Saturday, April 18, 2009

Egypt is in Africa?

This blog post is a tangent from our recent talk of alternative epistemologies and white privilege. Instead I am turning to something that I came across while reading Good Muslim, Bad Muslim by Mahmod Mamdani for our class. I was reading the first chapter of the book called “Culture Talk” in the section called “Modernity and the Politicization of Culture”. Mamdani discusses nationalist versus metanationalist history writing and inaccuracy of mapping. He discusses the tendencies for nations to place their country in the center of their maps although it is not geographically correct is common throughout the world. However, the European map is the most familiar map to the Western world and the one that many of us see as the “standard” map. This map shrinks the “less important” continents so that North America and Europe dominate the visual composition promoting their importance in a global context.

We have discussed European influence over “lesser” cultures frequently in our class so it comes as no shock as something that should be neutral, like our maps, is actually a device to assert power over other nations. What Mamdani addresses is the influence that European power has over the history of the world.

The “traditional” Eurocentric history of the world says that “history began in the ‘East’ and the torch was then passed successively to Greece and Rome and finally to Christians of northwestern Europe, where medieval and modern life developed” (Mamdani, 29). This history divides the world into “the West”, “the East”, or Europe and Asia but this leaves out some pretty substantial civilizations. These gaping holes in history are Africa, the pre-Columbian Americas, and the lands of the Pacific. Mamdani goes on to explore this historical darkness and focuses on Africa. However, what he points out that the history of Africa is blank with the exception of Egypt. Throughout history, Egypt seems to stand out as its own civilization completely isolated from the large continent to which it belongs.

Mamdani mentions historian Cheikh Anta Diop who studied African history in the 1960s and “questioned the racist tendency to dislocate the history of pharaonic Egypt from its surroundings, particularly Nubia to the south, thereby denying the African historical identity of ancient Egypt” (Mamdani, 31). Diop pointed out in his work that “in the study of classics, Egypt faced a double loss: its connection with Greece in ancient times was reduced to being external and incidental, and its location in Africa was denied historical significance” (Mamdani, 31). It was here in Mamdani’s book that really grabbed my attention. I read this chapter a few weeks ago and I have not stopped thinking about it since.

Perhaps it is because I am an art history major and what I read in Mamdani’s book presents a dilemma for my studies, but both Mamdani and Diop are right about Egypt, I do not think of it as a part of Africa. I know that it is part of the huge continent of Africa off to the right hand side, but when I see Egypt in my mind I see it in a Mediterranean context. I related it to Greece, Turkey, and the ancient cities of Babylon or Jerusalem due to the context that I have studied Egypt. It took looking it up on the Internet right now for me to know what African countries surround it (they are Sudan and Libya). As embarrassing as that is to admit, it proves Mamdani and Diop’s point; Egypt is the exception to the historical darkness of Africa but it becomes removed from it.

Right now I am taking an art history course called “Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt and the Near East”. The class is an interesting and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I take pages of frantic notes on the treasures of the ancient world. However, after I read Chapter One of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, I began to look at my current class and my entire art history education with alarm. Not once in my entire semester of studying ancient Egyptian art have I considered it in an African context. Currently in my class, Alexander the Great has just come into Egypt, died, and his successor has set up the Ptolemaic period when the famous Cleopatra ruled. The art is becoming much more “normal” to me and my “Western” perspective of art. It is looking more natural, realistic, classical, and ultimately Greek. This is pushing my distorted perspective of Egyptian art farther away from Africa and solidifying it in a Mediterranean and Western context. I feel as though the entire semester has been building up to this one moment when the Egyptians will finally retire their old traditions of depicting the figure in favor of the classical nude.

