In a foreign land: documentation of The Other

Hassan reviews and critiques Egyptology in “Egypt in the Memory of the World” (2011). The anthropological goal of interpreting a culture on its own terms continues this week as Hassan notes that many early written texts describing the lives, politics, and ideology of ancient Egyptians have been handed down in the Western world from Greeks who were foreigners in Classical Egypt. Secondary sources are common fodder in historical archaeology. The writers may or may not be from the same culture as their informants and/or subjects. How much of what they transcribed was lost in linguistic and inter-cultural translation?

Anubis, carved in the Roman style. Picture by F. Bucher via Wikimedia Commons.

Westernized notions of Egyptians as a variably constructed Other (sometimes the evil pagan, sometimes the holder of true Knowledge) changed throughout the ages, as new actors used Egyptian symbols in their own agendas. These individuals may not intend to be manipulative in their use – of course, colonial Europeans certainly did believe they were the cultural descendants of Romans and that they had inherited the right to “civilize” other cultures.

I am reminded of modern politicians using a Golden Past to condemn our 21st century world. The Bible is often used to prove moral legitimacy, despite the Main Point never appearing in the holy book. This is an excellent example of using the glorious past, true or not, to establish one’s own legitimacy or a group’s hegemonic power.

“The past may be deployed to assert an identity, legitimize a political agenda, or win support for economic projects” (269).

Ethan noted in lecture that Herodotus was trying to link Egyptian and Greek gods in order to ally the two countries against the Persian empire. How accurately would he have described any of the three in his writings? Whether or not this was state-sponsored propaganda, one’s enemies are frequently demonized as The Other – they become a “natural” antagonist.

The same problem is encountered in trying to situate Nubian archaeology in a historical framework. Egyptian writings are naturally Egyptocentric, but these and later Arabic writings are among the only surviving documents describing Nubian culture before the Islamic conversion in the 7th century. How, then, do we deal with the foreignness of the writers’ perspectives, especially from an enemy nation/empire? Fortunately, anthropologists have become critical of documents and self-critical. In the 21st century, we take a critical approach to such documents and test them against expectations in the archaeology – never forgetting that we, too, are cultural outsiders and bring our own biases to interpretations.

References:

Bard KA. 2007. Chapter 1. Introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub p 3-17.

Hassan FA. 2010. Egypt in the Memory of the World. In: Wendrich W, editor. Egyptian Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell Pub. p 259–273.