Monday, March 28, 2016

Eurocentrism again: The case of Sappho Papyrus

I am not providing here any new evidences about the Sappho’s papyrus, but my main concern is to give a short notice of an aspect, which I have talked about earlier i.e. Eurocentrism in Papyrology.

Here the time of discovery of Sappho’s Papyrus is a crucial point. I know that a lot have been said about the time of discovery of this piece ((to learn all the story read here:, especially with regard to the turmoil that the 25th of January’s revolution as well as the Arabic spring, brought to the region and the whole world. Nonetheless, I do think that all the expressed views, up till now, are very much concentrating on Europe and the reaction within this continent. I see it from another perspective again. It is important in this regard to refer to the very simple fact that the revolution/Arab spring has brought, not only “turmoil”, but also “the important question of modern Egyptians’/Arab’s identity” into the region, and consequently to this modern-day world, after this legitimate question has been buried for centuries by our dictators and the world order, to which they used to attach themselves very well.  If our dictators have benefited a lot from the eurocentric narrative of the supremacy of the European Civilization, and consequently the supremacy of its creators, i.e. the Europeans, over any other human in the planet, it is now unacceptable to the Egyptian/Arab mind, to sallow this narrative any more. We are now not only fighting dictators/ counter-revolutions/criminals, who are exploiting our history/religion/countries for their own benefits, but also the discourse/narratives they use/used to legitimize every crime they committed/commit to us. One of these main crimes is the crime of accepting the eurocentric/dictatoric/colonialistic view that “you do not understand”, or more precisely using it, not only in their speeches, but also as a main component of their governing policy.

We do(or among us there are now specialized people who) really understand now that a single artifact/papyrus is a piece of our identity, so that we expect from its editor(s), who ever she/he/they is/are, to respect us and provide us with clear-cut answers about every aspect of this piece, especially how it left our country and come to be in the possession of “the private owner” he refers to. We could respect your interest in the text, but you should also - in return - respect our ethical/legal/cultural and legitimate question “did this cultural artifact leave our country legally or illegally?”.

It is really a very hard and critical question in the same time, not only because these information is hard to get, but also because in this moment the editor/s is/are confronted with the question “should I publish this piece, whose provenance/provenience unknown/uncertain or simply to ignore it as well as the text/significance it bears?”. I know that this question, in case the artifact offered to you contains an unknown text or a new discovery, appears to be hard to be answered by some scholars, but for others, who knows how we suffer, not only economically but also culturally, from looting and illegal excavations, a simple “no, I will not be involved in such trade/uncertainties.” ends the dilemma.  The case of Sappho papyrus is still not closed and many questions about its  acquisition are still open. Yes we may be much clearer now about many details concerning its provenance, thanks off course to the editor who provided us with more details about is provenance, than what was provided in its first edition in the ZPE (to know what we have learned so far about the acquisition history of this particular piece see Roberta Mazza summary and comments here:,  but my main concern here, as stated above,  is the general question of the time of its discovery (2011) and its connection what is going now in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab World and consequently in the whole world.  

Consequently,  in order to understand why a simple question like this causes - to some scholars - this perplexity, a decent reflection/discussion about prevailing traditions of publishing artifacts, as well as their cultural and historical origins in the field, is more than welcome. I think it is the duty of the people who are mostly affected by this kind of practises i.e. Egyptians/Arabs, to open up such a discussion and insist on their legal as well as cultural rights in this regard.

It is a well-known fact that every discipline has its own set of traditions/ethics in dealing with the main material that is the focus of its research. E.g. in the case of medicine, we do have the medical ethics and very strict regulations/laws in dealing with the human body. I wonder what, in the case of Archaeology in general and papyrology in particular, the ethics in dealing with artifacts/papyri/texts are. Important also to ask “what is the ethics/traditions that tie the editor/s and publisher/s with the people whose artifacts he/she/they are publishing?”.   As a papyrologist, I surely know about the resolutions/recommendations of the American Society of Papyrologists (ASP: and of the International Society of Papyrologists (AIP: As an Egyptian papyrologist, I take these resolutions/recommendations as a good step to address these questions and a start point that needs to be both re-visited and further developed, but I am however unsatisfied with their formulations, as well as, the results they have brought into the field since their ratification/adaptation by the respective societies. I have expressed myself earlier with regards the formulations of these resolutions, with a minimal representations of Egyptian specialists, and the insistence on them that the problem of papyrology in Egypt, is an Egyptian problem, that has to be dealt with in Egypt, because Egypt represents  “a special case” of the lack of national collection management policies. I will continue to investigate, research and to take about this, but for the moment, I will concentrate on the present notice about “how I see the case of Sappho Papyrus in this whole picture?”. The case of this piece is very important in this regard, simply because it was discovered, after the ratifications/adaptation of such resolutions/recommendations and most importantly in a crucial time in our modern history i.e. the 25th of January revolution in Egypt and the Arab spring in the Middle East.

It just shocks my mind when I just try to imagine that a scholar, after these incidents, would be interested in a text - whatever this text is - more than he would be interested in the human beings, who scarified themselves to protect these artifacts/pieces during the revolution. I have participated and I am still involved in both incidents; i.e. the revolution and the discussion going on about the discovery of this piece, its edition and publication. When not so many people are interested in Sappho, who in this planet did not see the Egyptian human chain, which surrounded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo? They did so because they know that these artifacts belongs culturally and legally to them. They did so because they know that these artifact are “part of their history”, which in its return “part of our human history”. The only explanation I could now provide to the question; how could a scholar do something like this?” is that this scholar “does not consider that this Sappho papyrus belongs to these people, neither he sees it as “part of their history”.  Most probably he sees it as “part of the European history”, as has been expressed by ancient scholars praising the contribution of papyrology to ancient history. By ancient history, they meant “ancient European history”, whither they were taking about documentary texts like tax receipts or literary pieces like Sappho or any other texts that are published with exclusively “modern European languages” .

This explanation is confirmed, at least of my own point of view, from most of the obsolete publications I have ever read in this field. This scholar who lives in the present time, still adopt the same old narrative/discourse of “the ignorant Egyptians”. When I read such words in the obsolete publication, I can hardly sallow it. Yes, I can understand what Ulrich Wilcken in his introduction of the monumental publication of the Ptolemaic texts „Urkunden der Ptolemäerzeit“ UPZ I, Papyri aus Unterägypten. Berlin—Leipzig 1927, about the ignorance of the natives and their unawareness of what these texts are (see this image below). What I cannot understand and/or accept, however, is the fact that this eurocentric/colonialistic narrative/discourse of “the modern Egyptians who are ignorant of what are these texts are” still prevails to the very date of writing this notice.

What adds more insult to injury is that when some of these Egyptians decided to devote their time, money and efforts for such a very specialized discipline like papyrology, they are fiercely and illegitimately, as I see it, attacked and all of their endeavors/achievements - collectively as well as individually - ruled out as unsuitable. I am sorry to say these bitter words, but I have not only heard it, read it, or just experienced it, from a few handful people in the field, so that I should be ignoring it, and continue in a fruitful work. No, this discourse prevails to the level that there will be no “fruitful work” between the Egyptians and any European partner, unless this discourse, as well as its historical/legal/cultural/moral basis deconstructed entirely from the world of scholarship. Such a wall existed between the European scholars, but it has been, to a large degree, deconstructed through the good offices of many sharp-minded scholars in the different fields, who wanted to separate politics from science. I remember in this regard “amicitia papyrolgogorum”. This expression, according to the website of the International Society of Payrologists (AIP), “… appears to derive from a lecture given by Leopold Wenger (1874-1953) at the closing session of the IIIrd International Congress of Papyrology in Munich on the evening of 7 September 1933”.  A time when Europe was recovering from the First World War, just to start the Second. I do not know how many Egyptians were part of this deal, but what I know for sure is that, with few exceptions in the field, I have been, and still to the moment of writing this notice, fiercely and illegitimately attacked, ruled out as “unsuitable” and thrown with the same cliché, which I read in the obsolete publication “you do not understand”.  

The very simple fact that whatever I will bring in this field will be ruled out, by some, as unsuitable or to be ignored, makes my efforts to bring/say anything as useless as nothing or at the best “ranting”, as long as, this “Pride and Prejudice” prevails. I know that I am not ranting; I know what I am saying; as an Egyptian, wherever you are, whoever you are and whenever you are, you will be confronted with the same cliché; “you do not understand”.

The Egyptians now are not the very same people, whom Wilcken described. They can read, write, and bring their voices to every corner of the universe, not only in Arabic, but also in English, German and with whatever language/tools they are master or capable of.  Yes, the main concern, of both the editor(s) and the publisher(s), was to publish the text(s) itself/themselves and let it/them appears to the world, who is interested in this kind of texts and who understand them. Neither modern Egypt nor modern Egyptians were, of course, included in this view of the world, otherwise they would have respected them and provided them with clear-cut answers about provenance, owner and the time of discovery of each and every single piece. The impression I got from my readings of obsolete publications, which in many cases are still valid in the field, is that; these papyri/texts were “saved from the hands of the ignorants, brought to the hands of the experts, and published to the mind of those who understand !”.  I am aware that most of the colleagues are not using the same discourse, and eventually also the same obsolete readings !, in their introductions and/or publication of the texts, but I am aware also that this view is to an overwhelming degree mainstream.

Finally, I simply say and see that the ethics/traditions of the past 100 years or more of papyrology provide explanations, about the provenance, provenience, and time of discovery, readings, and interest of the texts that belong to the past more than they belong to the present or the future. They also provide views about modern Egyptians, whither papyrologists or lay, that in the most cases to be considered, at least in their origins prejudiced, colonialistic and eurocentric discourse/narrative which need corrections/new reading in the manner we do with do with the texts themselves (cf. the BL, SB, and the new readings provided directly using the PE) . The persistence of such narratives/discourse will eventually drive the main source country i.e. Egypt, represented by its senior and junior papyrologists, away further and further from its European neighbors, bringing no advancement in the field, as long as these unsatisfactory explanations and bitter views are handed over from generations to the other, and we tolerate no critic/revision/corrections/discussion about their persistence in the field.

to be continued....