What’s King Tut hiding?

and that's the way it was

King Tut…I don’t trust the guy…something about the way he’s looking at Ay in this tomb painting, though admittedly he would’ve been dead at this point

King Tut is still getting over the trauma of having his beard broken off and badly reattached with epoxy, so maybe it’s unfair to pile on the guy like this, but an Egyptologist at the University of Arizona named Nicholas Reeves is now accusing Tutankhamun(‘s tomb) of hiding the tomb of Nefertiti, the chief consort of Tut’s father, Akhenaten, and maybe/possibly Tut’s own mother. Reeves believes that high-res scans of the north wall of Tutankhamun’s tomb show the outline of a doorway. This, combined with the long-standing belief (going back to the tomb’s discoverer, Howard Carter) that Tutankhamun’s tomb is peculiarly small for a pharaonic burial chamber, leads him to believe that some other royal figure’s burial chamber lies beyond that wall.

Nefertiti…

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Travel Photos VII: Saqqara and Dahshur, Egypt

Since I just wrote something about it, I thought I’d put up a few of my pictures of the Saqqara complex and the Pyramid of Djoser. And then, since I visited both places in the same car trip and it seemed like a good idea, I thought I’d throw in a couple of pictures of nearby Dahshur. Taken together they actually tell a story about the development of Egyptian pyramid building.

Djoser was a Third Dynasty pharaoh who reigned sometime in the first half of the 27th century BCE. To the extent that anything can be known about events that far in the past, we know that Djoser pacified the Sinai Peninsula. Apart from that, we know that he commissioned the building of the pyramid that now bears his name, under the oversight of his great vizier, Imhotep. Imhotep has the distinction of being one of the few non-pharaohs in Egyptian history to be deified and worshiped as a god (though that didn’t happen until a couple of millenia after his death). In that sense his legacy actually eclipsed that of his patron, since pharaohs were worshiped as themselves after death but Imhotep seems to have been conflated with the major Egyptian god Thoth, as the god of architecture and medicine.

Prior to Djoser and Imhotep, pharaohs and other important Egyptians were buried under mastabas, flat raised rectangular structures that presumably evolved from more primitive burial mounds. Architects started experimenting with layered mastabas, but it wasn’t until Imhotep that this form reached fruition and became the pyramid. Djoser probably commissioned the site as a mastaba just like any other, but the longer his reign went on (there are two records that put his reign at 19 and 29 years respectively, but scholars think the longer figure makes more sense), he had Imhotep keep adding smaller mastabas on top of the ones that were already there, until the whole thing became the six-level “Step Pyramid” we can see today: Continue reading

Five threats to cultural and historic heritage in 2013

Full confession: I kind of hate these year-end recap stories that crop up this time every year. I guess I object to the idea that the end of a year is some real event rather than a superficial cultural marker, and I feel like we’d all be better served to keep pushing on rather than acting as though something is “ending.” That said, I do understand how important it is to stop and take stock of what’s happened every once in a while, and if the end of a year inspires people to do that, so be it. In the spirit of the season, here are five stories reflecting the threats and challenges the world’s cultural and historic heritage has faced in 2013:

5. Looting and black market antiquities dealing

Presumably looting could make a list like this one any year, but the turmoil in places like Egypt and Syria (keep reading) made this an especially difficult year for curtailing the illegal trade in antiquities. Apart from those two places, which we will deal with separately, looting was also rampant in places like Macedonia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. Billions of dollars are being made illegally each year via the antiquities trade. Even in the United States, the issue of art looted by the Nazis and brought to American museums after the war is still relevant.

4. Egypt’s instability puts artifacts, sites at risk

It was a year of incredible change and turmoil in Egypt, with the elected but increasingly undemocratic government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood being forced from power by the Egyptian armed forces in July. Dueling protests, both for and against Morsi and then, after the coup, for and against the new military government caused chaos in the streets of major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and threatened Egypt’s priceless stores of antiquities. In August the Malawi Museum in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya was ransacked and looted. The museum has recovered some of its collection, but the search for the rest of its pieces is ongoing. Despite the chaos, and the promise of further chaos if Egypt is unable to transition from its current repressive military government to a stable democratic system, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power was probably a good thing for Egypt’s antiquities. The Brotherhood is another offshoot of the same kind of ultra-conservative Islam that produces those Salafi groups that have damaged or destroyed precious historical sites throughout the Islamic World, and Morsi’s government showed little interest in protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage from looters and developers, prompting UNESCO to threaten to remove several Egyptian sites from its World Heritage list. Perhaps the biggest loss, and risk of further loss, has been in regards to Egypt’s Coptic churches, which have been targeted by angry pro-Brotherhood protesters on religious grounds.

3. The pressures of development

All over the world we saw sites threatened and destroyed by unchecked commercial and industrial development. A 2300-year old Mayan pyramid in Belize was obliterated to make gravel. A 4000 year old pyramid at El Paraiso, Peru, was destroyed by developers. The threat of unchecked mineral mining has put ancient sites across Afghanistan at grave risk. Ancient burial mounds, some more than 4000 years old, are being destroyed by development in Bahrain. Prehistoric sites are being demolished by developers in the Bujang Valley in Malaysia. Developers plowed up a 2000 year old necropolis in Cyrene, Libya.  Sites from the earliest days of Islam continue to be destroyed in Saudi Arabia. America is not immune to this trend, as American Indian sites are being wiped out for things as frivolous as new Walmart warehouses.

