Spiritual and Archaeological Tourism Threatened in Egypt?

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Earlier this week I was talking about Pagan responses to threats against pre-Christian/pagan sites and artifacts, and now Chas Clifton points to an article from The Media Line (reprinted in several places) on rising hostility in Egypt against Western tourism, and calls to cover up famous objects from the Pharaonic period of ancient Egypt.

Osirid statues near Luxor.

Abd Al-Munim A-Shahhat, a spokesman for the Salafi group Dawa, has said that Egypt’s world-renowned pharaonic archeology – its pyramids, Sphinx and other monuments covered with un-Islamic imagery – should also be hidden from the public eye. “The pharaonic culture is a rotten culture,” A-Shahhat told the London-based Arabic daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday, saying the faces of ancient statues “should be covered with wax, since they are religiously forbidden.” He likened the Egyptian relics to the idols which circled the walls of Mecca in pre-Islamic times.

The article also notes that Islamist groups in Egypt have long been hostile to the tourism industry, but these sentiments were suppressed under Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Now, however, Egyptian xenophobia and paranoia seem to be blossoming, with government officials harassing foreigners.

Micah Trau, an American who has been studying Arabic with a private tutor for the past three months, decided that after being questioned twice, he would just leave. “I couldn’t take it,” he tells The Media Line from his home in Seattle. “I was there to study the language and the culture, but after being told I was a spy on three occasions I just thought it was time to get out of there before anything worse happened.”

Tourism in Egypt is a multi-billion dollar industry, and is hardly a revenue stream rising Egyptian leaders want to blithely throw away. While hardliners in the local Salafi movement may be calling for pagan statues to be encased in wax, the increasingly politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood seems to be trying to strike a balance between catering to tourists and pleasing Islamic factions who want to see such practices curtailed.

But [Muhammad Saad] Al-Katatny [secretary-general of Freedom and Justice] said that the Muslim Brotherhood regards Egypt’s archeology as belonging to all of humanity, and should therefore be safeguarded. “This heritage belongs to everyone, and one can’t simply remove something he doesn’t like,” he told Al-Ahram daily.

International travel agencies have so far rejected the idea of any restrictions on tourism, and low-price tours are being planned to encourage tourists back to Egypt, hoping to reverse a dramatic downturn caused by the revolution and its aftermath. Even if tourism is allowed, and the statues remain uncovered, will there be any tolerance for the more spiritually-minded tours that draw so many seekers, Pagans, and New Age adherents?

“In this predominantly Muslim country, Egyptologist and spiritual tour guide Amro Mounir, 34, said he encounters many Egyptians who criticize his tours for practicing a form of paganism. But Mounir says the tours are about tapping into the energy of the earth and helping people find the truth.”

It is very likely that the permissive tourist industry many are used to could be coming to an end. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in 2006 Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, issued an edict (fatwa) which condemned the work of sculptors and declared un-Islamic the display of statues in homes. At the time, some predicted suicide bombings at ancient temples, though this never materialized. Now that the political climate is far more unstable, could these threats now materialize? Can more moderate and progressive elements in Egypt hold out against an Islamist tide long held back by brute force? We’ll soon see if economic pragmatism and pluralistic aspirations will win out against an energized hardline who see this as a chance to mold Egypt in their image.