Papyri, Classics and what-not: Topics, tongues and occluded histories at the International Congresses of Papyrology

Papyri, Classics and what-not: Topics, tongues and occluded histories at the International Congresses of Papyrology

By Katherine Blouin

To anyone reviewing the history of classical scholarship as it is written by its practitioners today, the most glaring lacuna in it remains the failure to explore the ramifications of a book already twenty-five years old and with direct relevance to the field. There is no developed history of classical scholarship that takes into account the intersection of the discipline with European colonialism and imperialism from the 1700s to the 1900s. For reasons that are of considerable interest, scholars seem to be unable or uninterested in exploring the collusion between Classics and empire, despite the indisputable evidence for such collusion. If Said’s powerful demonstration of the relationship between Orientalist discourse and European colonial power seems not to have inspired similar work about the field of classics, within and without the discipline, then we are obliged to interrogate this resistance to the politics of Classical scholarship, and in particular to the coincidence between Classics and Empire.

– Ph. Vasunia 2003, 7

As to colonialism, I fear that we have here a classic case of scholars of antiquity grabbing at a modern critical wave long after it has passed its peak. Much of what Said had to say about orientalism has been demolished by subsequent scholars; it was at best reductive at the time. That’s my view, anyway. But is this really the place to make an argument for its continuing utility? I would not think so, because its link to what we see in the analysis of the congresses is at best indirect, if not wholly fictitious.

-Referee 1 2017; report on the joint paper submitted by Blouin, Gad and Mairs to the editors of the 28th ICP Proceedings

This post stems from a contribution originally presented at the 28th International Congress of Papyrology (henceforth ICP; Barcelona, 2016) as part of a tripartite thematic panel entitled “Inside Out: An Introspective Look at Papyrology Through its International Congresses”, which was co-organized by Usama Ali Gad, Rachel Mairs and myself and whose main data are now available on this blog. It discusses the ancient languages, periods, places, topics, and concepts that were the focus of oral and written papers during the past ICP as they appear in the congresses’ programs and proceedings, as well as the languages used for oral presentations and publications in the proceedings. In lieu of a conclusion, an addendum offers some preliminary data on the committee of the Association Internationale des Papyrologues (henceforth AIP). These are meant to offer a broader, institutional complement to the papers offered during this workshop.

Introduction: P.Congress‘ (occluded) voices

Thus, the effort is to understand that occlusion is an ongoing, malleable process, sometimes in a form already congealed and seemingly over as it acts on the present, making of us unwittingly compliant observers, nearly always belated in identifying just how it works.

-A.L. Stoler 2016, 14

Like any corpus, the ICP’s programs and proceedings have potentialities and limits. For a variety of reasons, they are not entirely representative of the field of papyrology: not all scholars associating with the field did attend these conferences, and when they did, they might not have done so continuously; the groupings of talks into panels and the topics of plenary sessions were made by the organizers and thus cannot speak to how individual speakers conceived of the themes dealt with in their papers; individual papers can only testify to a particular aspect of one’s scholarly output as far as topics and languages are concerned. Yet despite these pitfalls and because of their all-at-once longitudinal, institutional and international nature, I suggest that what we have called for convenience sake P.Congress offers a promising window into how the discipline self-fashioned and (re)produced its content (themes) and shape (panels, modern languages used) in the longue durée. By the same token, it allows thus us to assess how these trends do (not) intersect with issues that affected academia and the wider world between 1930 and 2016. It does so not only because of the data it contains, but also, crucially, because of what is not there; what Ann Laura Stoler refers to as “occluded histories” in her book Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. For Stoler, “colonial constraints and imperial dispositions have tenacious presence in less obvious ways” (Stoler 2016 4). I argue that such colonial presences can be found in the way Papyrology (like most Antiquity-related fields) has been organized, performed, and displayed since its inception at scholarly venues such as the ICPs and the AIP, whose mandate it is to oversee papyrological outputs such as the ICP[1].

To what extent do the themes, topics, languages that are almost or entirely absent from the ICPs testify to layers of occlusion within the field? To what extent can we identify variations or stagnation of such occlusions over time? How can the data compiled in preparation for our “Inside Out” panel participate to broader self-reflective discussions within the field? How can the anonymized referees’ reports on the joint, non-anonymized paper Gad, Mairs and myself submitted to the editors of the 28th ICP Proceedings help, by their form as well as their content, illuminate the power structures at play and the discursive mechanisms of colonial presences and occlusions in the field? How can we make sense of the incommensurability between what we know exists elsewhere (in papyri, in academia, in the world) and what/who is not in the ICPs corpus and AIP’s establishment? Just like Stoler’s, my approach is not about ” “fault finding” and judgment but about restoring the forms that occlusion takes and the questions that its effects may lead us to ask” (Stoler 2016 14). By doing so, I hope to contribute to wider conversations on the history, nature and future of papyrology in particular, and of Classics and other Antiquity-related disciplines by extension.

Themes, topics, and concepts (Annex 1)

All talks have been indexed with relevant keywords. These were established on the basis of the title of the talk, its abstract, as well as, whenever needed, the article published in the Proceedings. The data is too dense for me to attempt an in-depth discussion of all topics covered during all ICPs here. Instead, I shall focus on the sessions these papers were grouped into. If we exclude a small number of colloquia/workshops[2], sessions were conceived and named by the organizers. As such, they partly proceed from the particular set of abstracts of each ICP, but also bear witness to historiographical and epistemological trends within the field.

Based on the available documentation, the papers offered during the 1st to 8th ICP (1930-1955) were generally not numerous enough to be grouped in sessions. The only exception is the 5th ICP (Oxford 1937; see Hombert 1938, xi). The first session titles we could find are those of the 9th ICP (“Reports from papyri collections”; Oslo 1958), but the practice doesn’t become the norm until the 16th congress (NYC 1980). The descriptive nature of most session titles conveys the logic behind the groupings. A great variety of titles are attested, but several ones (i.e. “literary papyri/papyrology”, “Herculanum papyri” and “Unpublished papyri”) reappear consistently. Congresses whose programs proceed from the most varied sets of organizing principles (14) are the most recent ones (24th, 27th and 28th). This phenomenon may result from the growth of the discipline and more nuanced approaches to the nature and potential of papyri.

As can be seen in Annex 1, the overall logic underlying sessions (and talks) remains the same throughout the history of the Congress. A first level of distinction exists between sessions on methodology and historiography (including studies of papyri collections) and those focusing on papyri. Sessions belonging to the latest category can systematically be subdivided into two themes: Materiality (writing support, writing implements, palaeography, restoration), and content (unpublished papyri, literary papyri, documentary papyri). Within the latest subcategory, the divide between literary and documentary papyri is a fundamental one, as is the habit of grouping literary papyri from Herculaneum in separate sessions. This compartmentalized approach, which mirrors the philology/history divide, has important limitations, which Jean-Luc Fournet laid out during a plenary session at the 27th ICP (Fournet 2013).

An illustration of the pitfalls of such traditional groupings is the case of “para-”, “sub-”, or “semi-” literary papyri (Table 1). Texts related to medicine, astronomy, astrology, religion, magic, music, as well as school exercises have traditionally been treated as literary ones[3]. For this very reason perhaps, they have, until recently, attracted considerably less interest than fragments of « Classical » authors or Biblical texts.

Para-/Sub-/Semi-literary papyriX X  XX
Paraliterary and figurativeX      
Scholastic textX      
Literary and semi-literary papyri  X    
Subliterary texts     X 
Paraliterary papyri – Medicine      X
School texts      X
School texts and scribal practices      X
Astronomy and astrology      X

Table 1: Sessions dedicated to para-/sub-/semi-literary papyri

The first sessions dedicated to such documents took place in 1998, during the 22nd ICP (Florence). They were respectively dedicated to “paraliterary and figurative texts”, as well as to “scholastic texts”. The 24th ICP program (Helsinki 2004) includes one session on “literary and semiliterary papyri”, and a session on “subliterary papyri” took place at the 27th one (Warsaw 2013). The program of the latest, 28th congress included four sessions dedicated to medical, school, astrological, and astronomical texts.

That there were enough talks to form one, then a few sessions dedicated to such genres indicates the growing interest of papyrologists for these types of texts. Yet the varying prefixes used during the 22nd, 24th, and 27th ICP, and the fact that papers dedicated to different “paraliterary” genres were at times lumped together, highlight the challenges associated with fitting these non-canonical texts within standard categories, whose origins go back to the early stages of the discipline. Such a phenomenon can also be observed with papers focusing on non-Greek papyri, as we shall see below.

From a theoretical and methodological point of view, two main trends emerge from the ICP’s programs (both talks and sessions): A limited level of engagement with post-colonial theory, methodologies, and topics on the one hand, and a pioneering interest in the digital humanities on the other (Table 2).


Table 2: ICP panels named after post-colonial theories, methods and themes

The post-colonial themes that have been of most interest to papyrologists are the use of digital technologies for papyrology, topics related to space (including toponymy and topography), as well as Graeco-Egyptian bilingualism. One also notes one panel on affects and emotions. Given the substantial impact of feminist and gender theories and, more recently, of environmental history on the humanities and social sciences, the absence of sessions dedicated to them is particularly noticeable.

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Table 3: Topics of plenary panels at the ICP

Apart from a plenary panel at the 25th ICP (Ann Arbor 2007) and Roberta Mazza’s plenary talk during the 28th one, ethical issues surrounding the illicit excavation and trade of papyri have attracted close to no attention, and so have postcolonial approaches to the history of the field, whose quasi absence is striking in the light of the long-lasting, and ongoing impact they have had on most fields within the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is not to say that no papyrologists have worked on such questions and approaches in other contexts and venues. Yet the lack of representation of postcolonial scholarship within the programs and proceedings does testify to the more conservative nature of the field, a characteristic which papyrology shares with most Antiquity-related disciplines, Classics and Egyptology included. Inversely, a plenary panel on “Computer uses in papyrology” at the 12th ICP (Ann Arbor 1968), and the recurrence of this topics in numerous sessions and in two plenaries since then is in line with the ground breaking digital work done by papyrologists over the past 50 years. In that regard, the discipline is well ahead of many other Humanities fields. If one excludes the three plenaries just mentioned, plenary sessions appear as opportunities to reflect on issues pertaining to disciplinary “state of the field” or recent scholarship on particular groups of texts (defined by period, genre, language or origin; Table 3).

Places, languages, and scripts (Annexes 2 and 3)

Annex 2 shows the sites/regions discussed in each ICP. In total, 15 different sites or regions are attested. One notes a gradual increase in the number of places represented. Yet despite such qualitative diversity, the vast majority of talks deal with Egyptian documents. This comes as no surprise given the geographical distribution of papyri. The Herculaneum papyri make up the second best represented corpus. Texts found elsewhere tend to be discussed shortly after their discovery/edition. Only a few corpora are represented in more than one ICP, a trend that must be understood in the light of the limited size of these non-Egyptian documentary samples.

Languages/scriptsTotal ICP1st ICP
Greek281 (1930)
Greek dipinti126 (2010)
Latin261 (1930)
Demotic242 (1931)
Coptic232 (1931)
Arabic143 (1933)
Aramaic116 (1939)
Egyptian (general)714 (1974)
Hieratic74 (1935)
Hieroglyphics66 (1939)
Hebrew66 (1939)
Old Nubian512 (1968)
Nabatean318 (1974)
Pahlavi219 (1989)
Cuneiform15 (1937)
Carian113 (1971)
Syriac114 (1974)
Meroitic112 (1968)
Armenian122 (1998)
Unknown language116 (1980)
Tachygraphy/stenography311 (1965)
Bi-/Multilingual pap.76 (1939)

Table 4: Ancient languages in ICP talks sorted by the total number of congresses where they feature

20 ancient languages and scripts are attested throughout the history of the ICP (Table 4). Greek dominates (28 ICP), followed closely by Latin (26 ICP), Demotic (24 ICP), Coptic (23 ICP), Arabic (14 ICP), and Aramaic (11 ICP). The quasi-absence of papers dedicated to hieratic papyri seems to stem from the fact that Hieratic (7 ICP) was very early on categorized as “belonging” to Egyptology. The same logic must be invoked when it comes to understanding why, even though Latin remained marginal in the eastern Mediterranean (that is the region where most papyrological texts come from) throughout the Roman period, Latin documents were discussed in more conferences than Demotic and Coptic ones. That papyrology was originally – and still is in the eyes of many scholars – conceived as a by-product of Classics certainly plays a role here (see Keenan 2009).

While many papyrologists still argue that they do, in fact, “belong” to the Classics, a more inclusive (and recent) conception of the discipline defines it as the study of ancient handwritten texts on particular types of writing supports (papyrus, ostraca, leather, wax or wooden tablets, bones), no matter their language, script or origin. This tension is already visible in the first 3 ICPs, where all five main languages and scripts are the subject of at least one talk (Annex 3).

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Table 5: Panels named after language(s) at the ICP

Talks given at the 1st ICP only focus on Greek and Latin papyri, but Demotic and Coptic appear at the 2nd congress, and Arabic at the 3rd (but only to reappear at the 23rd ICP). Nevertheless, discussions of non-Greek or bilingual papyri remain marginal, especially before the 1980s. The tendency to isolate these documents in separate panels also speaks to the tension between an enduring « Classico-centric » conception of the field and its gradual re-articulation in the light of more recent studies on bilingualism and multilingualism in Antiquity, as well as diachronic approaches to ancient history and culture. Most often, instead of being grouped on the basis of the topic, issues or period discussed, they are joined together in a monolingual (and often pluri-scriptural in the case of Egyptian) panel (Table 5). Such linguistic compartmentalization echoes the organization of manuscript collections according to language and script, which is behind the dismembering of several coherent, multilingual papyrological archives (see Blouin 2016).

Modern languages

These languages [ancient Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian] are the tools of the trade, but they are also metonyms for the philological traditions that we are expected to put on a convincing show of knowing — with, say, the occasional name-check of Wilamowitz. Once you decide to get serious about the field, you learn to take these traditions for granted as the most inherently valuable. The history of European classical scholarship is entangled with the esteem that Greek and Latin have enjoyed in countries where German, French, Italian, or English is spoken. Many scholars who identify with the European classical tradition assume that any scholarship worth reading, or at least citing, will be in one of those four languages.

J. Hanink 2016

Table 6 summarizes the fate of all four official AIP languages throughout the history of the ICP. The four official languages of the ICP (French, German, Italian, and German) have been the same since the origin of the congress[4]. Their status must be understood within the wider imperial context of the time, which is also the period when Classical, Near Eastern, and Egyptological studies developed (Goff 2013; Marchand 2005; Reid 2002 and 2015; Vasunia 2003 and 2013). While English reigns supreme in most disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences, Antiquity-related fields such as Classical Studies, Egyptology, and Papyrology have been able to maintain a higher degree of scholarly multilingualism despite the clear growth of English in all but a few niche fields. Once again, this phenomenon is not disconnected from the conservative (and traditionally élitist) nature of these disciplines (Goff 2013; Vasunia 2013).

ICPNumber of talks% English% French% German% Italian%Other
1 (Brussels 1930)19165316105 (modern Greek)
2 (Leiden 1931)30104730130
3 (Munich 1933)25161256124 (ancient Greek)
4 (Florence 1935)39102823390
5 (Oxford 1937)6448113380
6 (Paris 1939)71215513101 (Latin)[5]
7 (Geneva 1952)1127551800
8 (Vienna 1955)31192348100
9 (Oslo 1958)3027273736 (Latin?)
10 (Warsaw 1961)3213374730
11 (Milan 1965)542020173112 (1 Latin;

5 Spanish)

12 (Ann Arbor 1968)65512314111 (Spanish)
13 (Marburg-Lahn 1971)67301933135 (1 Latin; 2 Spanish)
14 (Oxford 1974)102621610120
15 (Brussels 1978)68372910230
16 (NYC 1980)102561512170
17 (Naples 1983)17837144450
18 (Athens 1986)10846165303 (1 Spanish; 2 Greek)
19 (Cairo 1989)168501611185 (6 Arabic; 1 modern Greek; 1 Spanish)
20 (Copenhagen 1992)96531811180
21 (Berlin 1995)180441423190
22 (Florence 1998)166431612290
23 (Vienna 2001)152441220240
24 (Helsinki 2004)148571112200
25 (Ann Arbor 2007)1488271100
26 (Geneva 2010)189581612140
27 (Warsaw 2013)25772107110
28 (Barcelona 2016)2817983100

Table 7: Modern languages at the ICP

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Graph 1: Modern languages in P.Congress

In the case of papyrology, the close connection with Classics, the bias in favour of Greek and Latin, and the distribution of papyrological collections/research poles mean that the best basin of recruitment for future papyrologists have traditionally been found in Europe and North America. For, as emphasized by Johanna Hanink in the quote provided at the start of this section, this is where the “myths” of a direct connection between European nation-States and the “Classical world” justifies an enduring (though increasingly threatened) valorisation of Greek and Latin learning in secondary schools. A similar phenomenon, coupled with the very origin of the Herculaneum papyri, explains the prevalence of Italian within the sub-field of literary papyrology, whereas the strength of German in the sub-field of juristic papyrology might stem from Germany’s enduring leadership role (together with Italy) in the broader fields of Roman law and legal history.

Table 7 and graphs 1-6 allow for some, general observations: One must distinguish between sharp peaks, which indicate that the language in question was the one spoken in the country where that year’s ICP took place (or that it was, like the case of Poland with German, French, and English shows, a dominant second language), and the general trajectory of a language.

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Graphs 2 and 3: French and German at the ICP

French and German have been experiencing a steady decline, especially since after WWII. The case of Italian is slightly different. The Bell curve-like graph visible between the 1978 and 2004 ICP reflects the development of literary papyrology (notably Herculaneum papyri studies) in the country during this period.

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Graph 4: Italian at the ICP

Finally, the constant rise of English since the early 1970s is in direct line with the hegemonic status of this language on the international stage, within and beyond academia (Ammon 2010; Genç and Bada 2010 ; Hamel 2013 ; Salomone 2013). It’s total dominance in the last two ICP (which took place in non-anglophone countries where the vernacular language is not one of the AIP’s four official languages), indicates that this trend cuts across sub-disciplines and national traditions. 89% of all talks given at the 28th ICP were given in English, compared to 10% in Italian (essentially on literary papyri), 8% in French, and 3% in German.

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Graph 5: English at the ICP

Such a dramatic contrast poses the question of the future of papyrological multilingualism. Spanish, modern Greek, and Arabic are each attested at most a few times in the programs, and a few titles in ancient Greek or Latin seem to refer to papers delivered in that language.

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Graph 6: Other languages at the ICP

The case of modern Arabic is particularly interesting: Although the official language of the region where the vast majority of papyri comes from (Egypt mostly, but also Syria and Israel-Palestine), and despite the growing importance of Arabic papyrology, only six talks in Arabic are attested, all at the 19th ICP (Cairo, 1986). Arabic is also absent from the programs and proceedings (whose overall corpus we call P.Congress; see graph 6). As Referee 2 has rightfully pointed out in their report to the joint paper we submitted for publication in the Barcelona ICP Proceedings (and as my own choice of English over French, which is my mother tongue, also shows), this phenomenon results to a great extent from one’s wish to maximize one’s audience:

In Cairo (1989), if I recall correctly, Greek scholars asked that Modern Greek be accepted as a language for giving papers in AIP Congresses. Jean Bingen, who was AIP Secretary at the time, replied that our Greek friends could well give their papers in Modern Greek if they so wished; nobody but the Greeks, however, would attend. To this pragmatic argument, Greek colleagues answered nothing and never formally repeated their request in AIP Congresses. (Referee 2 2017)

The referee’s comment confirms what everyone in the field knows: There were, and still are, Greek papyrologists who produce (some of) their scholarly work in modern Greek. Now not only does this story remind us of this, it also shows that some of the Greek papyrologists specifically asked to present papers in their modern tongue at the 1989 conference. Bingen’s response to his “friends” was a double-edged sword: They “could well give their papers in modern Greek”, but “nobody but Greeks” would be able to understand them. Jean Bingen’s “pragmatic argument” silenced Greek papyrologists (they “answered nothing”) durably, for they have “never formally repeated their request” since then. I would like to suggest that what is presented as a “pragmatic argument” by Referee 2 is in fact both an acknowledgement and a reinforcement of the customary occlusion of modern Greek scholarship from the field. The same argument is generally invoked in Classics as a justification for the status quo. Yet, as Hanink notes regarding the position of modern Greek in the field of Classics, these positionings are nothing but objective:

So why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?

This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity. (Hanink 2016)

The same could be said regarding Arabic. As Usama Ali Gad’s blog Classics in Arabic shows, there is papyrological (and other Antiquity-related) scholarship being done in Arabic. Outside the field of Arabic papyrology and the Arab-speaking academic world though, it is in general completely ignored by non-Arab speakers. Thus during the Q&A that followed our panel, one of the European members of the audience rationalized their opposition to the inclusion of Arabic as one of the official languages of the AIP by saying: “I come here to listen to talks in languages I understand”. Likewise, the argument whereby good quality scholarship in Arabic is lacking is a common though flimsy argument that would be worth contextualizing and unpacking. But it is not my point here. My point is that the occlusion of Arabic (and modern Greek for that matter) is, in itself, meaningful. It is so because it not only proceeds from historically-anchored dynamics within the field, but also generates in turn further, overlapping layers of occlusions. In response to the suggestion whereby the AIP might want to consider making Arabic one of its official languages that was included into the manuscript we submitted for publication in the Barcelona conference proceedings, Referee 1 wrote the following:

The other subjects of the paper include an attempt at postcolonial analysis of the discipline, the history of classics and papyrology in Egypt, and an attempt to make a case for a larger role for Egypt and for Arabic in the field of papyrology. It is not surprising that the interconnections of these goals are not very compellingly made, and indeed the combination of analysis and advocacy is a tricky business. If the choice of language at a congress is made to assert national pride (and this is basically what the advocacy of Arabic as a congress language comes down to, despite the attacks on nationalism elsewhere in the paper!), then every language should be included. If the choice is made to facilitate comprehension and communication, then the long-standing restriction makes sense. That most participants are interested mainly in communication is made clear by the dominance of English in Barcelona. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of knowledge of other European languages by participants from countries outside Europe and North America that makes the dominance of English useful. A little more candor about the realities of life would help.

I shall let the readers judge for themselves whether this passage offers a fair and balanced reading of the data laid out in our previous and in this post, and whether our analysis amounts to “attacks” on European and American nationalisms. I for now wish to highlight how Referee 1’s argument exemplifies some of the mechanisms of colonial occlusion and historical aphasia[6] that are still reproduced by a number of scholars within the field. Here, the dismissal of Arabic is justified on the basis of custom (“long-standing restriction”), practical concerns (the avoid a Babel tower situation), and universalism, whereas the case for the inclusion of Arabic is presented as a form of “advocacy”, a “tricky business” that “is made to assert national pride” (as if Arabic was a “national” language) and shows a lack of “candor about the realities of life”. Meanwhile, references to the relationships between imperialism, colonialism and the trajectory of the discipline are amounted to “attacks on nationalism”. Lastly, the “dominance of English” is presented as “useful” due to “the lack of knowledge of other European languages by participants from countries outside Europe and North America”. In other words, papyrologists from outside Europe and North America lack the knowledge of European languages, so having English as the lingua franca is actually a good thing for these scholars. Referee 1’s argument relies on two problematic over-generalizations: that papyrologists from Europe and North America do know all of the field’s “European” languages; that those from countries outside that sphere do not. Which countries did Referee 1 include in the second group? Given the passage is a reaction to our discussion of Arabic, one obvious contender is Egypt. One is reminded of the dichotomic topos of the stoic, charitable, enlightened, cosmopolitan, white scholar looking down on the hysterical, self-centered, misinformed, uneducated, nationalist Oriental or colonized described by Frantz Fanon[7]

Addendum – “Scholarly eminence is the main criterion”: Some thoughts on the AIP’s committee

In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. From then on and for nearly a millennium, the country, while retaining its own traditions, belonged to the Greek world. It came to be under Ptolemaic, then Roman, then Byzantine administration. The International Association of Papyrologists (AIP), which originated in a meeting held in Brussels in 1930, attempts to link together all who are interested in Graeco-Roman Egypt, in particular in the thousands of Greek texts that the climate of the Nile valley has preserved up to now. The ultimate rule for the Association is the amicitia papyrologorum. The AIP is member of the International Federation of the Societies of Classical Studies (FIEC).

AIP statement  (Oct. 16, 2018)

Le colon fait l’histoire et sait qu’il la fait. Et parce qu’il se réfère constamment à l’histoire de sa métropole, il indique en clair qu’il est ici le prolongement de cette métropole.

-F. Fanon 2011 (1961), 53

This addendum offers a preliminary reflection on the list of Presidents and Vice-Presidents of the AIP since its inception, as well as on the absence of Egyptian representatives from all AIP committees (an analysis of the composition of the committees as a whole would be a valuable undertaking). The central role played by the AIP’s President, Vice-President, and committee in the overseeing of the AIP, in the choice of host cities, as well as in the overseeing of the ICP’s organization and Proceedings make it one of the centers of symbolic and effective power and prestige within the discipline. For this reason, it both complements and contextualizes the evidence analyzed in this post, as well as the general data highlighted previously on this blog.

To date, the AIP has had eleven presidents, of which three are women (Table 8).

Bruxelles 1930P. JouguetMFrancenone
Bruxelles 1947

Paris 1949

Genève 1952

H.I. BellMUKnone (1947)

V. Martin (1949, 1952)



Wien 1955

Oslo 1958

Warszawa 1961

V. MartinMSwitzerlandA. CalderiniMItaly
Milano 1965

Ann Arbor 1968

Marburg 1971

E.G. TurnerMUKN. LewisMUSA
Oxford 1974

Bruxelles 1977

NYC 1980

N. LewisMUSAR. Merkelbach (1974-1977)

O. Montevecchi (1980)





Napoli 1983

Athinai 1986

O. MontevecchiFItalyP.J. ParsonsMUK
Cairo 1989

København 1992

H.-A. RupprechtMGermany
Berlin 1995

Firenze 1998

L. KoenenMGermanyG. Husson (1995)

D.J. Thompson (1998)





Wien 2001

Helsinki 2004

D.J. ThompsonFUKJ. GascouMFrance
Ann Arbor 2007

Genève 2010

R.S. BagnallMUSAG. BastianiniMItaly
Warszawa 2013

Barcelona 2016

A. JördensFGermanyP. SchubertMSwitzerland
Total118 M (73%)

3 F (27%)

6 countries118 M (73%)

3 F (27%)

7 countries

Table 8: Presidents of the AIP

Two are American; the others were/are Europeans (in the pre-Brexit sense of the term). Five presidents spoke English as their mother tongue, three German, two French, and one Italian. The list of Vice-Presidents follows the same gender distribution, and the countries and mother tongues represented are the same. Four Vice-Presidents became Presidents (Martin, Lewis, Montevecchi and Thompson). In terms of research interests, Greek documentary papyrology dominates.

While the AIP’s committees have historically included a more diversified and (increasingly) gender-balanced group of scholars, several of the countries that host papyrus collections and where papyrologists conduct research and teach are absent from Table 8. These include many of the countries that have so far hosted ICPs: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Poland, Spain. As for the absence of Egyptian (Vice)-President, it is in line with the composition of the AIP’s committees, none of which has, so far, included an Egyptian member[8]. According to the author of the first referee report on the joint paper submitted by Gad, Mairs and myself to the editors of the 28th ICP Proceedings, the AIP committee members must be “seniors” papyrologists who attend the ICP on a regular basis. Referee 1 argues that only two Egyptian scholars have met these criteria since the creation of the Association. They then go on to justify the two scholars’ exclusion from the committee:

As to the Comité, I must be blunt. In the previous generation the only plausible candidate would have been xxx […]. But not only [were they] not a scholar on a level with the rest of the committee, [they were] regarded by the leadership of the time as of doubtful probity. The only senior person since then who was at all active in coming to congresses was yyy, also not generally viewed as of scholarly distinction. Although there is some effort at geographical diversity on the Comité, scholarly eminence is the main criterion. (Referee 1 2017)

Referee 1 argues that “only” two Egyptian scholars from the previous generation were ever deemed “plausible”/”senior”/”active in coming to congresses”, but that even they were excluded from the committee due to their lack of “scholarly eminence” (“not on a scholarly level with the rest of the committee”, ‘not generally viewed as of scholarly distinction”) and, in one case, their corruption (“of doubtful probity”). The terminology and tone of this remark are reminiscent of the discourses and practices analyzed in Timothy Mitchell’s seminal Colonising Egypt. Mitchell’s 1991 work has compellingly demonstrated the all-encompassing and ongoing “enframing” of Egypt through the production of “truths” about its people, resources, economy, and history, by colonial “experts”:

The truth of colonialism was congruous with the literature of nineteenth-century Orientalism […]. These images in turn referred back to the great Description de l’Égypte produced during Egypt’s earlier period of European occupation, under Napoléon. By the end of the nineteenth century, as Said as shown, knowledge of the Orient had become an expertise institutionalised in the centres of colonial administration, in government ministries, and in universities. This expertise, combined with images of the Orient in popular writing, entertainment, the press, government reports, guidebooks, travelogues and the memoires of colonial officials, came to form a broad discursive field, a vast theater or exhibition of the real. Within this theatrical machinery, elaborate representations of the ‘objects’ of colonial authority could be produced. (Mitchell 1991, 168; see also Mitchell 2002)

As has been shown beyond doubt recently by Malcolm Reid, Egyptology, Classics, papyrology, and other Antiquity-related disciplines with a focus on Egypt, have all been profoundly shaped by and partaker in these objectifying dynamics (Reid 2002 and 2015; see also Moyer 2011 and Quirke 2010 regarding Egypt and, more broadly, Hanink 2017 and Vasunia 2003 and 2013). This is in line with Vasunia’s observation quoted at the start of this post.

With that geopolitical contextualization in mind, the joint examination of the occlusion of Egyptians from the AIP committee, of Referee 1’s report and of Mitchell’s work raises the existential question, to date largely underexplored, of papyrology’s role in the past and ongoing “theatrical machinery” of truth. To what extent is papyrology, in terms of both who performs it and how it produces expert knowledge on the Egyptian past, still behaving as a Classically-led branch of scholarly Orientalism? And why is that so? Concomitantly, (how) has the AIP, its committee, and its members dealt with the chronic, structural imbalances that pervade the field, and academia in general? To what extent has it engaged with questions such as who can access higher education and specialized training; who can afford to travel to international conferences such as the ICP; and, increasingly, who must and is able to get a travel or study visa (on time)?

The recommendations of the AIP’s Working Party on the Commerce of Papyri that were approved in a plenary session at the 2007 Ann Arbor conference do include “measures that may appropriately serve the purposes of scholarship, support the development of papyrological studies in Egypt and further the preservation of the documentary heritage of Egypt and other countries”. These measures notably include the following:

(9) That the AIP should explore with all relevant parties the possibilities for the creation of an Egyptian National Center for Papyri to be located in Cairo, which could help serve the research needs of Egyptian and non-Egyptian scholars for access to scholarly information and for facilities for scholarly interchange of all kinds. Such a center should

  – provide access to material for authorized scholars without the burden of separate permits and security clearances;

– have a teaching function involving academic staff cross-appointed from universities in Egypt;

– have a scientific board that includes international scholars and the directors of at least some of the foreign research institutes in Egypt;

– provide a means for centralizing flows of external funding for papyrological research and education in a fashion that will be transparent and avoid any suspicion of favoritism or patronage.


(15) That the AIP should sponsor an ongoing series of lectures and seminars in Egypt, coordinating the presence of international scholars visiting or working in Egypt and willing to give such lectures or seminars, which could be held in rotation at a variety of institutions in Cairo and Alexandria. The working party envisages such lectures being given without payment to the lecturer and without charge to the audience, with coordination both internationally and in Egypt.

(16) That the AIP should seek funding for a program of competitively-awarded scholarships for Egyptian students to study papyrology abroad for a year, whether in connection with a master’s degree program or as part of a continuing doctoral program. This program would be administered by the AIP. The working party recommends a level of 2-4 such grants per year at a level sufficient to allow residence at a foreign center of papyrology for a full academic year. Such grants might be linked to the availability to Egyptian students of suitable unpublished material from Egyptian collections and the digitization of that material. 

To what extent have these recommendations been implemented over the past decade remains to be seen (we must also keep in mind that this period includes the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, whose aftermaths have had substantially disruptive impacts on archaeological – including papyrological – fieldwork). The working group and the Ann Arbor congress’ plenary session during which the recommendations above were discussed and approved were exclusively made of European and North American scholars (AIP 2007, 2; all male except from Cornelia Römer; a female representative from the UNESCO also participated in the plenary). This is striking for two reasons. First, the exclusion of Egyptian scholars and heritage specialists/actors from such working group, whose mandate pertained to a great extent to Egypt’s sites and history, is in line with other mechanisms of occlusion visible in the P.Congress and in passages from Referee 1 and 2’s reports analyzed throughout this post. Second, the imperial nature of this process did not strike me at the time, and I haven’t witnessed nor heard of any audible outrage at the absence of Egyptian voices in this panel at nor after the conference. This very absence of audible critique is telling. It is so because it illuminates how colonial papyrology’s (and more broadly Antiquity-related fields’) power structures still are; how much most of us have internalized how things work, why they should keep on working this way, and why, as the case of the anonymized report of Referee 1 analyzed in this paper (and more recent debates surrounding anonymous outputs in the Classics community) exemplifies, openly suggesting otherwise can, depending on the venue and the audience, expose one to having their voices discredited (as a “nationalist”, “proud”, “activist”, “bad”, “young” or “dishonest” papyrologist), and thus further marginalized and potentially shut. That is all the more so the case when the (non-anonymized) voices in question are junior, female, educated in/from the Global South (including Egypt), or from other traditionally marginalized groups/communities.

While papyrology’s ground-breaking work in the digital Humanities, the increasingly multilingual nature of the evidence discussed at the ICPs and the AIP’s 2007 recommendations are constructive, encouraging developments, P.Congress tends to show that sur le fond, and contrary to most fields within the wider Humanities, the discipline has not changed very much over the past century. The topics, themes, ancient and modern languages attested in the ICPs’ programs and proceedings send the image of a fundamentally Eurocentric field. As long as the Association, its Congress organizers, and its members avoid engaging with the thorny yet fundamental and urgent questions raised in this paper, the discipline runs the risk of losing its relevance within academia, and the broader world. This is all the more so the case that the Humanities, including Classics and other Antiquity-related fields, are facing a severe crisis worldwide.

As Stó: Nation author and teacher Lee Maracle aptly said in October 2018 at the University of Toronto’s “Humanities Pedagogy: Confronting Colonization” workshop, when looking at our field in the eyes, we scholars ought not to “take anything away”. Rather, we need to “change the way we look at it. The start is facing ourselves and our own history.”


[1] “L’Association Internationale de Papyrologues a pour but de favoriser la collaboration internationale dans le domaine de la papyrologie et de contribuer aux progrès de cette science par l’organisation de congrès internationaux, par la publication ou la revision d’ouvrages de référence ou d’autres subsidia essentiels au papyrologue et par tous autres moyens qui seront jugés utiles”. Article 1 of the AIP’s Status.

[2] The first three ones whose titles I was able to trace took place at the 16th ICP (NYC, 1980) and were entitled “Apokrimata”, “The fourth century”, and “The interconnection of Greek and Demotic documentation”.

[3] As such, they are not integrated into but, rather, in

[4] The Association Internationale d’Épigraphie Grecque et Latine has five official languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish), the International Association of Egyptologists (English, French, German) and the Associazione Internazionale di Archaeologua Classica (Italian, English, French) three, and the International Federation of Associations of Classical Studies as well as the International Association for Coptic Studies two (French and English).

[5] Two Italian female speakers, Rita Calderini and Orsollina Montevecchi, are also said to “have used” Latin in their talks; Calderini 1949, 194.

[6] See on the matter Stoler 2016, 12-13: “Aphasia is a condition in which the occlusion of knowledge is at once a dismembering of words from the objects to which they refer, a difficulty retrieving both the semantic and lexical components of vocabularies, a loss of access that may verge on active dissociation, a difficulty comprehending what is seen and spoken… This capacity to know and not know simultaneously renders the space between ignorance and ignoring not an etymological exercise but a concerted political and personal one. “Self-deception” does not do justice to the ways we each find to turn away.”

[7] Fanon 2011 (1961), notably 459-463 (463 cit.): “« Le colon fait l’histoire. Sa vie est une épopée, une odyssée. Il est le commencement absolu: « Cette terre, c’est nous qui l’avons faite. » Il est la cause continuée: « Si nous partons, tout est perdu, cette terre retournera au Moyen Âge. » En face de lui, des êtres engourdis, travaillés de l’intérieur par les fièvres et les « coutumes ancestrales », constituent un cadre quasi minéral au dynamisme novateur du mercantilisme colonial.” See also Mitchell 2002, 165-269, with reference to Said’s work on Orientalism.

[8] In comparison, the International Association of Egyptologists has had no Egyptian President, but there are currently three members of the council. The 2016-2020 Board of the International Association for Coptic Studies does not include any Egyptian. Apart from Malcolm Choat, board members are all (pre-Brexit) Europeans. See also, more generally, Blouin 2018.


AIP (2007) Association Internationale des Papyrologues’ Working Party on the Commerce in Papyri. Recommendations.

Ammon, U. (2010) “L’hégémonie de l’anglais”, Rapport mondial sur les sciences sociales. Paris: UNESCO, 156-157.

Blouin, K. (2018) ” Wonder how male & Eurocentric your Antiquity-related field is? Try the committee test!“, Everyday Orientalism,

Blouin, K. (2016) “Papyri in Paris : The Greek Papyri Collection in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France”, Urbanik, J., A. Łajtar and T. Derda eds. The Journal of the Juristic Papyrology: Proceedings of the 27th International Congress of Papyrology. Warsaw, 853-881.

Calderini, A. (1949) “Appunti e notizie”, Aegyptus 29.1-2, 190-197.

Fanon, F. 2011 (1961) Frantz Fanon. Œuvres. Paris: La découverte.

Fournet, J.-L. (2013 [2015]) “Culture grecque et document dans l’Égypte de l’Antiquité tardive”, Journal of Juristic Papyrology 43, 135-162.

Genç, B. and E. Bada (2010) “English as a World Language in Academic Writing”, The Reading Matrix 10.2, 142-151.

Goff, B. (2013) ‘Your Secret Language’. Classics in the British Colonies of West Africa. London: Bloomsbury.

Hamel, R.E. (2013) “L’anglais, langue unique pour les sciences? Le rôle des modèles plurilingues dans la recherche, la communication scientifique et l’enseignement supérieur”, Synergies Europe 8, 53-66.

Hanink, J. (2017) The Classical Debt. Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Hanink. J. (2016) “On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek“, Eidolon

Hombert, M. (1938) “Compte rendu du Congrès”, Actes du Ve congrès international de papyrologie. Bruxelles: Fondation égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, i-xxiii.

Keenan, J.G. (2009) “The History of the Discipline” in Bagnall, R.S. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (Oxford) 59-78.

Marchand, S. (2005) “Philhellénisme et orientalisme en Allemagne”, Revue germanique internationale 1-2, 9-22.

Mitchell, T. (2002) Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: California University Press.

Mitchell, T. (1991) Colonising Egypt. Berkeley: California University Press.

Moyer, I. (2011) Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quirke, S. (2010) Hidden Hands. Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives, 1880-1924. London: Bloomsbury.

Reid, M. (2015) Contesting Antiquity in Egypt. Archaeologies, Museums & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser. Cairo: AUC Press.

Reid, M. (2002) Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. Cairo: AUC Press.

Salomone, R. (2013) “The Rise of English in Academe – A Cautionary Tale“, University World News 282,

Stoler, A.L. (2061) Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Vasunia, P. (2013) The Classics and Colonial India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vasunia, P. (2003) “Hellenism and Empire: Reading Edward Said”, Parallax, 9.4, 88-97.


Inside Out: An Introspective Look at Papyrology through its International Congresses

Research for this piece was conducted by Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad and Rachel Mairs.  It is the first of a series on the data from the International Congresses of Papyrology, which will be published on Everyday Orientalism over the coming months.


(l-r Roberta Mazza, Usama Ali Gad (T-shirt: Danielle Bonneau), Katherine Blouin (T-shirt Abdalla Hassan el-Mosallamy), Rachel Mairs (T-shirt: Claire Préaux), and the backs of the heads of some esteemed colleagues. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, August 2016.)

Like the rest of the international Classics community, we at Everyday Orientalism have been following the fallout from events at this year’s Society of Classical Studies meeting in San Diego.  (Sarah Bond has assembled a useful collection of links to accounts of, and responses to, the racist incidents here.) We stand in solidarity with colleagues who are working to make our field a more diverse community, where questions of race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality are addressed openly and respectfully.

Professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s SCS paper ‘Racial Equity and the Production of Knowledge’ presents stark evidence on the continuing (and disproportionate) white, Anglo, male dominance among published contributors to major scholarly journals.  In the interest of contributing to this debate about the state of the field, and what we can do to bring a more diverse profile of authors to the fore, we present here some data which we have gathered from a similar exercise to Professor Padilla Peralta’s.

In 2016, we presented a panel at the 28th International Congress of Papyrologists at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona called ‘Inside Out: An Introspective Look at Papyrology through its International Congresses’. This panel was followed by a workshop at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in November 2018.  We wished to pay tribute to papyrology’s long history of inclusion and diversity (relative to the times), and suggest ways in which we could honour this history by promoting greater diversity in the future.  We collected data on speakers at 28 congresses over 86 years (1930-2016), including information on gender, nationality (of affiliation and origin), language and subject of paper.

We are not yet ready to publish our full analysis of this material – it is an enormous data-set –  but it seems an appropriate moment to make available some of our raw data, for readers interested in the history of diversity within Classics publishing.  This data is tabulated in the Excel spreadsheet linked at the foot of this post.  We assembled the data mostly from published programmes and proceedings of Congresses.  Unfortunately, especially for early Congresses, there is often little or no information surviving on participants who did not deliver a paper. We have tracked down information on speakers’ nationality of origin and professional affiliation using online biographies (Wikipedia is quite good for early period), the data service of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and library catalogues.  Where possible, we verified the professional affiliation of the speaker in the year of the congress by checking affiliations stated in their published journal articles (the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik is especially useful).  We tried not to make assumptions about nationality of birth, or gender, from the name of the speaker.

So what did we find?  Many of our findings are sadly predictable.  Male outnumbered female speakers, usually by a considerable margin, at all ICPs in the 20th century.  Where information is available on participants who did not deliver a paper, there tends to be a slightly higher percentage of women among the audience members than among the speakers.  The 21st century data shows a dramatic improvement: at the Barcelona ICP in 2016, female outnumbered male speakers for the first time.  (We think it would be premature, however, to celebrate the victory of gender equality.)

Figure 1: Numbers of male and female speakers at ICPs, 1930-2001.  (Some papers were co-authored, which is why the number of speakers is not the same as the number of talks.)

ICP Number of talks Male Speakers Female Speakers
1 (Brussels 1930) 19 15 1
2 (Leiden 1931) 30 24 2
3 (Munich 1933) 25 24 0
4 (Florence 1935) 39 39 2
5 (Oxford 1937) 64 62 3
6 (Paris 1949) 71 58 7
7 (Geneva 1952) 11 10 1
8 (Vienna 1955) 31 28 3
9 (Oslo 1958) 30 27 4
10 (Warsaw 1961) 32 28 4
11 (Milan 1965) 54 47 5
12 (Ann Arbor 1968) 66 58 9
13 (Marburg-Lahn 1971) 67 60 8
14 (Oxford 1974) 102 83 20
15 (Brussels 1978) 68 49 18
16 (NYC 1980) 102 77 27
17 (Naples 1983) 178 129 50
18 (Athens 1986) 108 78 33
19 (Cairo 1989) 79 50 33
20 (Copenhagen 1992) 96 67 29
21 (Berlin 1995) 180 125 56
22 (Florence 1998) 166 109 61
23 (Vienna 2001) 152 100 53

Figure 2 and Figure 3: Numbers and percentages of male and female speakers at ICPs, 1930-2016.  Data is also included for non-presenting participants, where available.

Barcelona Gender 1Barcelona Gender 2

The vast majority of ICPs have been held in Europe and the United States of America.  Italy has hosted the Congress four times, which will rise to five in at Lecce in 2019 (we’ll see you there!).

Figure 4: Number of congresses per country, 1930-2016.


Speakers at congresses have, however, come from a much wider range of countries.  Most speakers come from Italy: 558, then the USA: 338, Germany: 314, UK: 242, France: 207 and Belgium: 153. Egypt comes sixth with 131 speakers. The 3 Saudi Arabian speakers are mostly Egyptian scholars working in Saudi Arabian Universities. (Note that these figures refer to papers delivered, not to individuals.)

Figure 5: Speakers in ICPs from 1949-2016, according to country of affiliation.


When we come to look at membership of the Comité International de Papyrologie, the geographical coverage contracts.  47 members have come from German institutions, 38 from the USA, 37 from France, 25 from Italy, 22 from the Netherlands and 21 from the UK.  None have been from Egypt.

Figure 6: Members of the International Committee of Papyrology, according to country of affiliation, 1930-2016.


The data we present in this preliminary post is incomplete.  While the charts above for the most part cover the full period 1930-2016, the fuller tabulation of names, affiliations, paper titles, language of presentation (etc., etc.) below covers only 1930-2001.  We will make the 21st century data – as well as our analyses of the full data set – available at a later time.  In addition to the gender and affiliation of speakers, this material gives us information to explore international mobility of scholars, and shifts in dominant languages used at congresses in different periods.  All of this information is publicly available, in the published programmes and proceedings of the Congresses.

The spreadsheet containing our data from 1930 – 2001 may be downloaded here: Papyrology Congresses 1930 – 2001.  Given that it contains information on hundreds of individuals, there are bound to be some errors: any corrections will be gratefully received.

Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK:

Katherine Blouin, University of Toronto, Canada:

Usama Ali Gad, Ain Shams University, Egypt:

Walk Like an Egyptian? How Modern Fashion Appropriates Antiquity

Walk Like an Egyptian? How Modern Fashion Appropriates Antiquity

by Katherine Blouin

Chanel took over New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts on December 4 for its annual Arts et Métiers fashion show. This year’s theme? Egypt. Except that, in many ways, it was not. What, and most importantly, who was showcased, then? The answer is unsurprisingly predictable, yet for this very reason, it powerfully illuminates the current, Orientalist and colonial reception of ancient Egypt in contemporary fashion and pop culture, and the ways in which this reception hasn’t changed much (if at all) since Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the country in the late 18th century.

The yearly Arts et Métiers show began in 2002. It aims at showcasing the wide-ranging array of Métiers d’art that are part of Chanel under the Paraffection umbrella. The event is staged in and pays tribute to cities that are connected to the life of Gabrielle Chanel: Paris, mostly, but also Dallas, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Rome, Hamburg and, this year, New York, a place that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel first visited in 1931, and where she returned in 1939 as one of France’s representatives of the “Couture and Perfumery” during the New York World’s Fair. The Fair’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow“. Yet despite, or perhaps rather because, its futuristic, consumerist craze, that ” tomorrow” proved to be a grim one, for within six months of the fair’s opening, World War II broke. This might be one of the reasons why, apart from Chanel’s emblematic tweeds and geometric patterns alluding to the city’s skyscrapers, Karl Lagerfeld’s designs avoid any obvious reference to the New York of the late 1930s. Instead, the designer proposed a nostalgic, Orientalist take on the city’s – and on France’s – relationship to Egyptian Antiquities. His New York is an Egyptomaniac one, whose focal point is the Temple of Dendur.

capture d_écran 2019-01-11 à 16.17.27Details of the 2018/19 #CHANELMetiersdArt collection … including gold and scarab beetle adornments by #Montex.” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram)

Set around the temple, the 15-minute procession of Hatshepsut-eyed models was a spectacular display of craftsmanship, and a testimony to Karl Lagerfeld’s unstoppable creative genius. The theme was further enhanced by the musical soundtrack, which began and ended with Egyptian Lover’s 1984 Egypt, Egypt. There were dozens of mostly white, but also black, brown, and Asian models, whose long, regal silhouettes walked in circle around the sandstone temple. There was gold, black, lapis lazuli blue, turquoise and silver. There was a dress covered in feathers arranged in chevrons, pleated skirts and an overabundance of intricate, heavy jewels. There were pyramid handbags, metallic gloves and collars made of dyed reptile skins, gems and pearls. There was Pharrell walking in an all-gold ensemble. There were dresses covered in hieroglyphic-like graffiti, diaphanous underskirts that echoed Hathoric dresses and mummy wrappings. There were lions, lotuses and scarab beetles, gilded tweeds, beaded fishnets and golden flats.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.02.46.png

Pharrell walking the runway Chanel Arts et Métiers 2018 show (Image: Pharrell’s Instagram)

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.05.29.png

Hand-applied feather marquetry by #MaisonLemarie at the #CHANELMetiersdArt show in the @metmuseum, depicting a graphic reinterpretation of Egyptian paintings” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram)

The temple of Dendur’s impassive presence acted as the stage’s pivotal anchor. The getaway and temple were originally located on the Nubian site of Dendur, south of the traditional Egyptian border at Aswan. The ensemble was completed in 10 BCE, that is twenty years after Octavian-Augustus’ victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium and the ensuing annexation of the Ptolemaic kingdom to Rome’s Empire. The temple, thus, like several of the most popular temples of Upper Egypt (Edfu, Dendera, Kom Ombo and Philae) was built (in great part) under Macedonian and Roman rules. It is primarily dedicated to Isis of Philae, a name that refers to the island of Philae (c.80 km north of Dendur), which hosts a larger temple to Isis. In addition to her, her spouse Osiris, as well as Pedesi and Pihor, two brothers who might have been deified sons of chieftains, and the Nubian gods Mandulis and Arsenuphis, are also honored. Like the several other Egyptian temples commissioned by Augustus, the Dendur one follows native architectural, iconographical, epigraphical standards. Augustus’ regal profile shows him in full Pharaonic garb, surrounded by hieroglyphic texts. If you are not an Egyptologist, you cannot tell the reliefs date from the Roman period and were commissioned by a foreign ruler.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.08.21.pngKarl Lagerfeld was inspired by Egyptian civilisation and the spirit of New York for the 2018/19 #CHANELMetiersdArt collection dedicated to the savoir faire of CHANEL’s Métiers d’art, presenting it in The Temple of Dendur in the @metmuseum” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram

Fast forward almost two millennia, to the 1960s, and Lower Nubia, a region that stretches from southern Egypt to northern Sudan, found itself about to be submerged following the construction of the High Aswan dam. Lake Nasser, the vast reservoir lake called after the then President of Egypt Gamal Adbel Nasser, eventually covered c.2,000m2 of land, forcing the relocation of local, Nubian communities, and the destruction of many archaeological sites. Ahead of its creation, the UNESCO set up the “International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia“. Fifty countries took part in the campaign, including the USA, which offered the biggest monetary contribution and thus were the first to choose their archaeological “gift” among some of the salvaged monuments. Their pick: The temple of Dendur. In 1965, Egypt officially gave the USA the temple and its getaway and two years later, after a competition among interested American cities and institutions, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered it to the Met. The dismantled structure was shipped to New York, before being restored and rebuilt within the Sackler Wing. Bordered by a reflecting pool and naturally lit thanks to a large bay window that overlooks Central Park, Gallery 131 is more than a museum display of Pharaonic-style sacred architecture and Nubian heritage. It is, also, a rendition of Egypt’s topography that acts as a versatile, socio-cultural space of its own.

Contrary to what the temple itself and the monochromic tones of the room might indicate at first glance, it was originally, like all ancient Egyptian (and ancient Mediterranean) temples, painted in deep, vivid colors. Just like for statues, what mostly remains today of these ancient buildings is their bone structure. Likewise, average ancient Egyptians did not walk around covered in gold, lapis lazuli and turquoise, looking like Tutankhamun’s funerary mask or Isis Almighty. Nope. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that Chanel’s Egypt is a familiar place for western audiences. And we can conveniently blame Napoléon and his army of scientists and scholars for it.

When Napoléon Bonaparte added Egypt to his empire in 1798, he brought with him a contingent of French engineers, artists, and scholars, whose duty was to document all aspects of ancient and modern Egypt’s landscapes, ruins, cities, villages and customs. The final result was the Description de l’Égypte (“Description of Egypt”, thereby DE), a massive series of thirty-four, almost 1m2 volumes published in Paris between 1809 and 1829. The DE was an imperial vanity project; one whose scholarly and cultural ambition was to compensate for Napoléon’s loss of Egypt (and of the Rosetta Stone) to the British in 1802. If France didn’t occupy Egypt militarily anymore, it still, so the DE signaled, controlled and produced the knowledge pertaining to its past and present. Edward Said has brilliantly analyzed the implications of this enterprise and the foundational impact it had on Orientalist scholarship ever since in his seminal work Orientalism.

DE Frontispice bordure

Description de l’Égypte, frontispiece page

I’ve been obsessed with engineer, drawer and member of the Expédition d’Égypte François-Charles Cécile’s 1809 frontispiece page of the DE for a while now. To me, this black and white work is the foundational articulation of all “Western” (that is European and North American) political, cultural, and scholarly treatments of Egypt ever since. The frontispiece is also a wonderful pedagogical tool, which I’ve been using in several of my classes. I often say that should Classicists and Egyptologists spend more time mulling over it, we would save ourselves a great part of the psychoanalytical work our disciplines remain in dire need of. For almost all of the ensuing representations and receptions of the country replicate its fundamental characteristics.

So, what do we see?

We see two distinctive components: A Classically-inspired frame, and an ‘Egyptianizing’ center. The central drawing is a shrunk landscape of Egypt that runs from the Mediterranean shore on the top right, to Aswan, at the rear. A selection of Pharaonic-style monuments are set along the meandering Nile, which acts as the drawing’s topographic anchor and gives rhythm and further perspective to the composition. The only dissonant element is the so-called column of Pompey, in reality the sole remaining column of Alexandria’s famous Serapeum (temple to Sarapis). The fact that the column was a common feature of European touristic and cartographic representations of Egypt in the early modern period might explain why it made it into the frontispiece despite its Greek look. Left of the column, “Cleopatra’s needle” stands out. The “needle” is in fact a reused granite obelisk from the reign of Thutmoses III that was first erected in Heliopolis. Together with a second one that now stands in London, it was moved to Alexandria in 13 or 12 BCE in order to be integrated to the city’s Caesareum (temple to the deified Julius Caesar whose foundation dates from Cleopatra VII’s reign). In 1880, the Khedive Ismail offered it to New York, and it now stands in Central Park.

nile statue rome

Statue of the Nile, Piazza del Campidoglio (author’s picture)

In lieu of frame, the composition is surrounded by a neo-Classical frieze that pays tribute to Napoléon’s military prowess and civilizing mission in Egypt. It also contains to symbolic references to his Italian campaigns (1792-1802). The top register features Napoléon-Apollo followed by Muses-like female personifications of the Arts and Sciences. Naked except from a flowing cape, the French emperor rides a four-horse chariot. And this is not any random four-horse chariot, but the bronze quadriga looted in Constantinople’s hippodrome by the Venetians during their sack of the Byzantine Empire in the context of the fourth crusade (1202-1204). The bronze horses were embedded in the central façade of the Saint Mark basilica, but they’ve since been replaced by a replica, the original being housed in the basilica’s Treasury. Thus riding his Constantinopolitan/Venetian horses, Apollo-Napoléon rolls towards the right of the frieze, preceded by the imperial eagle. His targets? The defeated Mamluks, who are portrayed on horseback fleeing Egypt. The latter is represented at the bottom right of the register as a reclining bearded man holding a cornupia. This personification of the Nile River corresponds to the statue that now stands, together with a similar statue of the Tiber River, in Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio. In Antiquity, the pair was part of the city’s Serapeum. On the left and right-hand sides of the frame, one sees a series of Roman-style military standards with the name of battles Napoléon’s army won during its campaigns in Syria-Palestine and Egypt. At the bottom, Magi-looking Mamluks and their camels are seen bringing tributes to Napoléon, who is represented by a crowned letter N. The message couldn’t be clearer: Pharaonic Egypt’s monumental glory is enframed, contained and enlightened through the arts and sciences by Napoléon, who is portrayed as the embodiment and promoter of a French, Classically-fed imperialism, and the antidote to Oriental despotism.

If that is what we see when we look at the frontispiece, then what is not there?

As a matter of fact, we don’t really see Egypt. There are no living beings, be they animal, humans or, except a few palm trees here and there, vegetal; no villages; no cities; no fields or agricultural landscapes; no dikes, canals, roads, boats or harbors; no life. The DE‘s Egypt is an empty, still space whose monuments are up for grab.

Chanel’s Met show represents yet another rendition of the DE‘s frontispiece page. A swirling one that is, where temporality is articulated according to a cultural divide: on the one hand, Egypt is firmly rooted in a grandiose, gilded and mysterious yet immobile past; on the other, that static, Oriental past is pulled forward and into the future by western know how. Model, photographer and Vogue UK contributor Laura Bailey’s take on the show eloquently testifies to how, despite its claim to innovation, the story proposed by Chanel is one we’ve heard many times before, one saturated with the same old Orientalist dichotomies: East and West; old and new; spirituality and technology; eternal, mysterious past and futuristic modernity. The same old story with the same old tropes, packaged as “futurism”.

Creation is turning the old into new.

Creation is spolia.

The term spolia is a Latin word that originally designated spoils of war. In modern scholarship, it refers to the practice of reusing and repurposing older precious objects and (parts of) monuments into more recent buildings and works of arts. While spolia have traditionally been associated with Late Antique art (and thus deemed less sophisticated than earlier, “original” works from earlier, “Classical” periods), the truth of the matter is, the practice has always existed. Rulers and artists have traditionally practiced spolia out of both practical (re-use of abandoned monuments and building materials; saving costs and time) and ideological (boosting one’s reign and socio-political or religious capital by associating oneself with a popular ruler, god or saint) reasons. In many ways, it continues to this day, from former factories-turned condos or restaurants to vintage fashion, to musical sampling, to the practice of excavating, collecting, and exhibiting older objects, monuments and bodies. It also includes the Met’s Gallery 131, as well as the Chanel show that took place in it.

For the Temple of Dendur is not the only Antiquity on display in Gallery 131 of the Sackler Wing. Two statues of Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1353 BCE) from the temple of Amun at Luxor stand in front of the water pool, as if to guard the temple. These were offered by the Egyptian Government in 1922. Towards the back of the temple’s left side, one also finds a pink granite sphinx of female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c.1479-1458 BCE) that originally stood in the ruler’s funerary temple of Deir el-Bahari on the westbank of Luxor, and that features prominently in the video caption of the show. The sphinx, which was found in the context of the Met’s 1926-1928 excavations, came to the Museum following a division of finds in 1931.

dendur 01Temple of Dendur (Image: Metmuseum)

Just like the DE frontispiece, Chanel’s vision of Egypt is a disembodied one inasmuch as it draws its inspiration from artifacts found for the most part in funerary and religious contexts. What mattered most with the Paris-New York show was not Egypt per se; it was America’s, France’s, Chanel’s Egypt. Karl Lagerfeld’s Egypt is bookish and touristic, and this should not come as a surprise. How many of us are willing to experience Egypt beyond what we imagine it to be? From Napoléon to today, the country remains, for most audiences, a lifeless landscape made of sand and stones, of colossal monuments and sphinxes and obelisks. Egypt is a stage. Egypt is a fossil of a long-past imperial glory whose appropriation by the “West” can only be rationalized through its complete disconnect from everything that came after that purported “grandeur”, and especially the Arab conquest and the slow conversion of the country’s population to Islam.

It is to that effect telling to compare the New York show with the 2015 Dubai Chanel Cruise one. While the latter drew heavily from local craftsmanship, fashion codes and esthetics, and while it took place in Dubai itself and included a substantial amount of local guests, judging from the footages and pictures available online, modern and contemporary Egypt were completely absent, and so were living Egyptians and their culture, from the New York Arts et Métiers show. That there is a substantial market for Chanel in the Gulf States certainly justifies the choice of Dubai, and the same can be said of the 2009 Paris-Shanghai Arts et Métiers show, which was staged in Shanghai’s Bund area. More recently, Karl Lagerfeld wanted to stage the 2018 Chanel Cruise show amidst Greek ruins, but facing the refusal of Greek officials, he decided to recreate his vision of ancient Greece in Paris. What was his vision? Not colorful ancient Athens, but the white ruins that are left of it.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.13.04.pngChanel Cruise 2018 show (Image: Chanel’s Instagram)

The show’s set up recalls the 2010 Paris-Byzance and 2011 Paris-Bombay Arts et Métiers shows: Both were inspired by places located in the “East” (Turkey and India) yet staged in Paris; both are named after old toponyms (Byzance rather than Istanbul; Bombay rather than Mumbai) that echo European, Christian Empires; both drew heavily from local iconography, craftsmanship and esthetic codes, leading, in the case of Paris-Bombay, to discussion around cultural appropriation. In an interview given during the 2011 Paris-Bombay show, Lagerfeld said “India for me is an idea. I know nothing about reality, so I have the poetic vision of something maybe less poetic”.

What these fashion events have in common is their location in an imagined Orient; one whose relationship to Chanel’s esthetics resides in ideas surrounding its past, immemorial, imperial grandeur and exoticism. In places where the wealthy ruling class’ buying power is high and the (female) demand for French luxury fashion particularly strong, we see Chanel runways move East (Shanghai, Dubai). Otherwise (Turkey, India, Egypt), shows seem to have stemmed more from a desire to explore the western, French or American, gaze on foreign (past) lands and cultures than from a will to engage in an unmediated way with these locations.

Given that, one can hardly ignore how Chanel’s New York show was also staged so as to maximize the brand’s ability to tap into the current force, and therefore marketable potential, of Afrocentrist, Afrofuturistic and Afrosurrealist esthetics among African American and other black communities beyond the USA. Singer and Chanel ambassador Janelle Monae sums it up well: “I love that Egypt was an inspiration, a futuristic yet timeless place, and that’s what I got from the collection”. Chanel here follows Balmain in appealing directly to African-American customers by offering them pieces of design that tap into the central, ongoing role played by Pharaonic Egypt in Afrocentrist discourses. Beyoncé’s Nefertiti looks at Beychella? Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. The feathered hieroglyphic outfit she wore during her Global Citizens Festival set in Johannesburgh in early December? Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. Rousteing, a black designer who is known for advocating for more diversity in the fashion world, approaches Egypt from a deeply personal, future-oriented place. As Manon Renault has shown, both his and British creator Pam Hogg’s Egyptian references partake in a political agenda that draws from and contest the established (gender, racial) order.

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One of Beyoncé’s custom-made Balmain looks (Source: Balmain’s Instagram)

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Beyoncé’s custom-made Balmain look for the 2018 Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100! (Image: Balmain’s Instagram)

Chanel’s idea of Egypt is a highly selective and curated one; one that speaks more of the creators’, brand’s and audience’s own positioning than of Egypt’s actual history, heritage and multi-layered culture. The thing is, Karl Lagerfeld’s and Chanel’s Egypt is not about Egypt. It is about Paris and New York. It is about the wealthy, Western “us”. It is about the ideas, the stories of Egypt that the world has been retelling itself again and again since 1798. It is about a fantasy of Egypt that sells. It is an impeccable, inspired, beautiful but ultimately truncated representation of peoples, cultures and histories; one that fetishizes the rich and the powerful; one that does care about Egypt only so far as it sends back to oneself the feeling that one can, too, partake in the riches, power, and enduring memory.

This is a cross-post with the SCS blog


Culture and Orientalism in Language Instruction Books – الثقافة والاستشراق في كتب تعلم اللغات

Advertisements inside Brin and Biancardi’s (1942) Say it in Arabic and see Egypt.

by Rachel Mairs

ὁ Δικαιόπολις ἐκβαίνει ἐκ τοῦ οἴκου καὶ καλεῖ τὸν Ξανθίαν. ὁ Ξανθίας δοῦλός ἐστιν, ἰσχυρὸς μὲν ἄνθρωπος, ἀργὸς δε· οὐ γὰρ πονεῖ, εἰ μὴ πάρεσιν ὁ Δικαιὀπολις. νῦν δὲ κάθεύδει ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ.

“Dikaiopolis leaves the house and calls Xanthias.  Xanthias is a slave, a strong man, but lazy: for he doesn’t work if Dikaiopolis is not present. Now he is sleeping in the house.”

Athenaze, Chapter 2.

لا أحبّ مدينة نيويورك كثيراً بسبب الازدحام والطقس … أشعر أحياناً بالوحدة في هذه المدينة الكبيرة، فـوالدي ووالدتي مشغولان دائماً، ولي صديقة واحدة فقط اسمها ليلى وهي أمريكية من أصل تونسي.

“I don’t like New York City very much, because of the overcrowding and the weather … I feel lonely sometimes, in this big city, since my father and mother are always busy, and I only have one friend.  Her name is Leila, and she’s American of Tunisian descent.”

Al-Kitaab fii Ta‘allum al-‘Arabiyya, Chapter 5.

The texts above are excerpts from the early chapters of two of the main textbooks from which I learnt Classical Greek (in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom) and Modern Standard Arabic (in the mid-2000s in the United States).  Both are languages for which I feel a deep affection, and which I use every day in my professional life.  I am now at the beginning of a one-year British Academy-funded project ‘Teach Yourself Arabic: Foreigners Learning Colloquial Arabic, 1850-1945’ (thanks, BA!), and this seemed a good time to reflect on how I have learnt and taught languages in the past.  I’m particularly interested in how written instructional materials are used both inside and outside formal educational contexts (i.e. taking a class vs self instruction), and on how the content of these instructional materials both derives from, and in turn influences, contemporary attitudes to the peoples, cultures and polities behind the language.

Learning a language always means learning about another culture.  Language textbook authors’ main concern is teaching the language, but they also have a duty to communicate the culture in a way that is both accurate and responsible.  This can be tricky.  It is important not to sugar-coat impalatable truths about the ancient Mediterranean world – Greeks and Romans owned slaves; in law and in practice women were often little more than the property of their male relatives – and it is also important not to normalise them.  As Erik Robinson has noted of the Cambridge Latin Course, “it is hard to address the problem of slavery seriously after it has been turned into a recurring punchline” (““The Slaves Were Happy”: High School Latin and the Horrors of Classical Studies”, Eidolon  25 Sept 2017).  As a schoolchild, I doubt I spared much thought for how the trope of the lazy slave was introduced in my Greek textbook, nor later when I started to read Greek literature.  Twenty-five years later, teaching using the very same textbook, I was astounded not just at how casually the book handled ancient Greek attitudes to owning another human being, but how reminiscent this rhetoric was of that of much nineteenth-century US pro-slavery literature.  It was impossible to use the textbook in class without addressing this directly with my students.

I have a slightly different love-hate relationship with my Arabic textbook.  As with Athenaze, I did find Al-Kitaab paedagogically effective.  (I know they don’t work for everybody’s learning style, but they happen to for mine.)  The textbook follows the stories of lonely Maha in New York and her shy cousin Khaled in Cairo, whose lives are maelstroms of tragic parental deaths, social alienation, broken romances and transcontinental miscommunication.  Khaled’s social life revolves around sitting sullenly with his friends at the club while they banter about their (supposed) love lives, while Maha prefers to mope at home, waiting for her over-worked parents to pay her attention.  Thanks to their disaffection, I can still express negative emotions (أشعر بالخجل،  كان أصعب قرار في حياتي) far more eloquently in Arabic than I can positive ones (أنا سعيدة).  My teacher and classmates dealt with the relentless negativity by joking about Maha and Khaled, and their slow drift towards a blatantly doomed arranged marriage. Naturally, the pair are cult figures online (see e.g.  Al-Kitaab has been criticised for its supposed political stance, but it is not my intention to consider that issue here.  Rather, my problem with the book is how it managed to suck the joy out of learning about people studying, socialising and working in Cairo (a real-life experience I adored).

The presentation of cultural and social material in historic language teaching books is addressed in a fascinating new collected volume (The History of Language Learning and Teaching III: Across Cultures, ed. Nicola McLelland and Richard Smith, Legenda 2018).  The topic has also been explored in the publications and conferences of the AILA Research Network for the History of Language Learning and Teaching, such as an event I organised at the University of Reading last summer.  With Al-Kitaab and Athenaze, problems with the content can be somewhat mitigated by the efforts of the teacher (highlighting the callousness with which slaves and women are treated; pointing out that it is possible to have a much nicer time in Cairo than poor Khaled).  But what of cases where all the student has is the book?

There is nothing new about books which claim that they can help a student to learn a language by themselves, or about students who think that this is feasible. Self-instruction ‘teach yourself’ language books have been a lucrative business since the second half of the nineteenth century.  Many earlier language instruction books also accept that the purchaser may be working without a teacher.  For languages such as Arabic in northern Europe, finding a book would often be much easier than finding a native speaker, although both may have been tricky.  As long as people have been trying to teach themselves languages from books, others have also been making fun of the results – some more kindly than others.  Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) met Sylvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) in Paris, and while he admired his book-learnt erudition in literary Arabic, did point out that this had not equipped him to actually speak the language:

وقد تعلم اللغة العربية على ما قيل بقوة فهمه، وذكاء عقله، وغزارة علمه، لا بواسطة معلم  إلا في مبدأ أمره، ولم يحضر مثل الشيخ خالد فضلاً عن حضور المغني مع أنه يمكنه قراءة المغني، كيف وقد دّرس البياضوي عدة مرات، غير إنه حين يقرأ ينطق كالعجم ولايمكنه أن يتكلم بالعربية إلا إذا كان بيده الكتاب، فإذا أراد شرح عبارة أغرب في الألفاظ التي يتعذر عليه تصحيح نطقها

He learned Arabic, so it is said, by his powers of understanding, his keen intelligence and wide erudition – and without the help of a teacher, except at the beginning. He did not have instruction on, for instance, Shaykh Khālid – not to mention al-Mughnī, which he can read.  Indeed he several times taught classes on al-Bayḍāwi.  However, when he reads, he has a foreign accent and he cannot speak Arabic unless he has a book in his hands.  If he wants to explain an expression, he uses strange words, which he is unable to pronounce properly.

(al-Tahtawi 1834, Takhlīṣ al-Ibrīz fī Talkhīṣ Bārīz aw al-Dīwān al-Nafīs bi-Īwān Bārīs; trans. Newman 2004.)

I don’t have space to go into de Sacy’s role in the construction of Orientalist knowledge here (as discussed by Edward Said and many others), but his experience of learning Arabic through books is relevant.  The Orientalist project was a textual one: “Sacy’s achievement was to have produced a whole field. As a European he ransacked the Oriental archives, and he could do so without leaving France” (Said 1978, Orientalism, 105).  How people learnt and taught the Arabic language in Europe was intimately connected to what they they thought and wrote about the Arab world.

My project focusses on the period after 1850, when there is a dramatic growth in less formal publications to help foreigners learn Arabic.  Orientalist notions about the Middle East are, naturally, alive and well in even cheap, popular phrasebooks for tourists in Egypt authored by foreigners.  It would be easy to fill blog post after blog post with examples like the following, from R. A. Marriott’s Egyptian Self-Taught (Arabic) of 1914:

Screenshot 2019-01-10 at 12.44.09.png

Note how the ‘Simple and Practical Phrases’ are mostly about giving orders or expressing displeasure, reinforcing the social hierarchy between Egyptians and foreigners.  (And, of course, the phrase “he learned Arabic by himself”.)

So how did Arabic-speakers view the results – both linguistic and cultural – of foreigners using books like this?  Journalist and playwright Ya‘qūb Ṣannū‘ aka James Sanua (1839-1912) wrote a skit al-Sawwāh wa al-Hammār (‘The Tourist and the Donkey Driver’), in which an English tourist ‘John Bull’ comicly mangles book-learnt fuṣḥa (standard literary Arabic), and the frustrated donkey driver says in ‘āmmiyya (dialect) that it would be easier if they just spoke English.

‘John Bull’ is not the only character in Ṣannū‘’s plays who is depicted as speaking bad Arabic for comic effect (see Fahmy 2011).  Ṣannū‘, who was himself multilingual, had experience of teaching foreigners Arabic. He published a satirical journal under the pen name Abū Naḍḍāra (‘the man in the glasses’).  I reproduce here the header of an issue of 1904, published in exile in Paris:

Abu Naddara.png

In this same issue Ṣannū‘ offers Arabic instruction:

Arabe en 32 lecons.png

It is not clear whether he is selling a self-published booklet containing his ‘méthode inédite’ or providing actual lessons, but the implication is clear that currently-available published materials for Arabic instruction are inadequate, and that he claims to have a better option.  It would be fascinating to know what cultural information Ṣannū‘ included in his lessons, but so far I have not been able to find any evidence for this.

At this stage of the project, my research is focussing on examples of authors of Arabic instruction books who did include appropriate and useful cultural information (I’ll come back to the more blatantly-Orientalist or completely irrelevant ones later).  I like to think Ṣannū‘ might even have taught his students, as tourists, how to have a proper conversation with that donkey driver in Egyptian dialect.  The archaeologist Flinders Petrie includes a list of what he finds useful Arabic vocabulary for working in the field in his 1892 memoir Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt.  My favourite so far is Yacoub Nakhlah, whose New Manual of English and Arabic Conversation, published at the Bulaq Press in 1874, includes copious materials on how to manage a busy social life (with Egyptians, not other foreigners) in Cairo, playing cards and hanging out in coffee houses – and there is no Khaled sitting sullenly in the corner complaining about his disappointments in life.

Further Reading

Fahmy, Ziad (2011) Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

McLelland, Nicola and Richard Smith eds. (2018) The History of Language Learning and Teaching. London: Legenda; Modern Humanities Research Association.




Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt III, or why you must be in Alexandria on March 11

Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt III, or why you must be in Alexandria on March 11

Will you (or are you searching for the perfect excuse to) be in Egypt on March 11? Do please come and join us at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for the third Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt (OCE) day-long seminar. This year’s event will focus on the reception of Egyptian culture and heritage in academia and beyond. We promise a day of energising debate and hilariously-awful stories about colonial scholarship, as well as a supportive, collegiate atmosphere, for scholars at all stages of their career. The speakers and titles are listed below, together with a description of the OCE workshop series. Full details of the programme and venue will be announced closer to the time. This will be a bilingual event, in Arabic and English, with translation available.

Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad and Rachel Mairs

The program is available here

Speakers and titles:

Dr Hakem al-Rustom, University of Michigan, USA: Internal Orientalism: The Case of Ottoman and Kemalist Orientalism

Dr Magda Elnowieemy, University of Alexandria, Egypt: What is Egyptian in Egyptian Classical Scholarship?

Dr Monica Hanna, The Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Egypt: Decolonizing Heritage

Dr Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK: Archaeologists, Tourists and the Arabic Language in the Nineteenth Century

Dr Myrto Malouta, Ionian University, Corfu, Greece: Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus as Post-Colonial Criticism

Dr Franziska Naether, University of Leipzig and Egyptian Museum-Georg Steindorff, Germany: Oh Faraó! Reception of Egypt in Brazilian Carnival

Event abstract

The concept of Orientalism was developed by the literary scholar Edward Said who, in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), defined it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it : in short, Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. Said’s Orientalism dedicates only a minimal space to ancient history. His short discussions of Aeschylus’s Persians, Euripides’ Bacchae and Herodotus’ Histories (p.21, 56-58) are meant to root Orientalist representations in the ancient Greek world. Said’s superficial treatment of this important topic represents a weakness within his work. Yet this alone cannot explain why, if we exclude the field of reception studies, his concept and the scholarly debates it triggered have so far had a much more limited impact on the work of historians of the ancient Mediterranean than they have on other disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences. This phenomenon must be understood as the symptom of a belated engagement with (if not a certain resistance to) postcolonial theory within the field and, as Phiroze Vasunia pointed out regarding Classics, of its “failure to acknowledge [its] colonial genealogy”[1]. Nevertheless, the relevance of Orientalism to the study of ancient Mediterranean history expresses itself on two, interconnected levels that have profound socio-cultural implications: Our understanding of ancient imperialisms and dynamics of “Othering”; our grasp of the interconnectedness of modern historiography, imperialism, and modern identity-making. While things are slowly starting to change, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Forty years after the release of Orientalism, this Egypt-based yearly workshop aims to bring together scholars from the Middle East, Europe, and North America, in order to reflect on the many ways in which Orientalism has shaped the field of “Classics” and its relationship to Egypt’s territory, history, and heritage.

This year’s event is made possible through the generous support of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the British Academy

[1] Vasunia, Ph. 2003, “Hellenism and Empire: Reading Edward Said”, Parallax, 9 (4), 88-97.


The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

by Katherine Blouin

Last Fall, I decided to do a little experiment in my 1st-year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean” (a Classics and History course). On the first day of class, right at the start of lecture, I distributed a homemade, anonymous survey to the group, which contained a few questions: What 5 words come to their mind when they think about the Ancient Mediterranean? Why are you taking this course? What are you expecting with this course? Is this your first course in ancient history? If no, what other high school or university course(s) did you take? How many languages do you speak?

On the last day of class, that is 13 weeks later, I distributed another survey, in which I asked students to respond to the 5-word question again. How different or similar would their answers be this time around? I was excited to find out, and so were the students. What follows is thus dedicated to them.

This before/after survey exercise is by no means scientific. Yet I believe it nevertheless illuminates certain trends regarding the general perception of ancient history and Classics among young Ontarians, and thus help us teachers think about how both high school and university curricula/syllabi can foster more nuanced, intersectional and de-Eurocentrized perceptions of ancient history amongst students, including those who won’t pursue a Classics or History degree.

The group

The course’s size went from 180 students on week 1 to 150 on the day of the final (attrition-wise, this is normal by UofT standards). The two main reasons for enrolling include an interest in history and (for more senior students) program requirements. Most students were first year undergraduates. Since the course was offered in the Fall, this means they were mostly coming straight out of high school. In other words, given the reduced historical curriculum in Ontarian high schools, and also the rather outdated nature of the conception of history the official program promotes (namely the biological model whereby “civilizations” sprout, blossom then decay/fall), the majority of them had not been exposed to any ancient history before, and when they had, it had been mostly through the problematic yet still popular “Classical word is the root of Western civilization” trope.

One of the most incredible features of the UTSC student body is its diversity and, also, the fact that most students are bi-/multilingual. In addition to English, languages spoken by students enrolled in the course include: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Cantonnese, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Igbo, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese. Such diversity, and the breadth and depth of personal, family, and collective experiences it testifies to, impacts the way students relate (or not) with ancient Mediterranean history, as well as with several of the phenomena discussed during term (multilingualism, migration, religion(s), wars, the politics of heritage).

The course

The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

You can find a description of the course as well as its syllabus here.

Before – Week 1

On the first day of class, 139 students filled the survey (that is most of those who were in class that day). Almost all of them answered the 5-word question, for a total of 612 entries. In total, the group came up with 214 different words or referents (words referring to a territory and its people – i.e. Greek and Greece – were grouped together).

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Table 1: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean”? – Week 1 (word + nb of entries)

The 20 most popular words are listed in the table below:

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Table 2: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 1

The most striking feature of Table 2 is that for almost half the students who filled up the survey, the ancient Mediterranean was seen as Greek. The words ‘Rome’ [not Italy] and ‘Roman(s)’, come in second, but in lesser number, since they show up in about a third of the copies. I was expecting these two referents to be popular, but the sheer prevalence of “Greece” over “Rome” was a surprise. Likewise, they amount to way more entries than the following top words, which refer to general, obvious features traditionally attached to ancient History and Classics (notably an emphasis on military history, politics, and trade) and the Mediterranean Sea itself in popular culture.

The traditional, mostly Eurocentric and at times Orientalist picture that emerges from Table 2 is both confirmed and nuanced by several of the thematic clusters one can observe in Table 1. These include words related to food (production) (agriculture, fishing, food, goat, kabob, olives, salad, souvlaki, spices); climate and landscapes (Aegean Sea, beach(es), blue, camel, coastal, desert, fertility, hot, nature, ocean, palm trees, rivers, sea/bodies of water, sun, tropical, villages, water); people (Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Augustus, Bedouins, Caesar, Gaius, Hypatia (the only female), Thucydides); “religion” (Christian, gods, goddess(es), Islam, Jupiter, mythology, polytheism, Poseidon, Zeus); archaeology (loot, paint, rubble, (ancient/destroyed) ruins, sculpture, statues).

As for epithets, there is quite a variety of them: advanced, ancient, beautiful, central, cool (sort of), diverse, fun, hopeful, interesting, mysterious, old, pioneering, rich (in culture), tumultuous, unknown (to me), vintage, weird, western, wild, wonderful. One should also highlight a few words that refer to later (or fictional) periods and cultures: Black Death, Ottoman Empire, Sinbad, Sultan, Venice (does it show one of my colleagues at UTSC works on the Venetian and Ottoman Empires?) and…dragon.

Finally, almost 30 toponymic referents appear in Table 1, though most often in only one or two surveys: Africa, Anatolian, Asia, Asia Minor, Athens, Babylon(ia), Carthage, Constantinople, Cyprus, Egypt/Egyptians, Eurasia, Europe(an), Greece/Greek, Iberian, Levant, Macedonia, Malta, Mesopotamia, Middle East(ern), Peloponnesian, Persia, Phoenicia, Rome/Romans, Silk Road, Spain, Sparta/Spartans, Troy, Turkey, Tyre.

Once students were done with the survey, I asked those who felt like it to share some of the words they had in mind with the group. Here was the result (which includes words not in the surveys themselves).


All in all, that was a good start; one well worth building upon. And complicating.

After – Week 13

Fast forward to week 13, that is the last day of class. 75 students filled the survey. That’s about half the number of students still enrolled in the course by then (yes, the end-of-term mayhem leads many to skip lectures). This second round of surveys provided 351 entries amounting to 162 different words/referents.

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Table 3: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean” – Week 13 (word + nb of entries)

My efforts to teach ancient Mediterranean history beyond the Classics seems to have resonated with students, for the top 20 word ranking looks substantially different. The most popular word is now “diverse”, which appears in about a quarter of the copies. Related words such as multicultural(ism)/-faith/-religion/-lingual (16 entries), varied (1 entry) or connection/connected/interconnected (8 entries) also express similar or related ideas.

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Table 4: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 13

Another noticeable change is the lower number of references to “Greece” and “Rome”. Not only are these two referents not in the first and second place anymore, but they feature after “Egypt(ians)” and “Mesopotamia”. You can go ahead and put the blame on my passion – if not obsession – for these two regions. New toponyms (Alexandria, Ur, Ionia, Nubia, Sparta), hydronyms (Euphrates, Tigris, Nile) and peoples (Octavian, Parthians, Persians, Sargon, women/women’s rights) also appear on the list, and one notes more words conveying the idea of change, flux or complexity than on week 1.


So what difference did that one course make? I can certainly not answer for my students, of course, and the survey only reveals a truncated picture of what overall pieces of information they will carry with them in the months and years to come. Yet one thing seems clear: the diachronic, de-Eurocentrized and intersectional nature of the course’s syllabus did lead to a substantial recalibration of the overall image the students have of the “Ancient Mediterranean”; one that shifted from a sepia zoom to a colour panorama.

What and whose stories we historians chose to share with our students matter, and the more voices they hear, the merrier we’ll all get. As Stó: Nation author and teacher Lee Maracle aptly said in October 2018 at the University of Toronto’s “Humanities Pedagogy: Confronting Colonization” workshop, we scholars and teachers ought not to “take anything away”. Rather, we need to “change the way we look at it. The start is facing ourselves and our own history.”

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus


by Katherine Blouin

Since I arrived at the UofT’s Scarborough campus more than a decade ago, I’ve taught a few times a 1st-year undergraduate course entitled “The Ancient Mediterranean”. The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

Most students who take the course come straight from high school, and so have very little (or no) background in history, let alone in ancient history. The group is a mix of students enrolled in a CLA or HIS program and of students taking the course as an elective. The classroom size is of 150-200 students and the group is very diverse.

In the light of conversations with colleagues, I thought it might be handy to share the latest version of my syllabus’ calendar and reading list.

Some preliminary cues:

1. One of my main aims was to tone down the “Mediterranean Antiquity = Greco-Roman” paradigm. As I like to say, the so-called “Classical” world did come emerge out of the blue. Far from it.

2. Accordingly, I’ve made sure to distribute the material in a way that allows a maximum of seats at the table. So contrary to all available textbooks on the topic, the Greek and Roman worlds do not take up most of the term lectures.

3. I’ve paired up Empires (Roman-Carthaginian, Achaemenid-Hellenistic, Roman Dominate-Sassanian) that are usually not taught with equal emphasis

4. The weekly calendar is meant to convey to students the importance of challenging historiographical myths such as the “Fall” of the Roman Empire (and thus the biological model of “civilizations“) and the idea whereby the Arab conquests brought about a complete socio-cultural rupture.

5. Online (blog) articles, podcasts and TedEd videos proved to be very useful pedagogical tools, especially when introductory readings on a particular topic are rare on unsatisfactory for the needs of the course.

Feel free to take on whatever you deem useful from what follows, and if you do, let me know how your students responded to the material.

Required Material and Readings

  • Podany, A.H. 2014. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short History. Oxford, OUP.
  • Shaw, I. 2004. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.
  • de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek 2008. An Introduction to the Ancient World. NYC, Routlege.
  • A selection of episodes from BBC 4’s In Our Time
  • A selection of podcasts from BBC 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (AHOW in weekly calendar)
  • A few other readings/videos (references provided in the weekly calendar)

Weekly Calendar

Week 1 Course Presentation


– Appiah, K.A. 2016. “There is no such thing as western civilisation“, The Guardian

– Blouin, K. 2018. “Civilization: What’s Up with That?“, Everyday Orientalism

– Futo Kennedy, R 2017. “We condone it by our silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy”, Eidolon

Week 2  Ancient Mesopotamia, from Uruk to the dynasty of Ur

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.1-5

Podcast : AHOW 012 and 015

Week 3 The Ancient Near East, from the Old Assyrian Empire to Cyrus’ conquest

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.6-10

Podcast : AHOW 016 and 21

Video: The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire“, TedEd

 Week 4 Ancient Egypt 1

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.1-4

Podcast : AHOW 011 and 017

Video: “A day in the life of an ancient Egyptian doctor”, TedEd

Week 5 Ancient Egypt 2

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.5-8

Podcast : 020 and 025

Video: The pharaoh that wouldn’t be forgotten“, TedEd

Week 6  Reading week = No class

Week 7 Midterm

Week 8 The Aegean and ancient Greek World

Readings: De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.8-10

Podcast : AHOW 018 and 027


– “Why is Aristophanes called “The father of Comedy”?“, TedEd

– “The myth of Arachne“, TedEd

Week 9 The Achaemenid and Hellenistic Worlds


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.11

– Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2017. “The Achaemenid Empire“, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes.

– Zuckerberg, D. 2017. “Don’t Quote me on That“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 031 and 032


– “Why is Herodotus called “The father of history”?“, TedEd

Did the Amazons really exist?, TedEd

Week 10 Rome and Carthage: From Cities to Empires


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.12-13

– Futo Kennedy, R. 2017. “Colorlines in Classical North Africa“, Classics at the Intersections

Podcast : In Our Time, “The Phoenicians” and “Carthage’s Destruction

Video:Who were the Vestals virgins“, TedEd

Week 11 The Roman World, from the Late Republic to the Dominate


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.14-15

– Padilla, D. 2015. “Barbarians Inside the Gate, Part I: Fear of Immigration in Ancient Rome and Today“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 035 and 040


-“Why would you read Virgil’s “Aeneid”?“, TedEd

-“A glimpse of teenage life in ancient Rome“, TedEd

Week 12 The Late Antique Roman and Sassanian Empires


De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.16

– Daryaee, T. and K. Rezakhani 2017. “The Sasanian Empire”, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes.

Podcast :

– AHOW 043 and 044

– In Our Time, “The Sassanid Empire

Video: The rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire“, TedEd

Week 13 Early Islam and the Arab Conquests


“Arabs” and “Muhammad” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Sarris, P. 2015. “Byzantium and Islam”, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.

Podcast :

– AHOW 045 and 046

– In Our Time, “The Arab Conquests


In addition to a midterm and a final, the students had to write a “podcast manuscript”:

A History of Ancient Women in 180 ROM Objects 30%

Students are asked to visit the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and, on that occasion, to select one of the many objects from the Ancient Mediterranean world that is related to girls/women (including goddesses) on display there.

Then, in the fashion of BBC’s AHOW series, they shall write the manuscript of a podcast in which they offer a historical analysis of the object in question.

The 4 to 5-page manuscript (1.5 spaced) shall be structured as follows :

  1. Introduction
  2. Primary evidence analysis
  3. Conclusion

In 2014, I assigned a similar paper for my 2nd-year Roman History and Culture course, with the Roman world as the general theme. The ROM generously partnered up with me and turned 5 of the best papers into videos starring the students. The selection was made via a long list established by myself and my GA. Then, students whose papers made it to the long list and who were interested to participate had their paper sent to a small jury made of ROM curators and associate researchers. The 5 winners can be seen on the ROM’s Youtube page.