Why does the West care? Egyptomania, White Man’s Burden, and Orientalism

By Simurgh Staff 

Egyptomania is the total fascination with anything related to Ancient Egypt in popular culture and exists particularly outside of Middle Eastern societies.¹ The Egyptomania phenomenon has persisted for decades. It reveals itself in film, music videos, art, and fashion, through depictions of Egypt’s most famous symbols of ancient civilization such as mummies, hieroglyphs, and the pyramids.² The history of this Western popular culture phenomenon is engulfed in the mystical classification of Egypt’s antiquities and dates to Napoleon Bonaparte’s scientific expedition to Egypt in 1798. Bonaparte brought 400 ships and 54,000 men to Egypt, along with 150 scientists, engineers and scholars to collect cultural artifacts for study.³ When they returned to France, the first volume of the Description de l’Égypte was published in 1809, describing the discovery of tombs with in-depth descriptions of artifacts and cultural symbols. The European obsession with Egyptian cultural heritage began with this French conquest of Egypt. More recently, the origins of some Egyptian antiquities in Western museums have been exposed as stolen goods originally taken as cultural treasures and spoils of war.⁴ 

Egyptomania can describe part of the motive behind the preservation and reconstruction of historical sites by Western nations, Western based NGOs, and international organizations across Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Historical sites may be preserved and antiquities appropriated to satisfy American and European fascination with the exoticism of the Middle East—orientalism. In a sense, museum attractions are a frontier through which culture becomes a public spectacle.

Preservation also serves as a tool to shift anti-Western narrative in the Middle East. “Hearts and minds” is a method of countering and preventing insurgent uprisings and terrorism for the purpose of reducing anti-American sentiment. Hearts and minds efforts encourage people to abandon support for opposition movements by appealing to their emotion or intellect. For example, a hearts and minds campaign may include cultural heritage preservation projects to demonstrate that the United States cares about the heritage of the people they are assisting. In 2003, United States General David Petraeus focused on winning hearts and minds in Iraq by rebuilding infrastructure and restoring religious sites in Mosul that were destroyed during the initial invasion during Operation Iraqi Freedom.   

Another motive behind the Western initiative toward cultural preservation in the Middle East is Rudyard Kipling’s idea of the “white man’s burden.”⁵ The white man’s burden is the idea that privileged, white people have the responsibility to raise up “uncivilized” non-white people for the betterment of the world. It describes the racist ideology of British colonialism as they took up the “responsibilities” of Westerners, indicating that they understood themselves as more civilized and somehow better than others across Africa and the Middle East. Colonialism promoted the advancement of the colonists’ own position—they profited while others suffered.  

The lure of Egyptomania and the Middle East as a mystical, exotic land is related to orientalism, a concept discussed by Edward Said in his 1978 book of the same title.⁶ Orientalism is a post-colonial theory which explores preconceived notions about the Middle East. Edward Said notes that Westerners see the Middle East through an orientalist lens based on art, novels, and textiles depicting its people as uncivilized, exotic, or mysterious. The artists behind those works popular in the west were often created by people who had never been to the Middle East who constructed the images based their own thoughts or how someone else described it to them.

by alittleblackegg,CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The continuation of Egyptomania, orientalist thought, and the white man’s burden could influence the way Westerns go about preservation projects in the Middle East. Regardless of the true reasoning behind preservation projects, the involvement of Western people and organizations is influenced by the past.

1. Fritze, Ronald H. Egyptomania: A History of Fascination Obsession and Fantasy. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 
2. Brier, Bob. “Egyptomania: What Accounts for Intoxication with Things Egyptian?” Archaeology. 2004, 57(1): 16-22.  
3. Tignor, Robert. Egypt: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. p. 196-7. 
4. Cuno, James B. Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 71–86.  
5. Kipling, Rudyard. Modern History Sourcebook: Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden. 1899. Accessed via https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/kipling.asp
6. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.  

