The Amon Temple in Egypt. Image credit Jean-Marc via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Egyptian social media has been in a furor over the African American comedian Kevin Hart saying that black people were kings in Ancient Egypt. Online, one can see Egyptian men arguing that Hart’s words reflect “dangerous Afrocentric claims” that contemporary Egyptians are invaders of a previously black Egypt. This isn’t the first time that Afrocentric approaches to Ancient Egypt have been taken as insults on Egyptian social media. Quite recently the scholar Hisham Aidi addressed a similar controversy in his article “Egypt and the Afrocentrists.” So what on earth is going on?
The first impulse might be to argue that Egyptian social media is simply reacting against the thinkers labeled as Black Orientalists. The original revisionist historians of the Afrocentric movement—such as Cheikh Anta Diop—saw contemporary Egyptians as black and argued that ancient Egypt was the same, much like how Malcolm X saw contemporary Egypt as a black country.
On the other hand, Black Orientalists reify medieval Arab myths that contemporary Egyptians are all Arab settlers from the Gulf, rather than being the original inhabitants of Egypt who had intermarried with many different groups over the centuries. This is a violent argument over the meaning of indigeneity as tied to claims of belonging in the modern nation-state. However, backlash against Black Orientalists does not fully explain why Egyptians react so strongly against being called or labeled black.
Instead, I argue that the real issue with Afrocentrism for Egyptian social media is that the study of Ancient Egypt is heavily tied to the modern Egyptian national identity—whose racial inheritances were studied by Eve Troutt Powell in A Different Shade of Colonialism—and Egyptology was and remains a heavily racialized field. The practice of Egyptology remains wildly colonial, with popular British “vintage Egyptology” accounts celebrating colonial aesthetics, government conservation efforts often portraying average Egyptians as enemies of ancient history, and celebrations of Egyptology often erasing the Egyptians who worked to uncover the treasures we know today. But the specifically racialized nature of Egyptology has not been properly decolonized in Egypt either, and this shapes the social media furor over Afrocentrism in several ways.
First, colonial Egyptologists used race science to argue that Ancient Egypt was “Aryan” and therefore dominated nearby nations seen as “Negro”. As Scott Trafton explains in Egypt land: race and nineteenth-century American Egyptomania, this led to years of academic erasure of the pharaohs of Nubia and the 25th Dynasty in Kush. In turn, Elliott Colla pointed out in Conflicted Antiquities how 19th-century elite Egyptians used these arguments to justify their new dominion over Sudan in 1820 as merely being continued from ancient times. This helps explain why contemporary Egyptians on social media still associate images of dark skin from Ancient Egypt with Sudan and being “non-Egyptian,” and why contemporary Egyptians belittle the pyramids in Sudan using racist language.
Second, colonial Egyptologists popularized the use of race science as a way of categorizing modern Egyptian identity. While British colonial Egyptologists initially argued that ancient Egypt was “Aryo-Semitic” and contemporary Egypt was “Negroid,” the elite of Egypt at the turn of the 20th century instead argued that contemporary Egyptians are the heirs and direct descendants of the pharaohs. Academic articles up until the 1960s still openly used the terms of race science to describe Egyptians’ identity, and the practice of arguing that Egyptians are not related to black Africans has now been heavily revived online through what Dorothy Roberts has termed the recreated genetic language of race science.
Third, I argue in my forthcoming thesis that the use of race science in Egyptology provided an entry point for the language of eugenics to creep into Egypt in the early 20th century. The spread of “soft” eugenics via the rhetoric of family control by the elite of Egypt led to the “scientification” of racist beauty ideals, and this eugenic language is widespread in Egypt today. For example, the racist idea of “tahsin al-nasal” so commonly seen on Egyptian social media is simply the equivalent of Latin American “mejorar la raza” or “improving the race”. This is why we also see Egyptian men on social media explicitly saying that they should marry light-skinned women to combat “the invasion of the Africans,” portraying blackness as foreign to Egypt.
But Egyptology alone cannot explain why it is now that Egyptians on social media wield this furor against the idea of black pharaohs. Rather, the legacies of Egyptology must be read in the context of 21st-century border control. Unlike the romanticized mid-century pan-African moment in Egyptian politics, Egyptian borders have become tightly controlled against migration. As most recently seen in post-coup Tunisia, but previously seen in Gaddafi’s Libya as well, political leaders across the Mediterranean use anti-migrant and fascist “Great Replacement” rhetoric to violently enforce their modern borders and prevent refugees from accessing the EU. In these contexts, border control becomes an ever-more racialized way of controlling a fixed Egyptian identity, and all challenges to that fixed identity are met with social furor, as seen in the violent dispersals of the black migrant protesters in al-Muhandiseen in 2005.
To decolonize Egyptology, we cannot only study race science in history. We must also stand against how borders invisibly reify race in our modern lives from the US to Egypt today.
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