Ancient Egypt-mania, preserving antiquities and why Indiana Jones is an archaeological looter

On any given day, you may find numerous documentaries about ancient Egypt – just do a cursory search on YouTube to find multiple results. The Indiana Jones movie franchise increased interest in and public awareness of archaeology. That is all well and good, except for one pertinent fact – Indiana Jones is a treasure hunter, and his behaviour is more in line with archaeological looting.

Let’s examine this subject.

Archaeologists today would have no problems with punching Nazis – as Indiana Jones does. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones replaces a gold statue with a sandbag and hightails it out of the cave – the behaviour of a looter. He shows no curiosity about the numerous traps in the cave, how they worked and survived intact over the centuries, resistant to humidity and natural deterioration. The indigenous tribes turn out to be hostile and treacherous, cooperating with Belloq, the villainous French archaeologist who steals the artefacts that Jones retrieves.

While Spielberg blended fact with fantasy, he overstepped the mark by portraying the French character Belloq as a deceitful and opportunistic villain. If not for the painstaking and persistent hard work of the French – and in particular, Napoleon Bonaparte – Egyptology would never have taken off as a branch of archaeology.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought with him not only soldiers, but an army of scholars, scientists, researchers and writers to collect and document ancient Egyptian artefacts. Prior to Napoleon, Greece and Rome were known through Europe as ancient civilisations. The French expedition broadened the knowledge of Europe to include Egypt as an equivalent ancient civilisation. National Geographic wrote that:

Along with 35,000 soldiers, more than 160 scholars and artists traveled to Egypt in 1798. Officially known as the Commission of the Sciences and Arts of Egypt, this group would end up making a greater contribution to history than the French fighting forces. Their careful work, carried out over many years, would give birth to the field of Egyptology in Europe and reveal to the world the history of the grand civilization that had ruled along the Nile for millennia.

French illustrators painstakingly drew detailed drawings of what they found, and numerous engravers reproduced plates of the archaeological findings in Egypt. In the era before photography, everything had to be reproduced by hand. Multivolume collections were produced, and French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion was the first to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, opening up that ancient language to a modern audience.

With all due respect to Hollywood filmmakers, Indiana Jones and Brendan Fraser fighting the curse of the mummy, ancient Egypt was the first regional state and had philosophy, grand architecture and remarkable civilisational achievements.

The French military expedition to Egypt was defeated, and the British moved in – taking with them most of the Egyptian antiquities, although the French were able to keep the illustrations and documents they created. Egyptian artefacts ended up in the British national museum. This raises an interesting question – Indiana Jones, alone out of all the archaeological competitors, wants to retrieve artefacts for museums. A noble goal, but we have to ask – which museum?

Jones is endeavouring to steal antiquities, not for the museums of the country in which he operates, but for either British or American museums – precisely the behaviour of an archaeological looter. Jones may be an appealing, wise-cracking character with a fedora hat whose handy with a whip – but that has nothing to do with archaeology.

The main impression – implicit yet important – in the Indiana Jones movies is the white saviour, an outsider motivated only by the purest of intentions, risks life and limb to help the native civilisations preserve their archaeological artefacts from unscrupulous foreigners. What exactly is this implicit theme based upon? If anything, the American presence in archaeologically significant sites has been destructive and disrespectful to the local ethnicities.

When it comes to the Mesopotamian civilisations, we may see that the natives looked after their archaeological heritage very effectively. Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – is home to ancient cultures. Archaeological looting had been a recurring, if not severe, problem in 20th century Iraq. The only time in Iraq’s modern history that archaeological treasures were preserved, looters heavily punished, and archaeology seriously promoted, was under the regime of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and its leader the late President Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi Ba’ath party, cultivating a strong Iraqi nationalism, heavily increased funding for archaeological research, implemented school and university programs for the study of Mesopotamian civilisations, and constructed protections for Iraqi antiquities. The Iraqi leadership was trying to portray itself as the legitimate inheritors of the Babylonian legacy, and read Iraqi history along nationalist lines. The BBC, ever prone to exaggeration, emphasised the personal aspects of Hussein’s presidency.

Even the BBC had to admit that archaeology flourished under the Ba’ath party’s leadership. Stealing archaeological treasures in Ba’athist Iraq incurred heavy police-state penalties. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was devastating for archaeology, with widespread looting permitted by the invading authorities. Iraq today is slowly but surely working towards recovering its stolen artefacts.

If you wish to enjoy the Indiana Jones movies, please do so. Just bear in mind that he is not so much an archaeologist, but a treasure hunter; a male Lara Croft with archaeological pretensions.

Texas – a failed state with blackouts, but high-tech border walls

The Texas electricity grid breakdown, and the confluence of disastrous consequences, is a window into a climate-change future.

