In the fourth lecture of The Islamic Entanglement last night, Scott Powell fit Egypt into the picture, integrating its history into the story from the time of the Ottoman decline to the present. (Let me interject a plug here; if you're not yet taking the class, I strongly recommend it!) It is interesting to regard how important the idea of national sentiment is to the Egyptians, and to see how this plays into the deep resentment they must feel for being controlled by non-Egyptians for almost two-and-a-half millennia, from the Persians to the Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Europeans.
Of course, Egypt itself conjures lots of exotic and mysterious images: enormous pyramids, golden treasures and sarcophagi in dark, buried chambers, hieroglyphics giving tantalizing clues to ancient civilizations. One of the first things that comes to my mind regarding Egypt, particularly early 20th century Egypt, is of huge excavations. I picture hundreds of white-robed natives laboring with picks in merciless desert heat, chipping away at the parched earth, occasionally raising an arm to wipe the sweat off one's brow and to shield one's eyes from the blinding sun and sand. Basically, if you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you will understand the scene I am imagining. And of course, these excavations are devoted not to construction, but to archaeological digs. These Egyptians move earth not for new buildings, but in search of artifacts that might prove that Egyptians once built long ago.
Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against archaeology. In fact, I find it wonderful and fascinating. But it struck me that this image of Egyptian archaeological digs serves as a metaphor - not a perfect metaphor, but one that captures a aspect of the cultural abyss in the Middle East. Instead of building homes and skyscrapers for themselves, the Egyptians try to find burial chambers that were made thousands of years ago. Instead of looking forward and trying to extract the best ideas from the "occupying" West - namely, liberty and capitalism - the nations of the Middle East (with the obvious exception of Israel and to some extent Turkey) seem to be clueless, experimenting pragmatically with socialism and nationalism, and wallowing in resentment and frustration. It's a sad state of affairs if the best hope for finding pride and glory is to uncover evidence of some pharaoh of the Old Kingdom.