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Can Social Media Save Egypt’s Heritage Sites?

August 21, 2014

Scholars like Monica Hanna are trying to save Egypt's heritage through social media.

Scholars like Monica Hanna are trying to save Egypt’s heritage through social media.

The ancient heritage of the Middle East is being seriously damaged by the uprisings, revolutions and foreign occupations (i.e. US in Iraq and its aftermath).

I was interviewed about this as it affects Egypt a year ago by a South Korean radio station, on the occasion of the thefts last summer of artifacts from the Malawi Museum in the city of Minya.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week highlighted efforts by archaeologists and other scholars of antiquity to use web sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media to address the problem.

Since it is protected content–i.e. you can’t read the article without a subscription, I reproduce the passages touching on Egypt here:

In Egypt, Monica Hanna, an archaeologist, began tweeting about threats to her country’s heritage more than three years ago, when the Egyptian Museum was broken into as the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak began. With Egypt continuing to experience political upheaval and violence, Ms. Hanna’s work expanded. She has become a well-known social-media activist with nearly 35,000 followers on Twitter.

Protecting heritage “is not on the agenda, and it’s not getting the attention it deserves, and we’re pushing till that stops,” says Ms. Hanna, an independent scholar who has taught at the American University in Cairo.

Volunteers via Facebook

A Facebook group Ms. Hanna founded, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force,counts 50 volunteers and hundreds of supporters and informers, she says. They send in photos and reports of remote archaeological sites that are being damaged by looters or squatters. Ms. Hanna herself travels to these sites as often as she can. She has had warning shots fired at her twice by gangs of looters. Last summer she traveled to the town of Mallawi, about four hours south of Cairo, where in the midst of protests against the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, a museum of Pharaonic antiquities was broken into and looted. Ms. Hanna was able to save a few of the museums’ remaining objects, carrying them to safety with the help of locals and police officers while rioting and gunfire continued nearby.

Carol Redmount, an associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of Ms. Hanna’s supporters. Ms. Redmount says it’s frustrating not to be able to do more to help but that scholars outside the region can “keep shining the light of publicity on the problem, then can provide expertise … and support grassroots efforts as much as possible.”

and

Ms. Redmount hopes to return to Egypt next year to continue work on the ancient buried city of El Hibeh, which she describes as a “poster child for looting.” Her team will “switch to a different kind of archaeology,” she says. “We’ll be dealing with what’s left, mitigating the damage.”

In the spring, thanks in part to her social-media presence, Ms. Hanna testified before a committee of the U.S. Congress in favor of a request by the Egyptian government to impose restrictions on the import of Egyptian artifacts to the United States, a move many American archaeologists support. Ms. Hanna hopes more support from Egyptian authorities and foreign governments will mean she can scale back her activism, which has become a distracting “full-time job.”

“I haven’t been able to keep up with academic publications,” she says. “I don’t have the time to do proper research as before. It’s having a negative effect on my academic career. But this is more important.”

By raising their voices online and off, Ms. Hanna and other scholars of the Middle East’s past hope to save as many relics as they can for a less turbulent future.

The full article also explores this topic in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

The capacities of social media to intervene in world events is a fascinating topic I keep coming back to in this blog. A Facebook page and Twitter account have no direct agency over antiquities looting, but 35,000 followers can get you invited to testify before the US Congress in support of a bill that would ban the import of Egyptian antiquities into the US–this diminishing at least one market for looted materials.

At the same time, many of the utopian tones of such stories invoke for me the work of the anthropologist Evon Vogt who wrote in the 1950s and 1960s about the ways divination and magic are used to relieve cognitive dissonance (Vogt 1952, Barrett and Vogy 1969, Vogt and Hyman 1979).

When something must be done about a problem because the stakes are incredibly high, but you have no real capacity to solve the problem, Vogt wrote, you suffer cognitive dissonance (Wicklund and Brehm 1976). Divination and magic operate to relieve that dissonance by allowing you to do something even though the actual capacity of the divination to guide you, or the magic to affect reality, may be ambiguous.

Teasing out when social media actually operates effectively in the world, and when it is functioning as a mechanism for relieving anxieties (and they are not mutually exclusive) is an interesting problem for scholars of social media as its uses in situations of political change continues to grow.

Reference

Barrett, Linda and Evon Vogt. 1969. The Urban Dowser. Journal of American Folklore 82(325): 195-213.

Lindsey, Ursula. 2014. Saving the Middle East’s Past With Twitter and Other Online Tools. Chronicle of Higher Education 21 Aug.

Vogt Evan Z. 1952. Water Witching: An Interpretation of a Ritual pattern in a Rural American Community. Scientific Monthly 75 (September): 175-86.

Vogt, Evon Z and Ray Hyman. 1979. Water Witching USA. Second edition. University of Chicago Press.

Wicklund, Robert A. and Jack W. Brehm. 1976. Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance. Erlbaum.

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