"During the past two thousand years Ancient Egypt has effectively been destroyed, both by the Egyptians themselves and by a host of foreigners, many of them arriving in the Nile Valley in the name of science and nationalism. The loss to archaeology is incalculable, that to Egyptian history even more staggering. As a result of the looting and pillage of generations of irresponsible visitors, the artifacts and artistic achievements of the Ancient Egyptians are scattered all over the globe, some of the most beautiful and spectacular of them stored or displayed thousands of miles from the Nile."
(From pages 11-12)
Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved learning about Ancient Egypt. I remember trips to the British Museum with my Mum to gawp at the Rosetta stone and writing my name in hieroglyphs at primary school. Later, at university, I studied Egyptian language as part of a linguistics unit and I've read countless books on the Ancient Egyptians themselves. The story of the European rediscovery of the Nile Valley in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is an exciting one, full of Indiana Jones type figures, such as Giovanni Belzoni. But in The Rape of the Nile, Fagan challenges the actions of Western treasure seekers and archaeologists. Who gave them the right to remove the artifacts from Egypt and keep them in foreign museums?
It's hard to argue with Fagan's arguments as there is some shocking behaviour on the part of early Egyptologists in the book. Whilst Fagan does cover tomb robbing and looting through Ancient Egyptian to Islamic times, the real pillage only starts with the arrival of Westerners in the form of Napoleon's expedition. We read about tombs being blown open with dynamite (and a near miss with one of the great pyramids), reliefs scraped off walls and my personal favourite, a sarcophagus being chopped in two as the whole thing was harder to transport. The early treasure seekers had little more than the desire to acquire exotic things, so there was no attempt at scientific recording or archaeology. So much was lost.
Fagan does balance his argument with stories of the pioneers who tried to make archaeology in Egypt more scientific and less about the treasure seeking, but it all comes too little too late. Egypt doesn't get a fully functioning national museum until late in the day and the patronising 'we can look after them better than you' attitude continues to this day. I read an early edition of this book (1977) but I know there is a more up to date one out there - it would be interesting to see what Fagan makes of the modern argument that Western museums should return some of their treasures to Cairo, put forward by people like Hawass. However, the benefit of reading the 1977 edition (pulled out of the reserve stacks of the library) was that it was a beautiful copy, hard back with illustrations on most pages.
I loved this book, but I can appreciate that some people might find it a little dry. Fagan has an engaging writing style but the book is fairly detailed and you would need a keen interest in Egyptology before starting in order to enjoy it properly. It's one I would recommend though, it's got a good balance of the history of what happened to Egypt in modern time and of the moral issues surrounding Egyptology.
First Published: 1975
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Egypt: How A Lost Civilization was Rediscovered by Joyce Tyldesley (link to goodreads): I read this one pre-blogging and it's a great introduction to the big personalities in the European rediscovery of Egypt, Carter (who found Tut), Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphs) and Belzoni (who collected the treasures of the British Museum).