitude towards the ancient Hindu temples is not any different. So does religion explain this problem completely?
If not, then is it simply a question of resources and priorities? When you are struggling to put food on the table, do you have time to care about a monument however magnificent it is? The Egyptian economy and especially the tourist industry is in shambles after the revolution in 2011. If the government can barely sustain itself, would it have the resources to fund project to protect a falling monument? Almost all the current archaeological projects we saw in Egypt are sponsored by foreign aid. Maybe this is more of a developing vs. developed economies’ issue. For a long time, developed countries have shown great interest in and have dedicated resources towards preservation of cultural heritage sites throughout the world.
At least they are no incidences in recent Egyptian history like the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan. Though, I recently read that Islamists are calling for the destruction of the Great Pyramids. I sincerely hope that things get better not worse for Egypt and all its great monuments. It will be really sad if the world loses the remains of this great chapter in human history…