The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution
(2019) is a non-fiction book by the American journalist and travel writer Peter Hessler. Based on the two years Hessler spent in Egypt from 2011 to 2013, the book intertwines the story of the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath with an account of the archaeological history of Upper Egypt.
The book opens in Abydos, a small knot of villages located in the verdant Nile River Valley where it winds through the arid Sahara Desert. In the era of the pharaohs, Abydos was Egypt’s most sacred place, and archaeologists believe it may have been regarded as the pharaohs’’ ancestral home. Archaeologists also argue that Egypt’s first monumental architecture—the structures which would eventually become the pyramids—were built in Abydos.
Where the valley meets the desert is a protected plateau, the site of an ancient graveyard. It is known to locals as al-Madfuna
, “the Buried.” Used for more than 5,000 years, al-Madfuna is rich in important archaeological sites. Although most of its valuable artifacts have long since been removed by looters and archaeologists, al-Madfuna continues to be targeted by looters during periods of political instability.
In early 2011, as the Egyptian Revolution came to a head, Abydos’s police presence melted away, and there was a severe outbreak of looting. In the month or so it took for the new regime to restore local policing, more than 200 illicit pits were dug in al-Madfuna.
This presented a challenge to archaeologists, and in 2013, a team of researchers from New York University came to Abydos to conduct a survey of the damage. Hessler follows the academics and their local laborers as they clamber into the pits to work out what has been damaged and what taken.
As Hessler tells this archaeological story, he draws parallels with contemporary Egyptian life. Local laborers comment that, just as they work to enrich the wealthy, their ancestors labored to build temples and tombs which make no mention of the poor in their boastful inscriptions. Among the temples of the pharaoh Akhenaten, the archaeologists find the skeletons of malnourished people, who died young after a lifetime of hard labor.
Then as now, Egypt was a deeply local society, with the capital city of pharaoh or president a distant irrelevance to most of Upper Egypt’s citizens. When the Revolution comes to Abydos, it focuses on strictly local issues, with no reference to Mubarak or Cairo.
However, Hessler also covers the Revolution from Cairo—indeed, from Tahrir Square, where he embeds with protestors. Even here, however, he seeks marginal stories that shed new light on the familiar political narratives. Rather than write about the protests directly, Hessler tells the story of the Omar Makram mosque on the square’s edge, a place that besides worship was also used to deliver medical care and technical support to the protestors.
Interwoven with the archaeological and political narratives are many observations from Hessler’s time in Egypt, particularly profiles of the people he befriended there. His witty Arabic teacher presents a cynical view of Egyptian politics, while his Cairo translator, Manu, opens a window onto the life of a gay man in violently homophobic Egypt. Hessler, who is best known for writing about China, notes that Chinese companies control many industries in Egypt, and he gets to know some of the Chinese people who have come to Egypt to work. He learns that Chinese managers are frustrated by the gender politics of Egypt that cause women to retire from the workforce at a young age.
Hessler follows the aftermath of the Revolution to 2013 when Egypt’s newly elected president Mohamed Morsi was ousted, and many Egyptians turned on his party, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Hessler again finds an oblique angle on the story, analyzing the sermons of three Muslim preachers who found themselves forced to defend the Islamist cause. Hessler goes on to recount Morsi’s trial and the Rabaa massacre in which 800 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed.
Hessler closes by returning to another constant thread in his reflections: the meaning of historical time in a place like Egypt. He tells us that the ancient Egyptians had no notion of history as we understand it, because they did not conceive of time as linear. Rather, they had two concepts of time. Human time was as cyclical and repetitive as the flooding of the Nile. The time of the gods was as static and eternal as the desert. Hessler wonders what bearing this has in a country where the truth about even the recent past is disputed by several factions, and where a minority of elderly men decide the fates of a vast, dissatisfied population of young people. In Egypt, even the Western platitudes about history break down. Egyptologists have developed an almost postmodern theory of history to cope with the fact that they only ever have access to tiny fragments of the long past they hope to recover. Many Egyptologists argue that ancient Egypt is a figment of their imaginations.