2. Natural disasters destroy sites in the Philippines

In October, 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated heritage sites in the Philippine province of Bohol, in particular reducing several centuries-old churches to rubble. Two of these churches, the 17th century Loboc Church and the 18th century Baclayon Church, had been considered for UNESCO World Heritage status before they were destroyed. The devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, only a month later, compounded the challenge of recovering these sites and also damaged several other heritage churches all over the country.

1. Syria

If the civil war in Syria ended tomorrow the loss of Syria’s rich cultural heritage would still be incalculable, but the war continues and continues to destroy sites and artifacts that had survived for centuries despite doomed efforts to stave off the destruction. Entire sites have been heavily damaged if not destroyed in the fighting. The city of Aleppo and its millenia of cultural heritage is all but destroyed, and the Syrian government continues to batter it. The direct impacts of the conflict aside, the chaos created by the war has led to rampant illicit excavation and looting. The loss of Syria’s heritage is not just tragic from the standpoint of lost history and culture, but it is deeply harmful to the chances of Syrian society recovering from the devastation of the war, whenever it does end:

The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

Travel Photos III: Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria (the one in Egypt, to be specific) was one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, but shrunk in both size and prestige after the Arab conquest of Egypt, when the Egyptian capital was moved first to Fustat and then to Cairo (which today has grown so large as to have swallowed the remains of nearby Fustat). It was rebuilt starting in the 19th century and today is one of the 50 or 100 largest cities in the world, depending on how you measure urban population. It was the first stop on my trip to Egypt, after flying into Cairo during a sandstorm and then driving all night to get to a drafty apartment in a cool, rainy city. It was January, but I was packed for Cairo and Luxor weather, so I was totally unprepared for the Alexandrian weather and had to go buy a jacket the next day, and to get a room at a decent hotel where the wind wasn’t blowing in every night.

Alexandria is incredibly unique, a Greco-Roman outpost in the middle of a country that is otherwise Arab or Pharaonic, but the Greco-Romanness of the ancient city was definitely affected by Egyptian culture. I don’t mind saying that the first mummy I saw in the Alexandrian museum, wrapped up like a mummy should be but with a painted Greek face on it where the carved Egyptian funerary mask should’ve been, weirded me out a little bit.

The mummy in question.

The mummy in question.

The first site I checked out was the amphitheater. I always dig a good amphitheater:

The Roman amphitheater, very well-preserved, wasn't rediscovered until the mid-20th century

The amphitheatre, very well-preserved, wasn’t rediscovered until the mid-20th century

More of the amphitheater complex; one of the things I like about Egypt are the scenes of ancient and medieval sites existing within a totally modern, urban space.

More of the amphitheater complex; one of the things I like about Egypt are the scenes of ancient and medieval sites existing within a totally modern, urban space.

The “Villa of the Birds” is near the amphitheater and is so named for one of the mosaics still preserved there:

Villa of the Birds, yes?

Villa of the Birds, yes?

A trip through the city’s catacombs followed, which was awesome but for which I’ve basically got zilch in the way of decent pictures. Digital camera tech was considerably more primitive back then.

Later I headed to the harbor, the geographic feature that made and still makes Alexandria such an important city. In ancient times the shore of the harbor was dominated by the great Lighthouse of Alexandria, but a series of earthquakes brought her down, and in 1477 the ruins were used by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay to construct a massive fortress, the Citadel of Qaitbay, to defend the harbor.

Fort Qaitbey, the entrance

Fort Qaitbey, the entrance

View of the harbor from the top of the fort.

View of the harbor from the top of the fort.

View of the harbor entrance.

View of the harbor entrance.

Near the Citadel is the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, a famous 13th century Sufi whose remains are said to be interred there. For reasons that escape me now, all these years later, I didn’t get particularly close to this mosque and just took a photo of the minarets and domes at some distance.

El-Mursi Mosque

El-Mursi Mosque

The last stop in Alexandria was the Montaza Palace and Park, built and expanded in the early 20 century by the khedives (who later styled themselves “kings”) as a summer palace and hunting lodge. It’s situated on a bay, and the whole combination of bay, gardens, and palace is very striking.

Montaza Palace

Montaza Palace

Montaza Gardens

Montaza Gardens

Montaza Bay

Montaza Bay

Why are Sufi shrines being targeted?

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit: BBC.com

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit: BBC.com

We are seeing a great deal of violence being done to cultural heritage sites across the Islamic World by relatively small orthodox Islamic groups, most particularly in North and West Africa, for example in Mali, in Libya, and in Egypt. There has been some outcry from the international community and a bit of coverage in the Western media, but I’m not sure that enough attention has been given to why these attacks are happening. To us, this kind of thing makes no sense. Imagine some kind of hardline fundamentalist movement taking a bulldozer to the Lincoln Memorial or to a venerable old basilica in Europe. It’s hard to get that image in your head, isn’t it? What could any group hope to gain from an act like that? In my view, it’s important to understand the motives behind groups that want to rob us of our heritage, because the way to stop them lies in defeating their arguments and rendering them unable to win support from the public and/or government of the country in which they act. In this case, what we have are radical militant Islamic groups, such as Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, that seek to demolish sites of popular religious devotion in the service of their rigidly regressive understanding of Islam. Basically, it has to do with the long tension between two different Islamic communities: Sufis and Salafis.

I think people have a basic idea of what Sufism is; for this piece, it’s enough to know that it is a more mystical movement within Islam, historically centered around particular mystical paths led by one mystical teacher or another, whose teachings would be passed on to successive generations over time. Some of these teachers, as well as other important religious and scholarly figures, came to be venerated by Muslims almost in the way that some branches of Christianity revere saints. It is primarily the shrines to these figures that are under attack. I think we know less about their attackers, and that’s what I wanted to focus on. Continue reading