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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2003) 684-685

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Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. By Donald Malcolm Reid (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002) 409pp. $35.00

The history of Egyptology, from Napoleon to the tomb of Tutankhamun, is a chronicle of looting, skullduggery, and dedicated scholarship against often impossible odds. But it has always been a story of foreign archaeologists, until now. Whose Pharaohs? analyzes the same history from an Egyptian perspective, using archives, newspapers, and other primary sources to show how the intricate cross-currents of imperialism and nationalism intersected with ideals of universal knowledge. [End Page 684]

Reid begins by describing early images of ancient Egyptian civilization before Napoleon's invasion of 1798 and inserts important Egyptian players into an otherwise familiar story, among them Rifaa al-Tahtawi, a reformist scholar, pioneer in historic preservation, and author of the first book in Arabic on ancient Egyptian civilization, published in 1868.

The explosion of tourism with the development of the steamship and the digging of the Suez Canal brought lasting changes to the Egyptian economy, and the first attempts to make pharaonic history and ancient Egypt more accessible to Egyptians. Here Reid covers new ground, with an engrossing analysis of the first attempts to train Egyptian-born Egyptologists, doomed by the hostility of the redoubtable Auguste Mariette—the French archaeologist who became Egypt's Conservator of Monuments—and of the first local learned societies with indigenous membership. Reid also describes the impact of Hellenism on Egyptian scholars, notably through the writings of al-Tahtawi, whose book on ancient Egypt declared that his native land was the mother of Greece. The Egyptian astronomer Mahmoud al-Falaki mapped the topography of ancient Alexandria and excavated in the city as early as the 1860s. His work is still consulted by classical scholars.

French Egyptologist Gaspar Maspero became Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1881. Reid traces British-French rivalry during the late nineteenth century, and describes the sterling career of Ahmad Kamal, who was appointed secretary/translator at the Bulaq Museum in 1881. Kamal became an assistant curator in 1890—appointed by a Frenchman to thwart attempts to bring in a Briton. He became a respected Egyptologist with distinguished publications to his credit, but he failed to establish the subject as a profession for Egyptians.

Not content with only Egyptology, Reid also traces the beginnings of interest in Islamic art and architecture, and the Egyptian involvement in the founding of the Museum of Arab Art in Cairo in the 1880s. He devotes an important chapter to Marcus Simaika, a Copt, who was instrumental in founding the Coptic Museum in 1908 and fought tirelessly for the preservation of Christian antiquities.

The Egyptian pioneers lived their lives in the shadow of colonial occupation. The quasi-independence gained by Egypt in 1922 coincided with the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb and ensured that the finds remained in the country. The same independence led to Egypt's gradual control of an antiquities service and of museums previously run by foreigners, fully achieved in the 1950s.

Whose Pharaohs? is meticulously researched, using original Arabic and other sources, which required much study beyond the disciplinary frontiers of conventional history. As a result, Reid brings a remarkable array of hitherto unexploited sources to bear on early Egyptology.


Brian Fagan
University of California, Santa Barbara



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