Connecting Egyptians with their heritage
By Kate Durham
Three days after the dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, Dr. Monica Hanna was in the looted Mallawi National Museum trying to salvage antiquities when a youth came in and started to smash items into even smaller pieces. Hanna recalls that she tried to tell him he was destroying his own heritage, but he insisted, “No, this belongs to the government, it’s not mine. It’s not for the people.”
“People revere museums, archeological sites as property of the state where they’re not allowed to go,” says Hanna, a 30-year-old Egyptologist and archeologist. “They don’t feel an ownership of the place as a museum or the heritage that’s presented in the museum.”
Hanna, one of the most prominent voices in the Egyptian Heritage Task Force (EHTF), wants to reconnect Egyptians with their heritage and get them involved in protecting it. “We are trying to create communal watchdogs all around Egypt; not just on ancient Egyptian heritage [but on] buildings, historical buildings, Islamic and Coptic monuments, everything. […] So we’re creating a very large network of just citizens who are very worried about their heritage.”
The task force, which Hanna describes as an “underground movement,” has been working informally since the 2011 Revolution to document threats to antiquities sites, but only in the past year has it started to operate as a formal organization. Officially, the group has three Egyptian academics actively working to confirm citizen reports, with another 12 Egyptian and foreign academics in the network, “and a lot of normal supporters,” Hanna explains.
The EHTF has a Facebook page, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, but at press time its website Atharna (Our Antiquities, www.ehtf.org) was still under development. Task force members are funding their efforts out of their own pockets: “We have been insisting not to accept funding to keep our political affiliations clear.”
The group has won moral support from lawyers and activists, with the Egyptian Center for Human Rights hosting an EHTF press conference in September. While the Antiquities Ministry is not providing official support, Hanna says she’s had several meetings with the minister to share information.
It’s this diverse support she credits with opening doors at the ministry. “It’s the media attention, and them feeling that I’m not alone. Because if they think for a second that Monica Hanna is just a person and not backed by all these supporters, then khalas, I’m done for. They will not listen to me anymore. But they know that she does not stand alone, that she represents a very large group.”
While recognizing the role of poverty and organized crime in looting and encroachment, Hanna feels the root cause is that Egyptians cannot identify with the ancient cultures. “They don’t feel it’s part of their heritage. Even the Egyptian social studies schoolbook —the way it presents [Ancient] Egypt and modern Egypt, [they] are two hermetically sealed entities. There is no continuity.”
The problem has been compounded in the past 10 years by the push to promote Ancient Egypt to the West. While the influx of tourists clamoring to see mummies and pyramids has brought cash into the country, Hanna admits, it has also created “this feeling that the archeological space is for tourists and foreign archeologists. It’s not for Egyptians. This barrier needs to go away.”
One of the keys to removing that barrier is revamping the role of the Antiquities Ministry. Hanna says that the ministry should be more active in promoting Egyptian interest and research in the nation’s heritage. She adds, “You need to change this whole idea of policing the archeological sites by keeping the people away into policing the archeological sites by getting people involved.”
Until that day comes, the EHTF is doing what it can to get people involved at the grassroots level. Hanna’s long-term vision, modeled on the UK’s English Heritage commission, is “a body that’s semi-governmental, semi civil society that does the same work of the task force but institutionally. […] You need a higher institution that monitors the work of the ministry as well as the work of the Ministry of Endowments as well as other institutions.”
It seems an optimistic goal, but Hanna is confident they can make it happen: “Really, never underestimate a group of citizens. They can change the world.” et