Authenticity and Fakes

Authenticity of museum objects becomes a big issue when fakes slip through careful research. This causes controversy, regardless of whether the museum knew of the fakes or not. Egyptian museums present themselves as a case study in object authenticity as this has not been simply a contemporary issue. Arguably, for as long as Egyptian artifacts have been considered valuable, fakes have appeared. However, the present has made authenticity an important topic to discuss when considering the preservation and destruction of cultural heritage. 

Forgery is used primarily as an economic means. Museums now face pressure surrounding the confirmation of the authenticity of their own objects. Fakes can be highly detailed and confuse even highly trained specialists. This was the case for a sarcophagus death mask at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a dealer in Egypt had sold the piece to the museum with “proper” documentation to support its authenticity; it was later found that everything was forged with precise detail.1

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo dealt with a similar situation when a scholar questioned the authenticity of the Meidium Geese plaster wall painting.2 Francesco Tiradritti, an Egyptologist from Italy, argued that the geese within the painting could not have been in Egypt at the time it was created.3 This caused an uproar amongst Egyptologists. Dr. Zani Hawass, former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, argued that “This of course is completely false”, citing Tiradritti’s loose argument and lack of testing The painting was later proved authentic, but Francesco Tiradritti believes that there is possibly another painting hidden underneath the geese that only time and careful analysis will reveal.5 

Villagers in the village of Sheikh Ibad, Egypt have produced sculptures, which were bought indirectly by the Brooklyn Museum, that were mistaken as authentic Coptic Art (art made in Egypt between 200-700 CE).6 Without considering issues of inheritance, it is crucial for museums to be aware that a good portion of the Coptic Art coming from this village are fakes.7 The main source of confusion surrounding authenticity of these objects, which the Brooklyn Museum and the Egyptian Museum fell for, is the backup material associated with the pieces of work. Taking the fake Coptic Art as an example, multiple scholars and organizations have claimed that they were real without any legitimate documentation to support their assertions.8 

Authentic Coptic Vase owned by the Brooklyn Museum
“Censer”. CC BY 3.0

However, having fake artifacts in a museum’s collection is not always a bad thing. Many museums have used the accidental purchases as an opportunity to speak on this issue, bringing awareness to their visitors and educating on the issue of forgery that is associated with artifacts related to the cultural heritage of the Middle East.9  


  1. Fake Egyptian antiquities
  2. Egypt’s Famous ‘Meidum Geese’ Painting May Be a Fake
  3. The Meidum Geese Are Not A Fake
  4. Egypt’s Famous ‘Meidum Geese’ Painting May Be a Fake
  5. Egypt’s Famous ‘Meidum Geese’ Painting May Be a Fake
  6. The Meidum Geese Are Not A Fake
  7. Brooklyn Museum and Fake Coptic Art
  8. Brooklyn Museum and Fake Coptic Art
  9. Brooklyn Museum and Fake Coptic Art

Exhibitions as Communications Tools

By Julianna Whalen

Museums and exhibitions communicate cultural messages that go beyond the art and artifacts that are displayed. Western exhibitions of Middle Eastern and North African cultural heritage speak to history, ownership, and agency. These displays of artifacts from other cultures have stirred controversy and criticisms.

Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.
Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.

American archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (“King Tut”) on a British funded expedition to Egypt. The tomb of the young pharaoh escaped looting in antiquity, leaving it filled to the brim with precious artifacts. Tensions rose over ownership rights: were the findings Egypt’s property or the world’s property, as part of a shared global history?

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0

Fifty-five tomb artifacts journeyed to the United States in the 1970s as part of a traveling exhibition that communicated the tomb’s objects as golden universal art, rather than artifacts with historical significance1. The rhetoric and display tactics utilized by American museums on Tutankhamun’s treasures lacked any form of homage paid to their African-ness.2

The Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to backlash with a short publication titled “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage”.3 Despite uncomfortable questions and closed-minded narratives surrounding exhibition tactics, Americans embraced “Tutmania” in popular culture, ranging from t-shirts to Saturday Night Live skits.  

