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December 2, 2007

Antiquity as a natural resource—آثار كموارد

Filed under: Masr —مصر — Tags: , , — admin @ 1:20 am


In the early 19th Century, Muhammed Ali, often credited with bringing Egypt into the modern age, effected that modernizing project in no small part through the use of antiquities, either a) as more-or-less direct payment for the services of foreign experts, b) as bribes or c) to curry favor with Western notables easily charmed by shiny old things (sort of like “The Pilgrims” trading beads with “The Indians” for food and clothing, but in reverse).

One of his grandsons, Khedive Ismail, who would briefly rule Egypt half a century later, recognized a different sort of value in the land’s antiquities and, by official proclamation, forbade their desecration. In this proclamation of khedival law (firman), he reasoned, “bearing in mind that antiquities in Egypt are the strongest means to perpetuate the history of the kingdom, the conservation of these monuments is one of our dearest wishes.” This did not, of course, prevent him from using antiquities as his grandfather (and most likely his father as well) had in the service of diplomatic gestures, although after several decades of liquidating these artifacts, perhaps their limited supply was becoming more obvious. As much as Ismail was a patron of such intellectual endeavors, he was just as likely motivated by the perpetuation of his current regime as that of the history of the kingdom of the ancients.

Gamal Abd El Nasser and the Free Officers of the 1952 Revolution seemed to have little interest in antiquities as such, though this did not deter them from making use of them just as their predecessors had (Nasser is fabled to have given a 5100-year-old vase to Khrushchev, who was so enamored of it that he set it on the table in front of him at the next meeting of the Supreme Soviet).

Now, of course, the Egyptian regime—with the prodding of US and international lending institutions—has found a somewhat more sustainable approach toward exploiting this non-renewable resource. The answer, of course, is tourism. Thanks to the desires of Ancient Egyptian monarchs to immortalize themselves through gargantuan and quite durable memorials, the modern Egyptians (or, more accurately, the global tourism trade) have access to a resource whose value actually appreciates over time (at least that’s the historical trend), and whose value ultimately lies not in being consumed, but in being experienced. The only difficulty lies in the fact that those who actually value that experience are rather far away (naturally—if they lived nearby, they would probably not find it valuable; that’s the nature of commodity fetishism). The challenge then becomes getting those people into the country and bringing them into contact with the experience of antiquities with a minimum of externalities to detract from that experience AND, of course, extracting money from them at as many points along the way as possible. I have elsewhere described this tourist pipeline as a touri-duct.

The challenge, of course, is a little more complicated than that. First, though the antiquities may be quite dead (persistent mythologizing about curses and such notwithstanding), they generally lie in the midst of communities which are very much alive, a reality every bit as problematic to the profit-seeking tourist trade as the migrating elk of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Alaskan oilmen. They spoil the view, they beg and peddle and otherwise detract from the tourist experience. To hear the government tell it, they also steal and damage the antiquities, though this is generally a pretext to forcibly relocate them.

Secondly, the tourists themselves, inconveniently, are living people with individual desires and cultural peculiarities. They know when they are being transported like cattle, shooed down a chute lubricated with sweet platitudes. [singlepic=496,120,160,,right]While they may be polite enough to shut their mouths about it, they also tend to shut their wallets. Another inconvenience of dealing with living people: they sweat and they breathe. Egyptian tombs and artifacts have survived so long largely because they have been sealed up, or visited only by the smallest number of priests, nobles and notables in what, until the building of the High Dam, was an extremely dry climate. These places, or at least their most delicate and valuable façades, will not last long with thousands per hour of sweating, breathing, touching, nudging and brushing visitors, flash photography or no.

[singlepic=358,120,160,,right]And then, perhaps most importantly in monetary terms, there is the militancy of Islamists who are singularly unhappy with the Egyptian regime and its coddling of vulgar Western tourism companies and the legions of bare-chested, short-shorted, mini-skirted, lotion be-slathered, alcohol be-drunken … infidels. These militants are more than happy to slaughter such tourists by the tens or hundreds (as they did throughout 1997), causing hundreds of millions of Egyptian Pounds in “lost revenue”, never mind that those few Egyptians (Muslims, mostly) who are able to eek out a reasonable income in the tourism industry will be disproportionately affected. Western tourism companies have their fingers in many “post-colonial” pies and can make up losses elsewhere, especially since they will likely be extracting money from the same tourists who avoided Egypt, just in some other place.

So, yes, Egypt’s reliance on tourism as an anchor for foreign investment certainly has its pitfalls, but just about every strategy undertaken by this government has its pitfalls (many of which it dug for itself), and those old things won’t just go away (in fact, there are more of them every day), nor do Westerners show any signs of tiring of romanticizing them.

Everywhere there is the fascination with a sort of Pharaonic ideal, whether it is an Egyptian autocrat or an international lending institution or a global superpower. [singlepic=604,160,120,,right]We all want to be part of a great collective power, but too few consider the violence that must be inflicted to build an enormous monument to ensure immortality, to construct a dam 17 times the volume of the Giza pyramid, to “clear the way” for economic development or to maintain what is described in the press as “a robust economy”. But, despite the persistent attractiveness of this ideal, collective power does not have to mean collective violence.

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