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Larry Coben Headshot

Why Egyptians Preserve Their Cultural Heritage

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Two homes of magnificent ancient civilizations. Two modern countries run by despots. Two massive regime changes. Yet in Egypt citizens rally to protect their cultural patrimony while in Iraq looting and destruction accelerate. Why do Egyptians link arms in Tahrir Square to protect their National Museum, while thousands of objects are still missing from the Iraqi Museum and many of their sites look like the lunar landscape?

The differences have nothing to do with love and respect for history, or knowledge of its importance to the world. Most Iraqis know of and revere their iconic sites such as Babylon, Ur and Nimrud; in the same way Egyptians revere the Pyramids, Luxor and Tutankhamen's tomb. All love their history and its importance in the development of civilization.

The difference is that Egyptians also value and utilize their cultural history as an economic asset and not merely an intangible cultural one. Tourism is Egypt's largest industry (more than 11% of its GDP) and biggest employer (one out of every eight jobs), and even Egyptians who don't work directly in the tourism industry benefit from the income it generates. Almost every Egyptian knows someone who works in Egypt's vast tourist trade. Tourism is Egypt's greatest source of foreign exchange, and perhaps the best way for the average Egyptian to escape abject poverty.

Egyptians thus know the vast economic benefits of the nondestructive use of their archaeological past. They "eat" their history by preserving it and sharing it with others. And they know that cultural heritage is a renewable resource -- properly managed and utilized, it can be exploited for generations to come. For Egyptians, not destroying their cultural heritage preserves both their past and their future.

I have witnessed this quality since my first visit to Egypt in 1991 after the first Gulf War, another period when the tourism trade vanished there. I was among seven tourists on a Nile cruise boat designed for 150 passengers. In spite of the economic hardship, the Egyptians remained proud of their heritage and enthusiastic to show it to us. In spite of their loss of income, looting and destruction did not increase -- they recognized the long-term value of their heritage both economically and culturally. That attitude has paid off a thousand fold in the intervening years.

Iraq, by contrast, during the last thirty years has been wracked by near continuous warfare and a government hostile to Western interests. Little if anything was done to encourage tourism or manage archaeological sites. Site protection was accomplished by harsh criminal penalties rather than nondestructive development. Meanwhile, the government itself showed little respect for its cultural heritage -- Saddam Hussein built one of his palaces directly atop the ancient site of Babylon. And looting has long been prevalent in Iraq when the criminal penalties could be avoided.

For most Iraqis, then, cultural heritage remains an abstract notion of the past -- respected and revered, but having no relevance to their modern lives. In Iraq, there is no history of economically benefiting from tourism and other nondestructive uses. Nor do Iraqis have the day-to-day experience with their heritage that Egyptians do. They neither encounter their heritage nor benefit from it. The only way Iraqis can "eat" their history is to loot it, and when the opportunity presented itself, they seized it. Their museum was looted, and many of their sites look like the moon, pockmarked with thousands of unauthorized pits.

Tourism is not always a panacea for cultural heritage. Too many tourists and too many facilities can destroy monuments as easily as looting and wanton economic development. And it won't always prevent looting. But without an economic reason to preserve their cultural heritage, can we really expect poor and desperate people not to destroy it? The locked arms of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square provide the answer.