In 2013, the British Museum opened a pop-up exhibition titled Modern Egypt in Cairo. Displayed objects from the 20th and 21st centuries included a sewing machine decorated with Arabic script and a picture of Nefertiti.4 The British Museum later installed the same objects as a one-case-exhibition in their Egyptian galleries.5 Modern Egypt confronted the “what is Egypt?” question that emerged due to the original American Tutankhamun exhibition. The Modern Egypt exhibition also represented contemporary Egypt, as a way for the British Museum to avoid framing Egypt solely in a historical sense (with objects collected during British colonial rule).

It must be considered whether the British Museum is actually concerned about contemporary Egypt or if they are just looking to make themselves look better; the British Museum continues to display the Rosetta Stone despite Egyptian museum officials asking for its return for display in the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).6 

Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen
Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen

Other western exhibitions have discussed the contemporary Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through the lens of cultural heritage preservation and destruction. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq at the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) included artifacts from their collection and contributions from the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries. Contemporary art by Syrian-born Issam Kourbaj spoke to the Syrian refugee crisis.7 Video clips throughout the exhibition contrasted ISIS destruction with preservation efforts. The exhibition’s curatorial choices were shaped by a collaboration between archaeologists, curators, and cultural heritage preservation specialists from the United States and Syria.  

Damascus Opera House, 2010. 
Photo by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0

Cultural heritage preservation has also been a focus of exhibitions within Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. In Syria, looted artifacts were displayed at the Damascus opera house in October 2018. The artifacts included in the exhibition spanned all of Syria’s history. While the exhibition featured hundreds of artifacts, more than 9,000 have been recovered after being looted.8 Chief of antiquities Mahmoud Hamoud reports that there are still thousands of missing archaeological pieces.9 The nature of the exhibition speaks to the ongoing process to recover Syria’s cultural heritage. 

Museums across Syria and Iraq that closed to protect their precious artifacts are beginning to reopen. The Mosul Museum hosted Return to Mosul, a five-day contemporary art exhibition, proving that “war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance”.10 Twenty-nine artists’ works were featured in Return to Mosul, including Marwan Fathi, Hawkar Riskin, and Ahmed Mozahem. People around the world can walk through the exhibition via Google Arts & Culture; this curatorial choice communicates concern and awareness regarding accessibility. 

The National Library and Archives of Egypt reopened in 2019 after sustaining significant damage from a 2014 car bomb blast targeting the nearby Cairo Police Headquarters.11 Egyptian graphic designers Ghada Wali and Dalia Hassan Bahig rebranded the library in collaboration the reopening. Choices made in the rebranding process focused on contemporizing and increasing accessibility to the library’s collections. The rebranding project occurred under the Thesaurus Islamicus foundation and Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya Manuscript project.12 

The messages communicated by exhibitions can be explicit or implicit. Regardless of the way in which statements are conveyed, exhibitions of art and artifacts around the world have expressed messages about race, war, preservation, and destruction in the Middle East and North Africa. 

  1. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 82-83. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  2. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 90-91. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Collecting Modern Egypt and Modern Egypt: On Objects that Represent the World 
  5. Collecting Modern Egypt 
  6. Egyptian Museum Calls for Rosetta Stone to be Returned from UK after 200 Years 
  7. Issam Kourbaj: About 
  8. Syria’s Recovered Antiquities Go on Display at Damascus Opera 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  11. Graphic Designer Ghada Wali Rebrands The National Library of Egypt 
  12. Ibid. 

Accessibility: Cultural Sites During Conflict

By Julianna Whalen

During periods of conflict, archaeological sites and museums have reduced accessibility due to site closure, safety concerns, and lower tourism numbers. Protecting artifacts became a global priority after ISIS looted and destroyed thousands of artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq (in Baghdad) in April 2003. Many museums sent artifacts away for safekeeping—protecting them on-site when necessary—and shuttered their doors: anything to keep the priceless heritage safe.

