One of the more interesting items I’ve indexed lately is a title covering the study of ancient Egypt. As one who has long had an interest in archaeology as well as history, I naturally welcome the opportunity for indexing assignments that enable me to indulge my tastes in either area. Yet exposure to stimulating subject matter, gratifying though that can be, is not the only result I have experienced due to my exposure to the Egypt of a long bygone era. Sometimes it takes a well-timed book project to illustrate in a forceful way just how much events halfway around the world can matter to an indexer located in a relatively peaceful community in southern Arizona.
Think of ancient Egypt, and you automatically conjure up images of pharaohs and pyramids. If you’re fairly knowledgeable, you might even mull over the artifacts that have been discovered or perhaps still await discovery in such places as the Valley of the Kings or the environs of ancient Thebes.
Such images stand in sharp contrast to the media images coming from modern Egypt, a nation in turmoil rapidly heading toward an uncertain future. Ancient Egypt and modern Egypt seem worlds apart. Sure, the ancient pharaohs had their own wars and power struggles. All the same, there couldn’t possibly be much connection the two Egypts. Or could there be?
Recent events strongly suggest that modern Egypt has everything to do with ancient Egypt — not always in a positive way. Clashes are now taking place not only between pro- and anti-Morsi factions but between museum conservationists — those who would preserve antiquities for posterity — and those for whom outrage over either real or imagined injustices in the present trumps all else, including preserving ancient history. The result? Grave robbers, once seen as posing the greatest threat to those artifacts that might teach scholars about the ancient past, have now been supplanted by museum vandals. When it comes to both theft and destruction, it seems that the latter have more than matched the former in ferocity. Already, the Malawi Museum has felt the full force of the above-described destruction as an angry mob unleashed its fury on artifacts, some of which had once belonged to the very rulers covered in the book I had just indexed! Other museums, if not yet targeted, are nonetheless at risk.
While no injuries were reported at the above-mentioned museum, recent events there are nonetheless most troubling. Imagine that you had a time machine that would enable you to learn new things about a distant past long shrouded in mystery. Now imagine that a band of criminals was about to break into your storehouse, bent on destroying the time machine that could provide the one link to the past. Would you greet such a prospect with indifference, or would you do all you could to protect your time machine?
The artifacts housed at the museum are the property of the Egyptian people, protested an archaeologist at the scene. Not a single archaeologist — or indexer, for that matter — would disagree with that statement. Moreover, it’s not just the people of Egypt who have a stake in what becomes of ancient artifacts. It’s scholars from around the world. After all, people of other nations have long had an interest in studying ancient Egypt. Among them, Napoleon stands out for his role in discovering the Rosetta Stone.
Given the unstable and volatile political situation in Egypt, the present government, along with its police and military forces, seems powerless to protect museums and their irreplaceable property. In the absence of sufficient government-sponsored protection, such protection may have to come from international agencies — those not only engaging in right thinking, like the above-mentioned archaeologist, but equipped to enforce that right thinking with adequate security measures. Is there anything those of us not residing in Egypt can do?
Having read of recent developments, I asked a local Egypt scholar if the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition (UAEE) could take any action. In reply, he stated that direct action was unlikely to come from the local organization. The larger organization, representing both the UAEE and other groups of Egypt scholars around the nation, is the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). ARCE, he stated, was better equipped to take action on this issue that would have an impact.
Egypt scholars and archaeologists anxiously await further developments….