Millions of Texans are still freezing, and are having to cope with the total failure of the state’s electricity infrastructure amid a severe winter storm. Texans are struggling to acquire drinking water, the snowstorm freezing water pipes and rendering them inoperable. Water supplies remain contaminated as water plants cannot function.

The medical system in Texas has been thrown into chaos due to the snowstorm and subsequent electricity breakdowns. Hospitals are running out of essential equipment, and no power means patient care is deteriorating. Hypothermia is a very real danger for many vulnerable patients, and several state hospitals are on the brink of total collapse. Houston hospitals are conserving precious water by collecting rain water to wash out the toilets and remove faeces by using trash bags.

Energy experts were warning, years ago, that such an environmentally-driven disaster impacting the electricity grid was waiting to happen. This cascading catastrophe, and the lack of preparation for weather-based scenarios, stems from the fanatical opposition to renewables as an energy source, the exclusive promotion of fossil fuels as a basis for corporate profit, and a stubborn refusal to accept the scientific consensus of human-induced climate change.

Justin Worland, writing in Time magazine, states that the current social disaster in Texas was no surprise. In fact, experts had been warning that such a catastrophe was on the cards:

Ten years ago, in 2011, energy regulators warned the state’s electric-grid operators that they were ill-prepared for an unprecedented winter storm. And for decades before that, climate scientists had cautioned that a warming planet would cause climate chaos, raising the average global temperature while driving unusual weather events like this one. For Texas, it was always just a matter of time.

This catastrophe comes on top of the ever-present pandemic, and the Covid-19 vaccine rollout remains disrupted due to the severe weather conditions and blackouts. Minority communities in Texas are suffering especially hard, given the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the lack of affordable health care for the poor, and now the collapse of the electricity grid.

Texas disconnected its power grid from the US, because of an obsessive ideological fixation on ‘intrusive government authority.’ Combine that with continued talk among Republican lawmakers about the secession of Texas from the Union, and you may see the contributing factors in this current disaster. The unfettered ‘free market’ and removal of regulations helped to create a system vulnerable to breakdowns.

Talk of secession has all but dissipated in the aftermath of the critical infrastructure failures in Texas. Outspoken Republican Senator Ted Cruz fled to the comfort of Cancun, thus showing his contempt for the millions of his fellow Texans suffering privations. His conduct, reminiscent of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Hawaiian holiday while Australia experienced its worst bushfires, demonstrates that the wealthy will flee from difficult circumstances for shelter and warmth.

Reality, in this case the effects of climate change, intrude and upend people’s xenophobic preoccupations. Spending the last four years, at least, demonising Hispanic migrants and refugees, and building high-tech border walls, has done nothing to improve the lives and living standards of ordinary Texans.

The Republican Party has consistently dominated Texan politics for decades. Their climate change denial, and fanatical obsession with ‘free market’ capitalism, has held sway in Texas for years. Today, Texas stands as a failed state. The ideology of maximising corporate profit, and ridiculing every move at government regulation as ‘socialism’, has brought Texas to its current catastrophic condition. An oil-and-gas rich state such as Texas has problems providing electricity to its own people.

Coddling the rich with favourable economic policies has been the core guiding fiction of the Republican Party, though this is not to let the Democrats off the hook. Mocking government regulations and health/environmental safety standards with the shocker-word ‘socialism’ is a tactic not confined to the Republican Party. However, it is the doctrine of capitalist neoliberalism, implemented in Texas in unimpeded form, that has resulted in the inability of the state to care for its citizens.

One of the adverse impacts of the winter storm was is the severe disruption of the state’s fruit and vegetable crop production. Stores are running out of food, and it is easy to find images of long queues of Texans, lining up to buy bread, milk, groceries and common products. Pictures of empty shelves and long queues from Texas are powerful and heart-rending. They remind me of the shabby point-scoring by Eastern European emigre communities, circulating pictures of food queues in their home nations to allegedly prove the failure of socialism.

There is no reason why the United States cannot solve its own economic and social problems. At the same time that we were reading about the disaster afflicting Texas, we also received news that NASA’s Perseverance rover, deployed for a mission to Mars, successfully touched down on that planet. The technical and scientific expertise that went into that mission is extraordinary.

There is no question that the Americans have the scientific expertise and ingenuity to send space missions. Yet the challenges of climate change, the pandemic, and the collapse of the Texan electricity grid, remain unsolved. While not counterposing space exploration with other scientific ventures, it is time to re-examine priorities – pictures from Mars are awe-inspiring, but do not help the Texans freezing to death, sheltering in gymnasiums, and scrambling to protect themselves with meagre resources.

The drive for corporate profits and the deregulation of the Texan electricity market surely require reexamination after this terrible disaster.

Hong Kong, Ugandan Asians and imperial-service refugees

The speed with which Britain, the US and Australia offered refugee status to Hong Kongers protesting the Beijing government contrasts sharply with the harshness and punitive nature of mandatory detention handed out to refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and other nonwhite nations.

Emma Graham-Harrison, writing in the Guardian, highlighted an underlying reason why the UK government, in the aftermath of Brexiteer turmoil, responded with alacrity to Hong Kongers:

A large and rapid influx of people from Hong Kong is likely to be a financial boon to a Britain battered by Covid-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period.That would be a financial blow and a political embarrassment for China. Bank of America estimated in a recent report that departing Hong Kong residents could trigger capital outflows of HK$280bn (£26bn) this year alone, as people sell property and withdraw pension funds. Government figures put the “net benefit” for the UK at between £2.4bn and £2.9bn.

This idea that refugees are an entrepreneurial rocket boost, in the words of Jeevan Vasagar, is based on imperial-nostalgic stereotypes.

The hypocrisy of the Leave campaign’s premise has been – perhaps unintentionally – exposed; that refugees and migrants are a ‘burden’ on the economy. The basis of the Brexit vote was an anti-immigration economic hysteria, and stopping the alleged ‘influx’ of resource-sapping migrants and refugees was the main goal of Tory Brexiteer claims. Now, the Johnson government has opened a ‘pathway to citizenship’ for up to five million Hong Kongers – an influx of refugees if there ever was one.

Imperial-service refugees

Throughout the far-flung, now defunct, British Empire, specific ethnic communities were implanted by the British authorities for the purpose of shoring up the imperial project. Hong Kong was established as an entrepôt, and Uganda’s Asians formed a similarly-entrepreneurial community. Uganda’s Asians, insular and pro-colonial, constituted an anti-African racist constituency in the racial pyramid of the white supremacist British empire.

The tribe from which I originate – Armenians in Egypt – are a very similar pro-colonial minority, internalising the imperial outlook of their British masters. Adopting a hostile mindset against the majority nation – Arab and Muslim Egyptians in this case – imperial-service communities make for good media copy when they undergo political turmoil in their host country.

Ugandan Asians, while victims of racism, were also perpetrators of the colonial mindset. Targeted by the administration of General Idi Amin, the Asian community were expelled en masse, and took up refuge in Britain. Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath advocated the cause of Uganda’s Asians in the 1970s. Never matter that Amin had been a long-term British asset, and became demonised in the corporate media after he turned against his former paymasters.

Heath responded to the anti-immigration sentiments of his fellow Conservatives by appealing to the moral grounds of the Ugandan Asian refugee case. Gone was the overblown rhetoric about the ‘ economic burden’ of refugees; the mythical ‘flood’ of migrants was nowhere to be seen. 25 000 Ugandan Asian refugees were accepted by Britain, and they and their descendants went on to have successful lives.

Hong Kongers and Australian anti-Asian racism

The Australian government has been very receptive to calls for providing a safe haven for Hong Kong residents. Coverage of the Hong Kong protests have been very sympathetic, routinely referring to protesters as ‘pro-democracy.’ Note that the sustained, large and politically motivated protests by the poor in Haiti are described as ‘anti-government‘, thus subtly undermining their political legitimacy.

Much was made of a proposed extradition law between China and Hong Kong which, its critics claimed, would have allowed Beijing to crack down on politically-dissident Hong Kongers. However, let’s have some truth in advertising before we proceed. The extradition law was proposed in the wake of a gruesome crime by a Hong Kong national. Having murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan, the man returned to Hong Kong – Taiwan does not have an extradition treaty with HK.

The proposed law specifically defined extraditable crimes, and ruled out political opposition as a basis for extradition. The bill also provided the HK Chief Executive with the power to review and refuse extradition requests. However, Hong Kongers, playing up to the Sinophobic anxieties of the western powers, claimed that the proposed extradition treaty was political in nature. For more detail about the extradition bill, you may read here.

The Hong Kongers made their political affiliations very clear when they waved the Union Jack, and demanded that former US President Donald Trump intervene militarily to ‘save’ Hong Kong. In fact, the main advocates of the Hong Kong protests have deliberately allied themselves with far-right and racist Americans politicians, the latter sworn enemies of Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. When your allies are fanatical regime-change neoconservatives, you are exposing to the world exactly what kind of politics you stand for.

When your pathway to self-determination is paved by the National Endowment for Democracy, and your demands specifically reject solidarity with other oppressed and marginalised ethnic communities, then it is time to question the direction of that pathway.

The Australian government must take this opportunity to re-examine its refugee policy, and stop refugee demonisation. Otherwise we will only indulge in a self-congratulatory exercise, cynically portraying sanctuary for imperial-service refugees in a humanitarian disguise.

Long distance nationalism, diaspora politics and statues of Nazi collaborators

In Blacktown, western Sydney, there is an unassuming yet significant statue, which deserves examination. On the grounds of a Serbian Orthodox Church, there is a statue honouring wartime Serbian General Dragoliub ‘Drazha’ Mihailovic. Commander of the Serbian Chetniks, it is flanked by the Australian, Serbian and Chetnik flags.

What is the significance of this statue of wartime Serbian Chetnik commander Mihailovic? The fact that he was a Nazi collaborator and war criminal, under whose command Chetnik units massacred thousands of Bosnians, Croats and non-Serb ethnicities. Building a statue to commemorate the career of a Nazi collaborator helps to revive the doctrines of white supremacy and racial inequalities in the current era.

Mihailovic’s Chetnik movement, while theoretically opposing the 1941 German invasion of Yugoslavia, ended up collaborating with the invading Nazi and Italian fascist forces. Mihailovic concluded that the Yugoslav resistance, headed by the Communist Partisans under Josip Tito, were a threat to his authority in any post-occupation Yugoslavia. Chetnik commanders actively worked with German and Italian military units.

Committed to the cause of conservative royalism and extreme Serb nationalism, the Chetniks committed numerous acts of homicidal ethnic cleansing to ensure the creation of an ethnically pure ‘Greater Serbia.’ As the tide of the war turned against Nazi Germany after their defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, the Chetnik leadership began to make secret overtures to the western Allies. Their acts of resistance to the Axis powers was always minimal and driven by opportunistic considerations – their ideological affinity was with the fanatical anti communist and fascist powers.

This statue is not an isolated example; across the Anglo-centric world, statues of fascist accomplices have risen, and with them a dangerous rewriting of history to absolve them of their heinous crimes. Forward magazine has compiled extensive evidence of the spread of monuments to Nazi collaborators around the world.

Since the early 1990s, these antisemitic killers and racists have gained importance in their countries of origin as nationalist and anticommunist heroes. Their corresponding diaspora communities, many dating from the end of World War 2, helped to create ultranationalist histories which rationalised and justified their Nazi collaboration.

Ukrainian nationalism

In the immediate aftermath of WW2, Canada provided sanctuary for thousands of ultranationalist Ukrainians, fleeing Eastern Europe. They established their presence in their adopted nation, and immediately began constructing a cult of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and its leader Stepan Bandera. The OUN, and its associated armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) were the main antisemitic and Nazi collaborator organisations which assisted the invading Germans in the 1940s.

Structured as a fascistic and racist organisation modelled on the Croatian Ustasha, the OUN set about creating an ethnically cleansed Ukraine, massacring Jews, Poles, Russians – all the while helping the German military. After the Soviets scored major victories against Germany, the OUN militants made overtures to Britain and the United States. The OUN’s followers have disingenuously claimed ‘the Germans forced us to do it’ – a hollow lie which does not stand up to scrutiny.

Finding refuge in Canada, the Ukrainian ultranationalist diaspora built monuments to their former OUN leaders. The cult-like worship of the OUN has served as a social cement, forging a distinctive ethnic identity for the Ukrainian newcomers in the new Canada. The OUN and Bandera worship has been conducted under the rubric of multiculturalism, the latter policy ostensibly encouraging respect for multiethnic diversity.

Canada’s Nazi monuments may seem like a narrow issue, but they have wider implications. Upholding war criminals and killers as heroes not only distorts Eastern European history, but is a steppingstone towards Holocaust obfuscation. Shifting blame away from the shoulders of those Eastern European groups who actively participated in antisemitic killings absolves the perpetrators of their culpability.

As statues of Confederate white supremacists and colonisers are coming down, it is high time question why statues of fascism’s foot soldiers still stand.

The underbelly of multiculturalism – historical mythologising

When constructing an ethnic identity amidst an Anglo-majority, there are better role models than fascist collaborators and war criminals. Cultivating a fanatical devotion – a cult – of Bandera, or Mihailovic, or Pavelic, or other Nazi accomplices – is not a healthy basis on which to build an ethnic identity. Of course Australia is a multicultural nation, and every ethnicity has the right to be respected. However, this does not mean that the ideology of imported white supremacists – the bulk of Eastern European collaborators – should go unchallenged.

The history of Ukrainian nationalism is being revamped in an ultranationalist direction under the tutelage of the current Maidan regime in Kiev. These developments have repercussions for the corresponding diaspora communities. Professor Rudling calls this long-distance nationalism, a rereading of history to serve narrow nationalistic ends. The mythologising of the OUN is an important part of diaspora politics, and feeds into the current historical revisionism sweeping through Eastern Europe.

The underbelly of Australian nationalism is the provision of sanctuary for those fascist collaborators seeking to escape justice. The doctrines of antisemitism and racial inequality are revived when we venerate the practitioners of those lethal ideas.