Lion of Al-Law in the museum garden. Photo by Mappo (Marco Paolo Giuliano). Public domain.
Lion of Al-Law in the museum garden.
Photo by Mappo (Marco Paolo Giuliano). 
Public domain

Since 2015, many of these museums have started to reopen. Syria’s National Museum of Damascus opened one wing in October of 2018, proudly displaying a restored version of the ISIS destroyed Lion of Al-Lat.1

In Iraq, the Mosul Museum’s reception hall temporarily reopened with a six-day contemporary art exhibition early in 2019; Return to Mosul featured themes of home, return, and conflict. The exterior of the museum building is heavily damaged, however, and visitors stayed bundled up while inside the exhibit. 2  

“U.S. Soldiers...make their way up the reconstructed stairs of the Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq...” 
Photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro. 
Public Domain.
“U.S. Soldiers…make their way up the reconstructed stairs of the Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq…”
Photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro.
Public Domain

While sites are often closed for protective or preservation purposes, that is not always the case. The ancient archaeological site of Ur (located in southern Iraq) served as the modern location for Tallil Air Base—meaning that all visitors to the site needed permission granted by United States forces.3 In February 2007, Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum was invited by Dr. al-Husseini (the Iraqi Director of Antiquities) to visit Iraq and conduct a condition/damage report on Ur. Al-Husseini, after refusing a search by United States forces, was forbidden to enter the site, despite his credentials.4 Because of this incident, Dr. Curtis created a very quick, surface level report rather than an in-depth analysis.  

Reduced tourism also plays a role in cultural site accessibility during times of conflict. Iraq’s Babylon, once a bustling tourist site, has closed its museum, souvenir shop, and post office due to continually low visitation.5 In Egypt, the 2011 revolution marked the beginning of a rampant decline in tourism. According to CEIC Data, 11.5 billion visitors entered Egypt in 2010…by 2016, that number dropped more than 50%.6 Only recently have tourism numbers began to climb again. Khaled el-Anany, Minister of Antiquities, hopes for a continued rise: “‘My wish is for 10 times the tourists we have now. Americans are still nervous about Egypt and the whole region.’”7 

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) under construction. 
Photo by Tom Sawyer. CC BY-ND 2.0.
The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) under construction. 
Photo by Tom Sawyer. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Plans for the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, and the Sphinx International Airport were delayed during Egypt’s unrest. With a budget of $1.1 billion, the Grand Egyptian Museum will be the largest archaeological museum in the world when it opens in late 2019 or 2020.8 

From closures to protect artifacts to military presence to reduced tourism, conflict related closures run the risk of damaging cultural heritage accessibility.

  1. Damascus Museum Reopens Featuring Millennia-old Lion
  2. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  3. Curtis, John. “Relations between Archaeologists and the Military in the Case of Iraq.” In Cultural Heritage, Ethics, and the Military, edited Stone Peter G., 192. Boydell and Brewer, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81qd4.20. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. In Iraq, A Race to Protect the Crumbling Bricks of Ancient Babylon 
  6. Egypt Visitor Arrivals 
  7. Can Egypt Convince the World That It Is Starting Over? 
  8. Ibid. 

Corruption in Museums

By Simurgh Staff

Corruption can exist in any institution or organization, and museums are no exception, with significant ties to the political sphere. For a majority of Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian museums, looting has surfaced as the result of political turmoil—people take advantage of chaos and grab artifacts to sell for economic support. Museum personnel have also been the culprits of looting. This demonstrates how corruption can exist in museums, as some employees are no longer working to protect the artifacts. Corruption in the various levels of staff and management erodes at the integrity of museum personnel. 

Egyptian Museum Entrance Hall
Photo by Julianna Whalen, 2017.

