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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 May 2018

A voice from Egypt's distant past reminds us that history's lessons should not be forgotten

HA Hellyer reflects on the discovery of Hetpet's tomb and its likely impact on Egypt

A reporter takes a mobile photo for discovery tomb of a priestess named 'Hetpet' belonging to a fifth dynasty in Old Kingdom at the Giza plateau, the site of the three ancient pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. Reuters
A reporter takes a mobile photo for discovery tomb of a priestess named 'Hetpet' belonging to a fifth dynasty in Old Kingdom at the Giza plateau, the site of the three ancient pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. Reuters

History is always intriguing, but it depends heavily on who is telling the story, how complete that story is, what is left out of the narrative and, most importantly, what lessons are drawn from it and by whom. For those of us watching the recent discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb near Cairo, it reminds us of lessons pertaining to women, it is relevant to Egypt’s tourism industry and reminds us of a time when history was made in 2011.

Last weekend, Egyptian authorities revealed a 4,400-year-old tomb had been discovered recently near the Great Pyramid of Giza. The tomb is, according to the Antiquities Ministry, that of a priestess known as Hetpet of the fifth dynasty. Those who led the mission are excited, but they’re even more interested by what they haven’t yet found. One of the archaeologists said: “What we see above the earth’s surface in Egypt doesn’t exceed 40 per cent of what the core holds.”

Of course, the archaeologists are not the only ones who are excited. Egypt’s tourism industry has been devastated over the past few years.The period immediately following the revolutionary uprisings in 2011 was accompanied by a great deal of uncertainty and the tourism industry has not yet recovered. The ISIL attack on a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula in 2015 placed even more stress on the sector. Even today, direct flights from the UK to Sharm El-Sheikh are unavailable, owing to a standing decision by the UK government to suspend such flights due to security concerns. Cairo has gone to great lengths to try to overturn that decision, as it managed to with the Russian government recently. Discoveries such as this tomb encourage Egyptian officials to find ways to revive the country’s tourism trade. At its peak, that industry impacted probably around 30 per cent of Egypt’s population and it is ordinary members of that population that suffer from its deleterious state.

There are other lessons to be learned. There will be those who point out that Hetpet is a woman, a deeply significant one in the religion of ancient Egypt. It’s an important lesson, particularly given the reports that exist at present noting the widespread incidence of the sexual harassment of Egyptian women. And at the same time, there are so many women in Egyptian history to note and be aware of – whether it be in the modern period, like the likes of Umm Kulthum, whose voice will undoubtedly go down in history for centuries to come or in pre-modern times such as Sayyida Nafisa, who was the teacher of one of the great imams of Sunni legal history, Imam al-Shafi’i. Indeed, Imam al-Shafi’i requested in his will she pray over him when he passed on. Her resting place is often visited by Muslims who remain inspired by her example.

But there is also a less popular lesson to be taken – and that is that history is so often easily forgotten. To be sure 4,400 years is a long time and it cannot be overestimated how much time has passed since then. It is understandable that such historical details are somehow left by the wayside. But what of history that is far nearer to us in time, which we seem to have also forgotten?

After all – isn’t this particular period in January and February a special time in the Egyptian calendar? It certainly ought to be – because from January 25 to February 11, 2011, Egyptians rose up, spontaneously, and courageously to declare to themselves and to ensuing generations that autocracy cannot endure, and that fear cannot and never will be the bedrock of a sustainable contract of understanding between the ruler and the ruled.

It’s a poignant lesson to learn from history, seven years on. A friend of mine, the late Bassem Sabry was a famed writer and analyst who named his blog "An Arab Citizen" – and part of that nomenclature was a defiant symbol. Because for far too many of his generation, the very notion of being a fully empowered citizen was a revolution. Because if they are truly citizens, then peoples have the ability and the right to call those in authority over them to account. And it seems that even today, seven years on, there remain those who are angry at those who dared to claim the right to say ‘no’ to the autocrat, whether the autocracy was backed up by appeals to nationalism, or to religion. Indeed, it seems they’d like to forget that history ever happened. But it did happen and no angry outburst will change that.

History remains, nevertheless, in a constant process of remembering and re-telling. And as we learn and re-learn the history of the likes of Hetpet, we perhaps should wonder how our children and grandchildren will remember the history of far more recent times. But it will be their right to remember and our duty to tell.