Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Books: Egyptology's Unsung Heroes Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Mark Rose

[image] Ahmad Kamal with coffin of Ahmose Nefertari (Century Magazine 12:1 (May) 1887, p. 6) [LARGER IMAGE]

Carved into the facade of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are the names of the founders of Egyptology: Birch, Wilkinson, Hincks, Lepsius, Ebers, LePage-Renouf, and others. These gentlemen, however, are not the heroes of Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; $35).

Written by Donald Malcolm Reid, a Georgia State University historian, the book has as its protagonists people like Rifaa al-Tahtawi. In 1835, al-Tahtawi headed an attempt to establish an antiquities service and museum. Had it succeeded, Egypt would have been neck and neck with Greece, barely behind France, in some respects ahead of Britain, and certainly ahead of the United States in matters of cultural heritage. Then there's Yusuf Hekekyan, who was excavating at Heliopolis in 1851, and Marcus Simaika, founder of the Coptic Museum in 1914.

The story of Ahmad Kamal (1851-1923) encapsulates the book's basic themes: awakening interest in the past and domination by outsiders. First taught by Heinrich Brugsch, a prominent German Egyptologist, Kamal received a break when Gaston Maspero, the French head of Egypt's Antiquities Service, treated him with respect. In addition to his excavations and reports (in French) for the Antiquities Service, Kamal wrote and translated works, like a 693-page guide to Cairo's Greco-Roman Museum, into Arabic for his countrymen's benefit and taught Egyptology to Egyptian college classes.

Throughout his book, Reid demonstrates how geopolitics, new technology (steamship and railroad, photography), and the change from the days of exploration to mass tourism all played roles in the rediscovery of Egypt and development of Egyptology. For example, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 may not seem to be terribly important in considering Egyptology's roots and the overlooked contributions of Egyptians to the field, but it is. The reasons? Cotton and tourism. The Union blockade of Confederate cotton exports increased the value of Egypt's crop. Prices soared. At war's end, prices fell, undermining the Egyptian economy and government, and leaving the country vulnerable to imperialistic exploitation. Peace also meant that Americans could once more travel abroad in safety--and they flooded Egypt. These interconnections, in which Reid seems to delight, keep the book fresh and interesting. They also remind us that issues of globalization are not new.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's bookstore.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America