Banning Exodus : The Skulls of Flinders Petrie

It was 1942 in the Holy Land, and with death approaching, the eminent Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie willed his head to the Royal College of Surgeons.  In the chaos of war Petrie’s head was lost and found and ultimately deposited for storage in its intended destination. Wags will point out that this was not the first, but definitely the last time that Flinders Petrie lost his head in pursuit of his ideas.  Outside the field of archaeology, where he was one of the Greats, Petrie lost his way.  An anti-democratic devotee of racialist theories common to the late Victorian era, he spoke regularly of “fine” and “exhausted” races and placed the northern people at the tip of an imaginary pyramid of superiority.  When the British took over the administration of Egypt’s affairs in 1880’s, aided by a display of military force, they opened up the country for excavation by archaeologists, British as well as other Europeans and Americans. A notable dean of that crew was Wallis Budge, who theorized, based on philological evidence, that the Egyptian civilization had a Nilotic origin. This would not do for Petrie, who could not imagine any other builders of the dazzling Egyptian civilization than a northern race.  He postulated an entire mythology of a superior race entering Egypt from the north, building its civilization, only to be ultimately defeated and corrupted by successive invasions of “eastern” people.  To prove his point, he went on a bizarre pursuit to measure the skulls of Egyptians, both the Copts, whom he viewed as pure native Egyptian stock, as well as others. Little was gained from his unscientific studies, beyond the puzzlement of a few old monks and confused farmers.

If that were not enough, Petrie also ventured into the treacherous pursuit of finding factual basis for the Old Testament. A Christian Brethren by faith, he believed that the Old Testament was indeed factual. Upon uncovering a Stele by a New Kingdom successor of Ramses II, Merneptah, he insisted that it documents the Israelites. More recent scholarship places the events of Exodus possibly 200 years later, closer to the age of Psusennes, the last great Pharaoh of Egyptian stock, before the country would become a province of other empires for nearly 3000 years. It is important to note that Psusennes was as removed from the Pyramids of Giza as we are from him. Ancient Egypt was ancient even to Ancient Egyptians. In any case, Petrie was the sort of brave soul who would place himself squarely between God and the actors in his drama, most notably Jews and Egyptians.

Into this murky and emotional fog rides a top-name Hollywood director with his crew of screen writers, special-effects men, and sexy six-pack abs actors. By adopting the historically inaccurate, but ultimately irrelevant tale, that Jews built the Pyramids, he was bound to run afoul of Egyptian sensibilities currently inflamed by several years of turmoil. “Exdous”, panned by the critics, was now banned by the Egyptians. It is not the first Hollywood movie to earn this distinction. Half a century ago both “Cleopatra” and “Lawrence of Arabia” earned similar honors, although for very much vaguer reasons. Cleopatra’s producers were deemed too friendly to Israel, while Lawrence of Arabia did not hew to Nasser’s historical tales of Arab Nationalism. The charge against Exodus is historical inaccuracy, and the movie is very much guilty of that. This is not to condone banning a movie. Such bans against movies, books or any work of art are never justified. The best defense against a bad work of art is a better one. This is where things get tricky. Egypt lacks the cultural weight to make a better version of “Exodus”, and so banning it is the best it can come up with. In these uncertain times, historical greatness is Egypt’s patrimony, and Exodus seems like an attempt the rob the grave. Those who disapprove of the ban as an example of authoritarianism miss the point, this film would be banned under any conceivable Egypt regime, although it must be said, that one is unable to conceive of any Egyptian regime that is not at least mildly authoritarian. Egypt is very much a land shackled by its history, or more accurately by the reluctance of the Egyptians to let go of historical grievances. Egypt is potentially a decent mid-size country, but it cannot conceive of itself as anything less than a great nation, since it once was. It is not uncommon for men to let childhood trauma stymie the potential for adult happiness. Since there are no psychiatrists for nations, they often play out their trauma in dangerous, even bloody, ways.

It is remarkable that the antagonists in the current cultural war in Egypt both share a fundamental desire to create a modern national identity out of a storied past. Some yearn for a past of thousands of years ago, of which little is truly known. Others want to imitate the meager life of nomadic Arabs who lived on the rim of empires 1400 years ago. The romanticism of both is heart-wrenching, and increasingly deadly. The danger is not merely to the antagonists, but to all sorts of innocent bystanders. Almost anyone in Egypt who deviates from one of the accepted orthodoxies is liable to be banned. Egypt is not the first country to reject diversity and demand a unique and singular identity. It would not be the last to suffer the consequences of such constrained vision. The consequences are unfortunately sometimes measured in skulls.

— Maged Atiya