A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 6, 2012

Morsi Goes to Karnak: Is There a Real Salafi Threat to Antiquities?

Last Friday Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi visited the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, meeting with tourists there to reassure them that his administration intends to promote and encourage tourism. Lately tourism has been down and tour guides are nervous about Islamist intentions and attitudes towards tourists and the antiquities they come to see.

The visit of the Muslim Brotherhood President to a temple built to the god Amon-Ra is probably not going to sit very well with some of the more extreme Salafi groups in Egypt, but this and another recent flap raise once again the question of the attitude of extreme Salafis to antiquities. While the mainstream movements in Egypt, the Brotherhood and the more extreme Nour Party, insist they intend no harm to Egypt's heritage, their opponents in Egypt and elsewhere point to what has been happening recently in Timbuktu, and memories of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, both of which instances show that extreme Salafis can indeed seek to destroy antiquities, even, in the case of Timbuktu, Islamic antiquities.

Egypt is not Afghanistan or Mali, and while there are some lunatic fringe Salafis in Egypt as elsewhere, Egyptian Islamists have sought to distance themselves from such ideas, though secularists in Egypt are quick to publicize the most extreme statements, leading to media frenzies like the "Egypt necrophilia law" story we analyzed previously, where an outrageous statement by a Moroccan Salafi was turned by the media into a story about the Egyptian Parliament allegedly considering legislation on the subject. Another such flap occurred last month, when a couple of parody Twitter accounts poking fun at a Saudi and an Emirati sheikh posted tweets urging President Morsi to destroy the Pyramids. Though the media caught on fairly early — the Daily News Egypt proclaiming it a "hoax" (though more properly it was mistaking a parody for the real thing), and even the New York Times headlined that "Contrary to Gossip, the Pyramids have no date with the Wrecking Ball." The fact that, in the absence of nuclear weapons, destroying the pyramids would be almost as formidable a task as building them, should have served as a clue. But the "Islamists want to destroy the Pyramids" theme got picked up by tabloids, Islamophobic websites, and secularist Middle Easterners who seek any alarmist story to discredit Islamists. Even after the media debunked the story, some on the right were clinging to it.

Secular Egyptians have made much of some of the crazier statements made by Salafis. This cartoon was making the rounds on Facebook a few weeks back;
Though the "destroy the pyramids" story greatly exaggerated what real Salafis have said and done, the theme (and the cartoon) reflect and play upon a real incident that occurred during the Parliamentary elections last fall. At a rally in Alexandria for the outspoken and extreme Nour Party candidate Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, party banners were used to cover a fountain bedecked with mermaids whose dress was deemed inappropriate for a Salafi rally:
Al-Masry Al-Youm
Now, you will note that these particular mermaids (neo-Classical, not Pharaonic, by the way) are not dressed like Disney's Little Mermaid with clamshell bras. Shahat would probably be uncomfortable with that, too, since he had pledged to ban bikinis, but apparently bare-breasted mermaids was considered too much for his followers to be subjected to. (Why they chose to rally near a fountain with mermaids has never been explained.) The mermaid incident drew a lot of comment and, recognizing bad publicity when it saw it, Shahat's own Nour Party distanced itself from the whole thing, saying that it was investigating, that this did not represent the party's policy:

 “We have never done such a thing in 40 years; it tarnishes our image,” said party spokesman Yousry Hammad, adding that someone could have acted on his own and covered it.
“All party leaders have denounced the act ,” he said. “He who did it will be punished.”

Shahat's other great contribution to this debate was a suggestion that, since Pharaonic statues are idols, their faces should be covered with wax. Apparently he considered this a moderate proposal since it would preserve them from destruction, just conceal their faces from the view of believers. (And, if the suggestion was not objectionable enough, the Daily Mail, reliably sensationalizing as is its style, turned this into a suggestion that the Pyramids be covered in wax. (That would take a lot of wax. And wouldn't it melt in an Egyptian summer?)

Now, here's the point: Shahat's antics were widely publicized, and he lost the election. Nobody in authority wants to cover anything in wax, and even the Nour Party says it's not going to run around putting bras on fountains.

The fact that there is no imminent threat to the pyramids does not mean that one should dismiss the real threats that have been realized in Bamiyan and Timbuktu. In Egypt as elsewhere, there are extremists who might, if they ever gained a following, destroy antiquities. Guarding against that is important, but imaginary panics about destroying the pyramids are an overreaction.

Ironically, within a day of the cartoon reproduced above showing up, the Facebook group Civilizarion of Ancient Egypt posted this classic group from the Egyptian museum:

That's the Pharaoh Menkaure (Mycerinus) of the Fourth Dynasty, builder of the third Giza Pyramid, flanked by the goddess Hathor and the local goddess where the basalt monument was found. Like many other works of Egyptian art, it is a masterpiece, some 4500 years old. It is one of Egypt's treasures, though I have no doubt some Egyptians would want to cover it up. But there is no imminent likelihood of that.

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