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Egyptian Idol

The Salafi threat to blow up the pyramids is nothing new: Egypt's ambivalence toward its past dates back centuries.


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.

While most Egyptians recognize and understand 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, there is a palpable discomfort with this promotion and glorification of a pre-Islamic past. The archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman once referred to this as an "uneasy inheritance." For some Egyptians, too much attention is paid to these works of idolatry, whose preservation eat up resources at the expense of the welfare of an Islamic past, present, and future. Pharaoh, we might recall, is particularly singled out for approbation in Quranic scripture, which conservative Muslims have used to challenge any reverence and respect for the material remnants of this era as a marker of shirk — the sin of polytheism or, literally, the partnering of something with God.

This logic has been central in the justification of various acts of iconoclasm throughout history and in modern times. Salafists and Wahhabis have long looked to the scholarship of the 13th century thinker Ibn Taymiyyah for jurisprudential grounding to destroy sites, particularly tombs and shrines connected to the Sufi tradition and important figures in Shiism, which served as loci of pilgrimages or acts of ziyara (literally "visitation"). Such acts of destruction have been notable throughout the Arabian Peninsula and even within the holy precincts of Mecca and Medina.

But the voices of the iconoclasts do not go unchallenged within the Muslim tradition. Consider the remarks of the 10th century Muslim traveler in Egypt, al-Masudi, as he describes his own consternation at the destruction of Pharaonic ruins. He writes to his future progeny:

"Look, son, what the Pharaohs built and how it is being destroyed by these idiots. Nothing is more tragic and sad than the loss of what these ruins offer to those who would regard them and consider their lessons…What sort of wisdom preaches that these ruins should be removed from the face of the Earth?"

Masudi sought to find support for these ruins within the Islamic tradition. For him, they serve to strengthen the Quranic injunction to search out and contemplate the lessons (‘ibar) which the divine has left for believers in the landscape. His words make room for an Islamic cosmopolitanism and pluralism that holds particular urgency for the debates about the future of post-Mubarak Egypt. Egyptians will continue to argue about what lessons they want to draw from the past without literally pulling the house down around them, but they can do so safe in the knowledge that an embrace of ancient Egypt and its antiquities is not incompatible with Islam.

In the aftermath of attempts to destroy a series of sites in Saudi Arabia, the well-known Muslim American calligrapher Muhammad Zakariya commented that those involved propagated a vision of Islam "unable to accommodate the difficulty and complexity — the depth and texture — of [Islam] and, ultimately, of its essential meaning." He continued: "Islam is large. Muslims are not mushriks (idolaters)."

Indeed: Islam is large. This debate within the faith over how to reconcile a non-Muslim past with a fervently Muslim present speaks to the broader debate within the religion over how to orient itself after the Arab Spring. While the authoritarian yoke of Mubarak-era Egypt has now been cast off, the relationship of Islam and secularism in Egyptian society remains highly unstable. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular, as it enters the realm of politics, will be forced to navigate with greater clarity between progressive voices calling for pluralism and conservatives advocating a more fixed codification of sharia within Egypt’s new constitutional framework. And, the preferences of Murgan Salem al-Gohary notwithstanding, the chances are good that the brothers will be doing so in the shade of the pyramids.

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