A new exhibit at a Dutch museum declares: “Egypt is part of Africa,” which might seem uncontroversial to most who have seen a world map.
But the exhibition at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden goes beyond geography. It explores the tradition of black musicians – Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Nas and others – drawing inspiration from and pride in the idea that ancient Egypt was an African culture. The exhibition is presented as a useful corrective to centuries of cultural erasure of Africans.
What may seem thought-provoking in the United States and thought-provoking in the Netherlands, however, is anathema to the Egyptian government and much of its population, who have flooded the museum’s Facebook and Google pages with complaints – sometimes racist – about what they consider to be Western appropriation of their history.
Many Egyptians do not consider themselves African at all, identifying much more closely with the predominantly Arab and Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa, and many look down on darker-skinned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans. . And some feel that it is their culture and history that is being erased by the Western quest to correct historical racism.
The exhibition “attacks Egyptian civilization and heritage” and “distorts Egyptian identity,” said a lawmaker, Ahmed Belal, in a speech on May 2, shortly after the exhibition opened and around the time moment similar fireworks erupted around a Netflix docudrama depicting the ancient Greco-Egyptian queen Cleopatra in black.
Within weeks, perhaps mindful of the appeal to its nationalist supporters, the Egyptian government acted. The authority that oversees all things ancient Egypt has informed the Leiden museum’s team of archaeologists, including the exhibit’s half-Egyptian curator, that they can no longer excavate in Egypt. Until then, Dutch Egyptologists had been working in the ancient tombs of Sakkara. since 1975.
“If you don’t respect our culture or our heritage, then we won’t cooperate with you until you do,” said Abdul Rahim Rihan, an Egyptian archaeologist who leads a group called Campaign to Defend Egyptian Civilization.
Suggestions that ancient Egypt was a cultural ancestor of today’s black people are at the heart of some forms of Afrocentrism, a cultural and political movement born to combat colonialist and often racist ideas about the supposed inferiority of African civilizations in relation to European civilizations. Black people, according to this narrative, could be proud of their roots in the ancient kingdom that built some of the world’s greatest splendors.
But for Egyptians, it all adds up to a hurt feeling that, just as Westerners plundered antiquities like the Rosetta Stone from Egypt and took credit for their discovery in centuries past, they are once again taking control of ancient Egypt to the Egyptians themselves.
THE museum exhibition, “Kemet: Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk,” examines how Afrocentrism manifested itself in music. Beyoncé and Rihanna dressed as Nefertiti, the ancient queen of Egypt; Nina Simone said she believed she was Nefertiti reincarnated; and Ms. Turner once sang about being Queen Hatshepsut – an ancient Egyptian pharaoh – in a past life.
The cover of Nas’ 1999 album “I Am…” sculpts his features into the famous golden mask of King Tutankhamun. Miles Davis, Prince and Erykah Badu have all taken inspiration from the pharaohs for their lyrics, jewelry and more.
“Kemet”, the word that the ancient Egyptians designated for their country, even commanded a audio tour in Dutch, English and Arabic narrated by Typhoon, a Dutch rapper, as well as a new song by Dutch rapper Nnelg about his connection to ancient Egypt.
Typhoon acknowledges during the tour that the musicians’ perspectives are “not the only way to think about ancient Egypt”, but he nevertheless presents the exhibition as a correction of history.
“Although television programs and films in the Netherlands and the United States often project only a certain image of Egypt to the public, dark-skinned people have also lived there, both in the past and today,” he said.
The exhibition, whose curator, Daniel Solimanis half Egyptian, followed by a statement to the description of the online exhibition in response to the “agitation” on social networks. He said he sought to explain “why ancient Egypt is important to these artists and musicians and from what cultural and intellectual movements the music emerged.”
Museum representatives declined to comment beyond this statement. But these defend the show pointed out that most reviewers have not visited it.
For the Egyptians, how susceptible this subject became clear during the controversy over the “Queen Cleopatra“, when an Egyptian lawyer called for the streaming service to be banned in Egypt and the government dismissed the show as a “falsification of Egyptian history.”
Part of their anger may also stem from colorism: some Egyptians tend to identify light skin with the elite, perhaps the result of centuries-old beauty standards that value light skin and centuries of domination by dark-skinned conquerors. clearer from Europe and Turkey.
The Egyptian fury focuses in part on an Afrocentric idea, far from embraced by all who subscribe to Afrocentrism, that the Arabs who invaded Egypt in the seventh century replaced the true African Egyptians.
“This is an attack on Egyptian identity,” said Dr Rihan, an Egyptian archaeologist. “It’s not a question of skin color,” he added. “When you say things like that, he said, you take the Egyptians out of their own history, against all evidence.
Dr. Soliman began working on excavations in Egypt while a student before joining the museum. He is one of the leaders of the museum-affiliated team that normally spends weeks each year in the village of Sakkara, just south of Cairo, excavating tombs in the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis.
Unlike archaeological digs carried out by Europeans or Americans in the past – as evidenced by photographs of Howard Carter’s famous discovery of King Tut’s tomb – the Leiden archaeological team is careful to highlight the contributions of Egyptian workers , highlighting them in photographs and online newspapers on the excavations of each season. These efforts are part of a growing trend in Egyptology aimed at giving Egyptians, once neglected in the study of their own country’s history, greater prominence in the field.
But that no longer mattered after news of Dr. Soliman’s exposure spread.
The Dutch museum appeared slightly stunned by the tone of criticism on social media, noting that while it welcomed “respectful dialogue,” racist or offensive comments would be removed.
Scholars tend to study ancient Egypt as part of the Mediterranean world, with cultural and political ties to Greece and Rome, as well as to Nubia, which roughly coincides with modern-day Sudan.
Although there is no scientific consensus on the appearance or ethnic ancestry of the ancient Egyptians, many classicists argue that it is inappropriate to talk about race in that era, given that the ancients did not classify people like we do today.
Today’s Egyptians, like the dialect they speak, descend from a family tree with many branches. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Albanians all conquered Egypt centuries ago. The Circassians arrived as slaves, the Arabs from the Levant and the Western Europeans as businessmen. Nubians still live in southern Egypt.
But it is Islam and the Arabic language that now predominate, uniting Egypt with the predominantly Arab and Muslim Middle East and North Africa, rather than with the rest of the continent on which it sits.
“Egypt is in a league of its own,” said David Abulafia, a Cambridge University historian who studies the ancient world. “With everyone lumped together, nuance has often been lost in the way African history is presented, as a bloc. »
But for Typhoon, the Dutch rapper, Egyptian exceptionalism is fueled by discredited European theories that were “used to determine which ancient cultures were considered important and therefore could not belong to Africa,” he explains in the audio tour.
Such theories, he said, “separated ancient Egypt from its African context.”
Nina Siegal contributed reporting from Amsterdam.