In the British Museum on a Sunday afternoon, ancient faces look back at children and adults alike. Inside their glass cases, pharaohs and priests are unfazed by the crowds. And crowds there always are, for these are the painted coffins and carved masks of the ancient Egyptians, relics of a culture that has entranced the world for thousands of years.
Ancient civilisation is part of the world’s heritage, and in recent times it seemed nothing could seriously threaten that inheritance. Tourists visited such sites as Giza in Egypt and Olympia in Greece safe in the assumed knowledge that we were seeing wonders that would always be available to admire.
Yet the instability of the world in 2012 is a threat to the apparently tranquil monuments of antiquity. In Greece, anxiety and alienation as the weakest economy in the eurozone faces terrible pressure to transform its way of life had a troubling reflection at Olympia last week, where a museum of the ancient Greek games was raided by thieves. Perhaps this was coincidence, but it is the second recent museum robbery in Greece.
Meanwhile in Egypt, tourism levels have plummeted since the revolution, and hotels are half-empty.
This is where the word “tourism” becomes in itself pernicious. People who visit Egypt to see ancient art are certainly tourists, in the country that was at the heart of the very idea of modern tourism. But this word has unfairly come to imply a selfish, shallow form of consumer spending, economically valuable to poor countries but irrelevant to the higher concerns of national self-determination and democratic change.
To reduce the problems of the Egyptian tourist industry to these cold terms is wrong. Many people visit Egypt with a passionate longing to gaze on the eyes of Tutankhamun and stand at the foot of the Great Pyramid. More practically, the revenues from tourism help keep Egyptian sites and museums going. To say these places are only of interest to “tourists” would be tragic and miserable.
Both Greece and Egypt are guardians of sites and objects of the highest importance to the entire world. If Unesco has any value it is surely to scrutinise the fate of antiquities in times like these. And if we shrug and write off antiquity as the stuff of tourism and scholarship, “irrelevant” to these extraordinary times, we are already well on the way to barbarism.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010