Pharaohs on Parade
On Holy Saturday, as Christians around the world held vigil for the entombed Christ, twenty-two of Egypt’s mummified former monarchs – four queens and eighteen kings – were disinterred from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and paraded through the city. Sealed in nitrogen-filled capsules and draped, like military martyrs, in Egypt’s post-1984 flag, the mummies were loaded onto security trucks unconvincingly disguised as ancient chariots (the vehicles resembled those used to haul off political prisoners).
The route from Tahrir Square, where the mummies had lain in the Egyptian Museum for decades, to their new resting place in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, was evacuated. On the orders of the Interior Ministry, no bystanders were allowed to witness the ‘Pharaohs Golden Parade’ in person. Instead, President Sisi urged Egyptians (and the world) to watch the spectacle on television. Women in blue and white robes, metallic collars and headdresses, eyes rimmed with kohl, carried glowing caskets, not unlike the orb that Trump was photographed fondling in Saudi Arabia. Outside the new museum, solar barques, like the ones believed to ferry pharaohs to the afterlife, glided across a laser-lit pond. ‘With all pride and pleasure, I look forward to receiving the kings and queens of Egypt,’ Sisi wrote on Twitter.
Evoking Egypt’s ancient past at the expense of its more recent political history has long been a favourite tactic of the country’s despots. Ismail Pasha’s Aida, a tale of interracial romance commissioned in 1871, was compulsively performed to whitewash the Ottoman governor’s catastrophic attempt to colonise Ethiopia in 1876. Nasser approved the loan of the Tutankhamen mask to France in 1967 after the disasters of the Six Day War. In 1976, when the mummy of Ramses II was flown to Paris for restoration, it was given an Egyptian passport that listed its occupation as ‘king (deceased)’. Sadat may have grumbled about the indignities of having corpses on show in the vitrines of a museum, but he had no compunction about using Tutankhamen’s 1976-79 world tour as propaganda for the Camp David agreement. In 2006, at the height of mounting opposition to his security state, Mubarak sponsored a parade of the colossal statue of Ramses II from outside the railway station to the Giza Plateau.
Sisi’s spectacle of military futurism in pharaonic drag is merely the most recent iteration of an old propaganda stratagem, aimed at foreign audiences. But it also recalled another moment in local history. In 1931, twenty-four mummies were taken out of their display cases in the Egyptian Museum for a more muted outing to another sepulchral setting. Sidqi Pasha, the most authoritarian prime minister of the interwar years, an avowed monarchist who had suspended the constitution and imposed harsh austerity measures after the Wall Street crash, enlisted the deified dead in his campaign to crush dissent. He was unhappy that a neo-pharaonic tomb had been built for the popular hero of the 1919 revolution, Sa’d Zaghlul, Egypt’s first democratically elected prime minister (and, as it happens, my great-uncle).
Bayt al-Umma, where Zaghlul was set to be buried, had been the heart of the revolution in 1919. Sidqi needed to eviscerate it of its associations with popular democracy, just as Sisi has done to Tahrir since his rise to power in 2013. Piling the uninvited mummies alongside Zaghlul was Sidqi’s way of arguing that the popular leader had been as much of a tyrant as the kings that preceded him. Learning of the plan, Zaghlul’s widow, Safiya, was horrified and refused to allow her husband to lie next to the embalmed bodies. After prolonged negotiations, when Sidqi resigned in 1933 the mummies were eventually returned to the museum and Zaghlul took up his rightful resting place.
The assault on Egypt’s modern, politically live past continues as delusions of ancient grandeur take hold. The Hollywood-inspired soundtrack of the Golden Parade (more Gladiator than Aida) drowned out the bulldozers razing enormous sections of Cairo’s built heritage, including the Mamluk and Ottoman homes where Egyptians’ actual ancestors lived and the mausolea in which they were buried. In the past, identification with the pharaohs – symbols of biblical and Quranic despotism – was always ambivalent. But now under Sisi it has been fully embraced: with armoured chariots, laser beams and fireworks. In the country with arguably the highest number of political prisoners and torture victims in the world, even the dead cannot be left undisturbed.