In a Grain of Sand – Egypt: Too Big for a Museum

Dahlia Rizk

I may be a little slow on this, but I just found out this past weekend that over the summer the world, or rather a limited group of people that read in English and had access to the Internet, voted for the “new Seven Wonders of the World”. I expected some of the new wonders to be there, such as the Great Wall of China, or the Roman Colosseum. What surprised me was that the Great Pyramids of Giza, usually topping the list, were not among them. And I thought, thank God.

The Egyptian Cultural and Tourism Ministries are way too proud of those pyramids, and tout them as an accomplishment of Egypt today, an Egypt very different from that of around 2000 B.C. A few years back, when the Giza Pyramids were part of the Seven World Wonders, Zaki Hawass, the head Egyptologist, declared that it was demeaning to the Pyramids to put them in the same group as the Gardens of Babylon or the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. According to Hawass, the architecture and aesthetics of the other monuments were no match for those of the Pyramids.

But the pyramid arrogance is everywhere. You will find that the name of at least two thirds of all major Egyptian companies, TV stations, and especially tourist agencies have some reference to the

Pyramids or the Nile River. So when I hear from anyone and everyone who has yet to go to Egypt that they want to visit to see the Pyramids, I think “no wonder!” Most of the images of Egypt that are projected internationally, not just in the West, are about the ancient civilizations. If you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the British Museum in London, what are the biggest collections that you will find? The Egyptian collections.

The fact that the nature of these “Egyptian collections” are not really explained further demonstrates my point. We already know what to expect upon hearing the words: pyramids, royal tombs, lotus flowers.

By all means, do see these collections or read about King Tut. Just don’t expect me, as an Egyptian, to tell you who King Thutmose II was, or to even necessarily care. (In case you’re curious, he ruled before Queen Hatshepsut. And I only know that through Wikipedia.) I’m allowed to have interests that carry me well into the twentieth century, even if I do live two streets away from the Pyramids of Giza.

I’ve found that the vast majority of Egyptians also do not feel very tied to their ancient past. Accuse ancient Persian society of warmongering in front of an Iranian, however, and you might get a very different response. Just look at what happened when the movie 300 came out. (Not that it wasn’t an inaccurate and flat-out bad movie to begin with.)

But if you ever wanted to know what the real Egypt is about, read Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Al-Azhar University, Old Town Cairo, Tahrir Square — these are the places where you can begin to find the real Egypt. And don’t expect to find any parts of them in the Louvre.