Until I read Chapter One of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, I was happy to hear about Alexander the Great and the influence of the Greeks, Persians, Macedonians, etc on Egyptian culture and agreeably took my notes. But now that I realize that I have absolutely no idea how AFRICA impacted Egypt! I am shocked an alarmed that I have never studied Egypt in the context of its actual geographic placement. I have taken many classes where we have studied ancient Egypt and not once can I remember talking about the civilization in an African context. I started asking my fellow art history classmates along with friends about how they saw Egypt and they all felt the way I do and thought it was strange. As I thought about it, I realized that I have never studied anything other than Western art. I have zero knowledge of the art that has come from Africa, India, China, or Japan unless it is a very stereotypical notion of their art. I cannot count how many times I have heard a professor say “Picasso’s art was heavily influenced by African masks” but I have never seen an African mask. I know that there must be more to African art than the very cliché tribal “African mask” that pops into my head but I have yet to see it. Or I have heard that many French Impressionist artists were influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, but I have never studied Japanese art. How am I, and other art history students, supposed to fully understand an artists work, or the work of entire culture like Egypt, if we do not understand their cultural context?

It is unfortunate that my lack of knowledge about the art of these cultures just stems from colonization and the undermining of new cultures that were being encountered. Perhaps Egypt became the exception because the wealth and power of the civilization was so great that it could not be denied. Or that art tends to be looked at through a “Western” perspective so we tend to compare cultures based on whether or not they fit the norm or not. Mamdani pointed out something that I had never considered and has caused me to evaluate my knowledge, or lack there of, of the cultures and art that I study.


  1. I think the point that Olivia makes about our lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of certain concepts is something I relate to. Good Muslim Bad Muslim enlightened me on the role that U.S. had during the Cold War and my interpretion. Like we said in class, the lack of knowledge about the history of the U.S. had made me think that the U.S. did not have any harmful or negative involvement in the Cold war, but Mamdani elaborates on the direct involvement that U.S. actually had and the corruption behind U.S. actions. The confusion about the role the U.S. had in the Cold War is the result of the Media's portrayal of historical events. The way media portrays events and history keeps us confused about our history or the geography that influence by history.

  2. This is very interesting and something I have not really considered before. I agree with you that Egypt seems not so much part of Africa as part of the Mediterranean region, but there may be reasons for this. Note this is all speculation. I have very little experience with African history or geography, but I think that the answer to this question might lie in these realms. I know from studying Latin that in classical times in addition to Egypt, authors also brought up fairly often what are now the countries of Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Just below these countries, the Sahara desert runs horizontally across the continent. I suppose this would have made it difficult for Western art and culture to spread throughout the continent. Egyptian art was founded largely on Greek and Roman precedents which art scholars have (to the best of my knowledge) been lauding since the style was conceived. You brought up maps and Eurocentricism also. Until the late 18th century, possibly into the mid to late 19th century much of Africa was, on a map, just a giant blank space filled with pictures of wild animals and people doing ritualistic dances. Before even exploring and understanding the cultures of central Africa they were deemed deemed savage, crude, and ungodly. This was around the genesis of religious studies, a discipline which, in its beginning stages was very much obsessed with the exotic and classification of exotic religions. It was not the art that was placed in the center of academic debate (I suppose many Europeans of the 19th century would scoff at calling an African mask "art") but the strangeness of the customs and religions. This is, of course, in opposition to the Hellenistic, cosmopolitan image evoked by Greek and Roman influenced Egyptian art. I think that if there were no Sahara desert and the continent was really penetrated and explored before the 18th century by Europeans there is no reason European influences in art wouldn't be seen throughout the continent. Also there is Jared Diamond's theory that culture is much more easily transmittable on a horizontal axis given the relative constancy of climate and thus vegetation and lifestyle. In his conception, therefore, Africa is less infused with European ideals because it is oriented on a vertical axis which makes the transmission of culture more difficult. I would argue that this, combined with the existence of the Sahara desert and the 18th and 19th century European obsession with exoticizing uncharted foreign land is the reason for the huge lack of emphasis placed on African culture and art south of the Sahara desert.


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