Money is often the primary motivator of looters and low wages are one reason for corruption. At the National Museum in Egypt, security guards looted the very museum they were paid to protect1, because they do not get paid much. Their average salary is about 250 Egyptian pounds a month (about $15 USD), which is barely enough to live off of in the Egyptian economy.2 In Iraq, some museum officials have looted valuable items opportunistically and pawned the artifacts for extra money. This was the case when Iraqi museum officials unprofessionally removed objects from the Kuwait National Museum.3 Officials have questioned and denied their colleagues’ involvement in the lootings, but how else could the perpetrators know exactly how to retrieve such objects without being caught?4  

“The National Museum in Kuwait”
Photo by Kuwaitsoccer. CC BY-SA 3.0 US.
“Iraq National Museum”
Photo by David Stanley. CC BY 2.0.

The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was severely looted during the 2003 invasion of United States troops.6 Many speculated that the looting was carried out by two sets of people—“Baghdadis off the street, and professionals with inside information about the museum.”7 Evidence also suggests that Saddam Hussein’s administration permitted and possibly even encouraged a large-scale systematic looting of cultural artifacts from Iraqi museums8. The United States was also accused of being part of the Baghdad looting, but the results of that investigation have been inconclusive.9 Nonetheless, the looting is considered an inside job, as several museum officials claim:  

After the looting a set of master keys to the museum was discovered in a plundered storeroom. The keys belonged to al-Mutawalli, who museum employees say kept them in her office safe, which only she could open. She told me that no one else had access to the keys, but she could not explain their presence in the storeroom.10  

However, some “corrupt” museum officials have been wrongly accused. Dr. Zahi Hawass (curator of the National Museum in Egypt) had this happen to him. Disregarding the status of the accusation, Hawass withdrew from his job as Chief of Antiquities. Hawass had distaste for the corruption within Egyptian’s government, “‘Those people are insects, they are nothing.’”5 With instability in government and the loss of state protection, museums have been left to their own resources—which are not always safe or effective. This also contributes to the use of a scapegoat, as demonstrated by the case of Dr. Zahi Hawass,  when it comes to looting and corruptions. 

Through the political turmoil of recent decades and the high profit capacity of the black-market, museums have become ripe for looting by their own officials. However, lack of transparency and inadequate investigations hinder the ability to determine how artifacts are removed and who is at fault during museum lootings. 

  1. Former Egyptian Museum Dir Says Looting Inside Job, Memphis Mus Looted [UPDATE 40] Damaged Mummy ID’d, Sinai Antiquities Robbed 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Indiana Jones or Inside Job at Iraq Museum? 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Taylor, Kate. “Egypt’s Chief of Antiquities Says He’s Not Staying On.” New York Times, March 4, 2011, A12(L). Infotrac Newsstand (accessed April 12, 2019). http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A250536134/STND?u=susqu_main&sid=STND&xid=841c00e2 
  6. Museum Madness in Baghdad 
  7. The Thieves of Baghdad 
  8. Ibid.
  9. Three Years After Looting of Iraqi National Museum: An Official Whitewash of US Crime 
  10. The Thieves of Baghdad 

Looting & More

While researching the contemporary issues and discussions surrounding the cultural heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, destruction and preservation only scratch the surface. This section includes essays on topics varying from the intangible parts of cultural heritage to the ways in which contemporary artists from Egypt, Syria and Iraq have addressed these issues in their artwork. Looting is a prevalent problem deserving of expanded focus, as do the responses of Western countries, and those living in countries affected by the loss of cultural heritage.  

Looting is distinct from other forms of destruction because the artifacts are often resold. This has created controversy as western retailers and art collectors turn a blind eye to the possibility of buying stolen goods. When an antique is identified as stolen, the questions of repatriation and reparation arise. Who is responsible for enforcing the return of looted artifacts? What ethical policies are in place to prevent the purchase of stolen items?  Another related topic is the production of replicas, sold as authentic antiques, accompanied by forged documentation.  

Lid of the Coffin of the Priest of Heryshef, Nedjemankh
CCO 1.0

When Western countries insert themselves into the preservation of cultural heritage, discussions surrounding their motivations become necessary in determining what is ethical and to what extent their involvement is justified. Essays on ownership, cultural appropriation, and the concepts of Orientalism and Egyptomania address the inappropriate interests of the United States and Europe in the culture of the Middle East and North Africa.