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.

 

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The best defence against Alzheimer’s

Spoiler: the best way to avoid Alzheimer's is to stay young.

At the recent meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Copenhagen, doctors were signing up to attend a workshop teaching non-specialists to test for cognitive decline in their patients. How do you tell the difference between a scatterbrain and a case of early dementia?

It’s a question that is increasingly urgent. Last year, 47.5 million people were living with dementia. That will have risen to 75.6 million by 2030 and will reach 140 million in 2050. The World Health Organisation has declared that dementia should be regarded as a global public health priority. But what can we do about it?

The primary cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 70 per cent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very well to put a name to it, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it – or medicines to battle it. Alzheimer’s drugs have a high rate of failure. In the decade to 2012, 99.6 per cent of newly developed drugs failed to make it past clinical trials. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and none on the horizon, either.

There was, however, a small breakthrough last month. A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that Alzheimer’s could be a result of fighting infections from other diseases that would, if left unchecked, ravage the brain. The hard lumps of sticky plaque in the brain that characterise the onset of Alzheimer’s seem to be the result of the immune system attempting to isolate and neutralise microbes and other pathogens that have made their way into the brain. The plaques catch pathogens, preventing infection from taking hold. Unfortunately, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the plaques also trigger inflammation that leads to the death of brain cells.

This observation mirrors another catch-22 with Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have suggested that the drug failures might be averted by getting candidate treatments to the disease earlier, before symptoms appear. Put simply, the drugs may stand a better chance of success when trying to counter the first stages of damage to the brain. The problem is: how do you get that early diagnosis?

There are various genetic indicators for a heightened predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s. A gene called apolipoprotein E, for instance, comes in three variants: one kind seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s while another increases it. Other genes – variously associated with the body’s uptake of cholesterol, its propensity to engender inflammation and the efficiency of communication between neurons – also have a role to play in raising or lowering the chances of onset.

However, the interplay between genetic factors, environmental factors and what appears to be pure luck makes foreknowledge of whether Alzheimer’s will strike any individual impossible. It’s no wonder that the US National Institutes of Health does not generally recommend genetic testing as a worthwhile route for anyone wanting to know their future. After all, a result that indicates you are more likely than the average person to develop dementia is, in many ways, little more than a heavy psychological burden, to be borne until the symptoms start to appear – a scenario that keeps you stressed (a grave health risk) even if onset never happens. If the drugs don’t work yet, why would anyone sign up to be tested?

In the absence of a reliable test or cure, the best advice seems to be to delay ageing as much as possible, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. It’s an observation that fits with last month’s breakthrough. The plaque-provoking pathogens reach the brain through the weakening of the blood-brain barrier, a wall of cells that wraps around blood vessels and prevents foreign bodies from passing into the brain’s circulatory system. This weakening happens with age, suggesting that action to delay the degradation of the cardiovascular system will also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here, at least, we have some good news: the rate of appearance of dementia cases seems to be in decline. This may be a spin-off of our attempts to cut deaths from heart disease. It seems that as we take control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making significant improvements to our heart and circulatory function, we are unwittingly improving our cerebral health, too – almost certainly because the brain requires good blood flow to operate well.

The surest way to avoid Alzheimer’s, then, is simple to state and impossible to achieve. All you have to do is stay young. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain