Which Mob?

Alex Joffe once again challenges the conventional wisdom with his usual mix of sarcasm and perceptiveness.  With events so fluid in Egypt, it is hard to know where the modern world–much less the ancient world is going– but it IS clear that the particular way that the Egyptian uprising resolves itself will be crucial for determining global attitudes about many, many things.

One thing, though, is for certain.  We need to stop looking at the phenomenon of looting and indeed the iconic-economic value of antiquities– in Egypt, Iraq, and everywhere else– as something aesthetically self-contained and morally impermeable.  Antiquities, like all commodities, both symbolize and are entangled in the justices, injustices, tyranny, propaganda, silencing, identity, homogenization, and political economy of wider society.

From the Wall Street Journal  1 Feb 2011

Egypt’s Antiquities Fall Victim to the Mob


A member of the special forces stands guard at the Egyptian Museum. Photo: AP

When Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, came to work at the Egyptian Museum on Saturday, he found that looters had broken in and beheaded two mummies—possibly Tutankhamun’s grandparents—and looted the ticket booth. Reports indicate that middle-class Egyptians, the tourism police and later the military secured the museum. But now it appears that many other museum’s and storehouses have been looted, along with archaeological sites. A vast, impoverished underclass seems less taken with either the nationalist narrative of Egyptian greatness that stretches back to the pharaohs, or the intrinsic value of antiquities for all humanity, and more intrigued by the possibility of gold and other loot. For his part, Mr. Hawass has now been appointed state minister for antiquities by President Hosni Mubarak.

These events make Mr. Hawass’s quest to return all Egyptian objects to Egypt misguided or at least poorly timed. Last week he again demanded the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum has long been on Mr. Hawass’s wish list, along with the Zodiac Ceiling in the Louvre and statues in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and museums in Hildesheim, Germany, and Turin, Italy. And a few weeks back he complained bitterly that the obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, a gift to the U.S. from the Khedive of Egypt that has graced Central Park since 1881, was in poor condition and might have to be reclaimed. He has made similar demands for the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts around the world, whether purchased, donated or stolen. But can Egypt even look after what it has? This question is now out in the open.

One problem lies in the relationship between the past and present in Egypt and other authoritarian states, where antiquities and sites are used as a means of glorifying and justifying modern repressive regimes. In Iraq in 2003, during the U.S. invasion, the Baghdad Museum was looted by local residents, insiders and possibly professional thieves. The Americans took the blame. But it was Iraqis who did the looting, after Saddam Hussein’s soldiers had fired at U.S. forces from in and around the museum. They did not share the regime’s regard for the Mesopotamian past and correctly associated Saddam with both unspeakable repression and—as he intended—patronage of museums and archaeology. The small Iraqi middle and upper classes may have understood the importance of museums and heritage for the collective identity and memory of all Iraqis, but they were overwhelmed by the poor and the angry. The Baghdad Museum has yet to reopen, stolen artifacts are still being recovered from around the world, and Iraq’s archaeological sites are still being looted…

For his full article and conclusions, click here.

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Note the useful observation of Professor Larry Rothfield in the comments section.


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