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by Claude Rilly

PARIS, 18 March 1998 - With tragic attacks causing bloodshed in Egypt and depriving its famous sites of touist affluence, it is a safe bet that the treasures of the Louvre will be able to find an audience as preoccupied with cultural enrichment as it is with safety. The Louvre reopened its Egyptian antiquities galleries at the end of December with 60% more space available to exhibit its treasures; after being closed for several months, the improvements guarantee its stature as one of the finest museums in the world in this domain, just after the Cairo Museum. A rapid calculation indicates that looking for one minute at each piece on display - which is insufficient for certain exceptional works as the Squatting Scribe, the Colossus of Akhenaton or the Book of the Dead - a visitor would need ten days without stopping to eat or sleep to see everything! Magazine and newspaper articles, books, broadcasts and events of all kinds have accompanied the Franco-Egyptian year commemorating the bicentenary of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition and two centuries of "shared horizons".


"Shared horizons"! This noble expression recalls Saint-Exupéry - "To love is nothing but looking at each other, looking together in the same direction" - but seems somewhat idealistic for this marriage of convenience in which France has not always played a distinguished role. For each Champollion or Mariette, savior of the Egyptian heritage while at the head of the Antiquities Department of Egypt, how many soldiers were there who returned from the banks of the Nile in 1801 suffering from both humiliation and chronic dysentery, how many rapacious stockholders in the Suez Canal Company who got rich on the backbreaking and occasionally mortal labor of the Egyptian fellahs, how many warmongers in 1956 who were ready to risk an already fragile world peace in order to save their shares in that company?

While it is true that Egyptology itself was established by a Frenchman, Champollion, we must not forget that it has since been developed as much, if not more, by the contributions of English, German, American or Italian scholars as by the great minds formed along the banks of the Seine. After all, the best grammar of ancient Egyptian is the work of an Englishman, the best dictionary is that of a German. Egyptology is an international science and no single country can take all the credit. The civilization of the pharaohs remains the undivided heritage of all mankind. We must not deprive ourselves of such a splendid opportunity to rediscover Egyptian art.

Among excellent initiatives arising from this celebration, especially noteworthy were two telecasts on the Franco-German station Arte that are now available on video cassette. Les Héritiers de Champollion (Champollion's Heirs), a documentary by Yves de Peretti, offers parallel views of the renovation of the Egyptian antiquity galleries of the Louvre and of the digs now in progress under teams of French archaeologists. The ceaseless back and forth at the start, not always well motivated, may be disconcerting, but it is worth the trouble of getting used to it because one meets specialists who know how to communicate their passion and one at last receives first-hand information, something sorely lacking in most documentaries of this type. Where else will you see the sorry state of the tomb of the most glorious of Pharaohs, Ramses the Great, and where else will you learn about the hopes aroused by its approaching excavation? Where else can you be present at the opening of the warehouses containing the stockpile of the digs in the presence of Egyptian officials, invariably snubbed in other documentaries even though this minor ceremony says a great deal about modern Egypt's ability to take its heritage into its own hands. And then to conclude there is the following tidbit gleaned by Yves de Peretti in a sidewalk soundbite in downtown Cairo: "Champollion?...Ah! Yes! Champollion Bonaparte!"

Completely different but entirely complementary is Philippe Truffault's documentary Les Secrets du Nil (Secrets of the Nile), which presents a selection of 22 of the most important works in the new Egyptian galleries of the Louvre. The chronological presentation, the sober and exact off-camera commentary and the quality of the image form a classic whole of high aesthetic quality. Certain details that are normally scandalously ignored put the finishing touches on the elegance of this broadcast: a finger that seems to be dusting off the gold of the holy triad of Osorkon indicates the smallness of the object, lighting that seems to sway shows the finesse in the texture of a stele. The collection displayed, in addition to such inevitable choices as the Stele of the Serpent King (3300 B.C.) or the Head of an Amarnien Princess (1350 B.C.), includes certain objects that - without being as famous as the preceding objects - nonetheless are extremely interesting from an archaeological point of view. A major place is given to the Coptic objects, which will be exhibited in two large galleries in the renovated museum that were formerly occupied by the Ecole du Louvre.

The December 1997 issue of Géo published an extensive section devoted to Egypt, also discussing recent digs and, as usual, excellent photographs.

To order the video cassette from Arte:
La Sept Vidéo
BP 630
60732 Ste Geneviève Cedex 9

Louvre Egypt

Claude Rilly is a professor of classical languages and literature in Paris. He is also an egyptologist and specialist of meroitic language and civilisation. Claude Rilly has contributed on Greek archaeology in GEO (France), and on meroitic phonology in the Göttinger Miszellen (Germany). He is archaeology editor of

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