Egyptologists speak out

Don't believe the scare stories: ordinary Egyptians have protected precious antiquities.

[This is a guest post by Fayza Haikal, Stephen Quirke, Okasha El Daly, William Carruthers, Marwa Helmy, Nikolaos Laziridis and Karen Exell, who egyptologists based in the UK and Egypt itself.]

Revolutions call for radical change - are Western museums and archaeologists ready for this? Or might they, like their governments, prefer business as usual?

The racism and intolerance in reactions abroad to the safeguarding of antiquities in the 25 January revolution are provocative and insulting. In the fight for freedom and for rights taken for granted in some countries, at least 350 young Egyptians gave their lives, and hundreds more have been injured in ways that will mark them for life. In this fight, people from all sectors of society also physically risked their lives to protect museums and sites from attack. Yet, panic reports on looting in western media and archaeology blogs were followed by widespread surprise that the scale had been exaggerated, and that people fought back - a story that never received the full press attention it deserved. In Cairo people defended the museums, in Alexandria students ringed the Library and in Upper Egypt villagers protected Karnak temple. From our own friends and colleagues we have heard extraordinary tales of courage - of inspectors trying to see off armed attackers at stores, of curators walking miles across the city, through streets reverberating with gunfire, to join museum guards. When the police disappeared from the streets, ordinary Egyptians defended themselves and the archaeology.

This defence seems to have caused surprise abroad, but the fact that even well-disposed foreigners have been taken aback is a great insult. The Egyptian reply? "This is the Egypt that you do not know and do not see, and do not want to see - and you will continue repeating your error."
People often say that Egyptian heritage is world heritage, and this may be true, but it is also particularly Egyptian heritage: we did not see the world represented by non-Egyptian archaeologists or bodies of tourists in those cordons. Instead, the pictures of human cordons defending museums demonstrate how, against the expectations of foreigners, it means more to Egyptians. Unlike the most famous museums in the west, the museums of Egypt house the national heritage of the country itself, the pride of a nation that sees itself as teacher of the world - and will be seen as such again, following the 25 January revolution.

Here are some radical proposals:

- Besides returning regime assets to Egypt, the outside world should also end its involvement in illegal antiquities smuggling - the largest global trafficking crisis, alongside drugs and arms. Egypt can secure its heritage in its own way within its own borders, and has all the experts it needs in conservation and historical knowledge. Outside pressure needs to end. Western governments should end practices that promote looting: they should close free-zone airport warehouses stockpiled with stolen antiquities, and tmake it illegal to sell or buy undocumented antiquities. Antiquities are looted around the world only where there is a market for them, where they can be smuggled out and sold. The international community has to play a role in removing this appalling pressure on Egypt's national heritage.

- Requests from Egypt for the return of antiquities should be honoured. Even before 25 January, several museums had returned items, or started talks about loans of masterpieces for exhibitions - something unheard of in previous decades. The revolution offers the chance to transform the relations between countries on these issues. Any request should be welcomed from a land that has risked so much to save its museums. Western organisations can also invite Egyptian participation in discussions over the continual movements of Egyptian antiquities, in such initiatives as the UK "Effective Collections" scheme.

- A third radical move would be a shift towards an Egyptian archaeology, where "Egyptian" means both by Egyptians and in Egypt. The main initiative in this area will come from the revolutionary demand for education funding to reinvigorate universities and scientific research. In archaeology, international missions already contribute to survey and excavation training for Egyptians. Yet, at present, Egypt hosts dozens of foreign archaeological missions from countries that do not host, and would never contemplate hosting, an Egyptian mission of any kind. The late Ottoman Period "concession" is still the technical term for foreign work on an Egyptian site. This imbalance is produced in part by the technological revolution in western archaeology. Besides a massive carbon footprint, this has given world archaeology a rationale for neo-colonial exclusion: minimal participation of Egyptian scholars in non-Egyptian teams has widened the gap between local and foreign. Building on the best existing initiatives, a new Egypt may bring more collaborative work, where foreign missions no longer talk of "their" sites, and where, instead, foreign archaeology in Egypt will mean co-directed teams comprised of equal numbers of Egyptians and foreigners. In the future, Egyptian archaeology will be as Egyptian as English archaeology is English.

Dedicated to the martyrs of the 25 January revolution.

 

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle