Destroy the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx? Murgan Salem al-Gohary, a leader of Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafist party, recently called on Muslims to do just this on Egyptian Dream TV. According to Gohary, Egypt’s iconic cultural treasures must be eliminated as a “religiously mandated act of iconoclasm,” for the same reasons as Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March of 2001.
Claiming that he had indeed participated in blowing up the Buddhas, Gohary said:
“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.
With the sight of the majestic Buddha statues being blasted with dynamite still fresh, the thought of a similar fate occurring to the pyramids is chilling. In Foreign Policy, Ian Straughn suggests that Gohary’s threat is certainly geared to grab media attention and all the more in today’s post-Arab Spring Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are in power and while debates about the status of women and of minorities and about Egypt’s relations with the West are ongoing.
The Pyramids Have Faced Threats To Their Existence For Centuries
The pyramids have faced numerous threats since they were erected by the pharaohs. In the ancient world alone, Egypt was under the rule of the Persians and the Romans. In medieval times, the pyramids’ limestone casement was pillaged to build cities (including Cairo).
Starting in the 19th century, amateur archaeologists helped to awaken the world to the artifacts hidden in tombs in Egypt. But they also oversaw the transporting (some would say pillaging) of numerous archaeological finds into foreign museums, many of which are now in awkward disputes with Egypt’s government over repatriating objects. Today, pollution of a sort the ancients could never have fathomed threatens numerous ancient sites.
Many of us in the West were riveted by the image of Egyptians guarding the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square during the protests that would lead to the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Those archaeological treasures, and the Sphinx and the pyramids, are part of the world’s cultural heritage and must be protected not only by Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities but also by international governments. This is common knowledge if not common sense to many of us.
Reconciling the Pyramids and Muslim Beliefs
As Straughn details, since the medieval age, Islamic scholars and others have sought to understand — to reconcile their religious beliefs to — the pyramids and other remains of Egypt’s long past. On seeing the destruction of antiquities, al-Masudi, a 10th century Muslim traveler in Egypt, argued that respecting these is “not incompatible with Islam.” Ancient structures and objects indeed “strengthen the Quranic injunction to search out and contemplate the lessons (‘ibar) which the divine has left for believers in the landscape.”
Today, even while very much aware of “the role that these ruins play in the economy and various state efforts to represent Egypt as a modern-day heir to one of the world’s great civilizations,” Straughn notes that there is “a palpable discomfort with this promotion and glorification of a pre-Islamic past.” It could be said that, as in Italy, there is something of a “love-hate” push-and-pull with the country’s archaeological heritage, which engulfs tremendous amounts of resources “at the expense of the welfare of an Islamic past, present, and future.”
Tourism accounts for more than 11 percent of Egypt’s economy, which has struggled in the post-Mubarak era; the importance of the pyramids and other ancient sites is certainly understood. The pyramids, in Straughn’s estimation, are not likely to suffer the fate of the Buddhas of Bamiyan; Gohary’s call to destroy the pyramids encapsulates “the broader debate within the religion [of Islam] over how to orient itself after the Arab Spring.”
The recent collision of a schoolbus with a train — resulting in at least 50 dead, most young children — suggests that Egypt still falls short in addressing issues like safety on its roadways. The pyramids are likely to remain a point of debate and even contention so long as Egypt remains a place that many associate more with its past than the very real demands of its present.
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