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‘Egypt is a palimpsest'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 12 - 2018

Archaeologist Monica Hanna is in Cairo for two days before she heads back to Aswan where she heads the newly created Archaeology and Cultural Heritage School in the region, a faculty of the Alexandria-based Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport (AASCMT).
Hanna, who did her undergraduate degree at the American University in Cairo before going to Italy for a doctoral degree in Pisa, is full of passion for this newly launched project. It is one she lobbied for herself as part of a wider campaign to champion the nation's collective and diverse cultural heritage.
“Look at the city of Aswan, look at its diversity, social, religious, ethnic and natural. Almost everything that is Egyptian is there in this great city in the south of our rich and culturally diverse country. For me, it is very important that we never lose sight of who we are as a whole,” Hanna said.
The launch of the new faculty in Aswan, starting in autumn 2018, is about much more than the advancement of her own academic pursuits. It is, she said emphatically, about re-launching the teaching of the country's cultural heritage, understanding this as a multi-layered palimpsest.
“People talk a lot about history, and of course history is important. However, in our case cultural heritage is just as important, as it is this which really brings the past well into the present. It is this that I want to focus on — this sense of continuity and connectivity in Egypt,” Hanna stressed.
It is, she argued, through the promotion of the cultural heritage that is there, rather than of a history that was there, that the cause of saving historic buildings, objects and manuscripts can be best promoted. Otherwise, she fears, the dedicated efforts of conservationists will always fail to have essential public support.
“I cannot expect people to defend things they don't necessarily relate to or maybe don't know enough about,” she said. “Making a space for young men and women to learn and to build on what they acquire is essential,” she added.
However, for Hanna, her new academic endeavour is only part of her work and it cannot be sufficient in and by itself in addressing what she diagnoses as an acute deficit of knowledge about the country's collective and diverse heritage.
The time is now ripe to revisit the way history is taught in schools and to look again at curricula that are often dry to the point of being off-putting and insubstantial to the point of being uninformative.
“It is about what history is all about. It is about bringing historical facts within a contextual frame of knowledge and linking this knowledge to present realities,” Hanna stressed. “It is about really showing the many connected and integrated layers of the whole collective heritage that make us who we are today. We are a palimpsest, and this is something worth cherishing.”
Hanna is hoping that her new faculty in Aswan will attract students from many backgrounds. Most of all, she is hoping that the project will be one of many more to come and possibly the beginning of a new take by the nation's universities on teaching history, archaeology, archaeological ethnography and anthropology.
Education, Hanna argued, is crucial in saving a rich but at times endangered cultural heritage. “When I ask young people who live near by the Valley of the Kings to draw a Pharaonic item and they draw a pyramid rather than one of the many monuments they live next to, this shows that they have probably not been on a single school tour to monuments that are just across the river. This precisely illustrates my point about cultural knowledge and heritage,” she noted.
However, education cannot just be about schools and universities, she added. It is also about the media that does not seem to be doing enough and is not being effectively used to spread knowledge.
coptic art
ALL INVOLVED: For Hanna, it is not only the government that should be doing more to raise awareness of the country's cultural heritage. It is also a cause that civil society should be doing more to champion.
“Let us think of what residents of Heliopolis feel when some of the villas of the early years of this area are knocked down to allow for more high-rises. We just stand by helplessly. But if the community related more to the villas there would have been enough pressure to save the architectural wealth that is now being lost,” she argued.
The same thing goes for Alexandria, the Suez Canal cities, the Delta and the Upper Egyptian cities where many buildings that told stories of “lives not history” have been forever lost.
Hanna hopes that one day every Egyptian will feel a sense of association with the heritage of the country. This contrasts to the case today, when only those who live in Heliopolis relate to the suburb and only those who lived or have often been to Alexandria are saddened by the loss of the city's buildings.
The lack of awareness, and the subsequent lack of interest, is something that must be fought, as must the lack of awareness of the heritage of tribes living on the borders of the country.
“This is why I keep arguing that we need to build a sense of collective ownership of the country's layered and diverse heritage,” she stressed.
Hanna herself has been at the forefront of a lobbying campaign to save an Islamic manuscript dating to the era of Qansuh Al-Ghuri, an Egyptian Mamluke sultan of the 16th century. The manuscript was offered for auction in London in October, but thanks to a campaign led by Hanna and others the 30-page manuscript of the Quran was removed from auction and negotiations are underway to return it to the Egyptian Archives.
“When I was working for this campaign, I was doing so out of the firm conviction that as an Egyptian Copt this was also part of my heritage and I did not want to see it go astray,” she stressed.
Hanna “feels equally responsible to defend a mosque in Islamic Cairo or a monastery from the Byzantine era.” It is a feeling that she wishes more Egyptians would share. It is in the same spirit that she has been following a conflict between the Coptic Church of Egypt and the Church of Ethiopia over a monastery in Jerusalem.
“I look at this as part of my heritage too. I understand that there was a time when the Egyptian and Ethiopian Churches were one, but that there are very different styles of architecture in the two Churches and that the debate on the monastery's restoration should be decided upon by mediation, notably by the International Centre for Conservation in Rome,” Hanna said.
She things about the “the continued and uninterrupted presence of the Copts in Egypt” in the same way, she said. “This presence is part of a larger Egyptian presence, and when we lose the monuments that are testimony to this presence we are actually losing the contextual evidence for this presence, which again does not just belong to Coptic Christians,” she stressed.
Hanna is aware that she is perhaps unusual to have developed this sense rather than be acting as an advocate of Coptic heritage. But she is sure that it is something that could be more widely acquired “if we chose to spare our cultural heritage from the grips of any religious authority.”
She would not want to see the Christian or Islamic authorities take hold of the cultural heritage narrative of either the Christian or Muslim presence in Egypt. “Their spiritual role is to be respected, but when we talk about cultural heritage this goes beyond the boundaries of religion. If it is forced within those limited boundaries, then inevitably Copts will worry about churches and Muslims will worry about mosques and hardly anyone will worry about synagogues, and this will be a loss for the cohesion of the country's heritage,” she argued.
“Our commitment to inclusivity is crucial for our shared coexistence, and it is the best antidote to radicalism and isolationism,” she said.
Hanna is hopeful that her work and that of others who are equally dedicated to the cause will eventually allow the government to work along with civil society in the application of a comprehensive strategy for the promotion and preservation of the nation's collective cultural heritage.
“There is so much to be done, in terms of education, in terms of allowing free trips to museums and historic sites at least once a month for students, and in terms of allocating room in the media for attractive and truly informative programmes and documentaries.”
I just hope we will start somewhere soon,” she concluded.


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