In March 2001, Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, exploding the statues and reducing to rubble some of Afghanistan's most important cultural relics. That act seemed to epitomize the cultural intolerance of the Taliban regime but also drew attention to the ways in which cultural heritage preservation has become used as a measure of civilized behavior of states in an era of global cosmopolitanism. For those concerned about the future of the world's antiquities, this week another threat emerged on the horizon. In an interview with Egyptian Dream TV over the weekend, Salafist leader Murgan Salem al-Gohary called on Muslims to destroy the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx as a religiously mandated act of iconoclasm. "The idols and statutes that fill Egypt must be destroyed. Muslims are tasked with applying the teachings of Islam and removing these idols, just like we did in Afghanistan when we smashed the Buddha statues," said Gohary, who claims to have participated in the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan and was arrested on several occasions under the Mubarak regime.
Forget for a minute the gross improbability of Gohary's threat to destroy millions tons of sheer rock and stone, monuments that have survived foreign invasions, rapacious pillagers, and environmental threats. It is a move almost guaranteed to draw media attention, particularly with the high level of anxiety surrounding the new political clout of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of the Salafist al-Nour party as a significant force in both the government and the charting of a new constitution. Fears over how Islamists might fare in post-Mubarak Egypt have only intensified amid a roiling debate over issues such as the role of women, the inclusion of minorities, and the country's position toward Western interests. Amid this debate, Egypt's Pharaonic remains have now become the latest touchstone for controversy.
At first glance, this latest conflict might appear to boil down to a clash between conservative and liberal strands of Islam, but the debate over Egypt's antiquities dates back centuries. Medieval Islamic scholars worked assiduously to understand the relics, with some attempting to decipher the hieroglyphic inscriptions. By the late 19th century, Egypt's archeological sites were the center of a nationalist struggle that became crystallized in the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb and how to partition its treasures between the state and the site's excavators. But that conflict was but a variation on a theme in Egypt's history. During the era of Egypt's entanglement with European imperialism following the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, the new field of Egyptology would emerge to dominate the representation of Egypt and assert control over the country's heritage. That heritage has also become an important political symbol in Egypt's more recent history -- both Anwar Sadat and Mubarak were derided as latter-day pharaohs for their authoritarian tendencies.
In early 2011, demonstrators tried to protect the Egyptian Museum adjacent to Tahrir Square from criminals who sought to use the chaos of the protests as a cover for looting its treasures. At the same time, illicit dealing of Egyptian antiquities continues, despite the tough rhetoric of the Supreme Council for Antiquities and its longstanding efforts to repatriate artifacts that found their way into foreign museums in an era when such transfers were either legally sanctioned or laws restricting their sale poorly enforced.
But Egypt's archaeological heritage and the remarkable monuments of the Giza Plateau are no strangers to threats. In recent decades, the steady encroachment of the urban metropolis of Cairo and its toxic air has prompted calls for Egypt, its antiquities authorities, and international organizations to come to the rescue of the country's cultural heritage. In previous centuries it was the work of largely European and American antiquarians, adventurers, and tourists who took their toll on these fabled structures and their potential riches. These early Egyptologists made important scientific gains and important contributions to knowledge, but those discoveries must be considered alongside the theft of artifacts and an insatiable desire to acquire and collect that motivated many who entered the field.
Even earlier, the limestone casement of the Pyramids were pillaged and served as a quarry, providing stone for the construction of the medieval cities of Fustat and its successor Cairo (al-Qahira in Arabic -- literally "The Victorious One"). Most recently, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, the worry was that the most impending danger to the site would be neglect. During the revolution, tourism in Egypt came to a standstill and receipts from ticket booths plunged by as much as 50 percent. During my visit to the pyramids in December 2011, during what should be the high season for tourist activity, lines were nonexistent and shopkeepers selling souvenirs and tour guides offering camel rides had become morose at the prospects facing their small corner of the Egyptian economy.