Posted by: Johan Normark | March 2, 2011

Orientalism is alive and kicking

The recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have led to a concern about the fate of the antiquities in these countries. Undoubtedly, most “Western” archaeologists have focused on the looting and destruction in Egypt. The reports from Libya indicate that their historical remains are less threatened by these activities than what happened in Egypt. However, among archaeologists I have not seen much concern about what could potentially happen to the antiquities of Libya if the situation gets worse than it is now.

There may be several reasons for this. I know fewer archaeologists with a connection to Libyan historical remains (I do know people with connections to Egyptian archaeology), the situation for reporters/archaeologists is worse in Libya than in Egypt, there are fewer sites to loot than in Egypt, etc. However, since the AAA apparently was more concerned about the situation for artifacts than for humans in Egypt there may actually be other (unintended) reasons going on here. Let’s take a postcolonial look at Derek Gregory’s study of Edward Said’s work on imaginative geographies. Said’s famous book Orientalism sets out to investigate the great divide between the Occident and the Orient. This divide relies on dichotomies (that ultimately affects the historical remains in each country as well). The occident is the same, rational, historical and masculine whereas the orient is the other, irrational, eternal and feminine.

Said takes us back to Napoleon’s short-lived invasion of Egypt. This invasion ultimately resulted in the book Description de l’Égypte. Through this book Egypt came to occupy a pivotal position in the geographical imaginary of postenlightenment Europe (much like Stephens and Catherwood’s books on the ancient Maya). Egypt was considered to be the cradle of civilization, part of the Old Testament, a political and commercial gateway to the Far East and Africa. Egypt became a liminal zone, it became an Other.

The Orientalist “surveys the Orient from above, with the aim of getting hold of the whole sprawling panorama before him” (p 316) As an example we can look at the frontispiece of Description de l’Égypte. This image “shows a view through the portal of a stylized temple on to the monumentalized landscape of ancient Egypt, from which all signs of life – of the contemporary inhabitants of Egypt – have been erased” (p 318).

The detailed representations in the book were designed to dazzle the European readers, to make them feel that they were there. It also put forward a colonial legitimacy that the Europeans had the right to be there. The French included themselves in the plates that depicted ancient Egyptian monuments but seldom in plates depicting contemporary Egypt.

Napoleon found an Egypt screened by Muslims, Arabs and Ottomans standing in-between the enlightened French army and ancient Egypt. In order to ignore this screen, to find a direct line between ancient Egypt and modern Europe, these imaginative geographies represented only European spectators without any modern Egyptians. These imaginative geographies reached into “their” space and appropriated that space as “ours”.

From this view Egypt is for some reason believed to be the cradle of civilization and its antiquities are “ours” (the non-Egyptians). The Roman ruins in Libya are occidental, not oriental, and hence it is not part of our collective desire to colonize them (the same goes with Tunisia except perhaps for Carthage which were founded by people from the Orient). The Egyptian antiquities are being colonized over and over again. The wackiest examples are found among those (“Westerners”) who won’t even attribute the Egyptian antiquities to the ancient Egyptians themselves, but to some extraterrestrial entities or fabled lost continents (read: 2012ers and similar minded people). To them the ancient Egyptians were just mindless squatters and from there everything has degenerated.

Gregory, Derek (2000). Edward Said’s imaginative geographies. Thinking Space. Mike Crang & Nigel Thrift (eds). Routledge: London, 302-348.

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