Putting Egypt Back in Egyptology

An Open Letter to Egyptology Students:

After returning to Canada from a two-week trip to Egypt last month, I am reflecting on some tough realities of studying Egyptology while living abroad. I loved living and working in Cairo as a graduate student, but after four years there, I had to resign myself to the fact that if I wanted to continue my studies at the doctoral level, I would have to leave Egypt. My two years in Canada have only further impressed upon me how bizarre this reality of our discipline is: there are more opportunities to study Egyptology abroad than in Egypt and few of those programs fund their students to conduct independent research in Egypt. To put it very frankly: I did not become an Egyptologist because it was my dream to spend my life in a North American library, university, or museum. I became an Egyptologist because I love Egypt.

I expressed my dislikes of living and working in Canada to a former professor in Cairo who quickly remarked: “Well, you should be in Egypt anyway! This is what you study.” When we pursue Egyptology as students without spending regular time in Egypt, we effectively divorce the ancient Egyptian world in our own minds from its real and contemporary environs, and from the real and present inheritors of Egyptian cultural history, the modern Egyptians. In a way, our field is still the product of its colonial past: the Egyptian objects we study in international museums have been removed from their historical and cultural landscapes, often to the point that their provenance is not even identifiable, let alone their function or cultural meaning. How much more detrimental, then, that we spend our entire student lives equally removed from these landscapes.

As ethical students of an ancient culture, we have the personal responsibility to decolonise our own experiences of ancient Egypt by regularly visiting the places we study. Like other branches of anthropology, this means experientially stepping into the sandals of the ancient Egyptians: to grind grain or ferment wine using their methods, or to build boats using their designs and sail them on the Red Sea. How do we expect to ever understand the ancient Egyptians if we have never tried in vain to sail upstream when there is no wind, if we have never learned for ourselves that linen is the best material for keeping cool in the heat, if we have never seen the imperishable stars in the northern night’s sky, if we have never experienced the geographical distance between the First Cataract and Memphis, if we have never stood at Saqqara and seen the pyramids at Dahshur in one direction and at Abu Sir in the other? It should be part of our commitment to our field to be in pursuit of these enriched elements of our self-education so that when we are called upon as representatives of our discipline, we are empowered by our own experiences, not simply the lessons from an estranged classroom or museum lab. To be successful academics in our field, however, none of these things are required of us. We must take the responsibility upon ourselves, as ethical academics, to learn Arabic, to know and support our Egyptian colleagues, and to regularly spend time in the foreign and distant physical landscapes of which we profess to be experts.

I once recommended to an Egyptology graduate student that she consider studying her respective topic at my alma mater in Cairo and she dismissively replied: “I don’t want to live in Egypt.” I can hardly fathom the irony of studying a country (ancient or modern) that you have never seen and would never consider residing in, even temporarily. Adding further tones of superiority, even the most well-meaning Egyptologists have asked me about the “current situation” in Egypt, immediately charging our conversation with concern for what is perceived as a volatile and unpredictable region. These kinds of blatantly colonial attitudes would almost certainly be looked down upon among students of other fields, but is common amongst our own.

Clearly, there are not enough jobs for all of us to live in Egypt, even if we all so desired, but if you study ancient Egypt, it is your responsibility to regularly spend time in Egypt for the good of your own research. The universities, libraries, and museums in our home nations should not serve as absolute replacements for the ancient landscapes we study. Is the modern iteration of our field ethically more commendable than the time when Giovanni Belzoni was actively decontextualising countless objects for foreign consumption, if we ourselves have no interest in decolonising our own, already decontextualized experiences of those objects?

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