Afrocentric museum tour ignites debate on Egyptian identity

Afrocentric museum tour ignites debate on Egyptian identity

Afrocentric museum tour ignites debate on Egyptian identity
Tourists ride horses in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)
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The Afrocentric movement has sparked a significant debate in Egypt about the origins of ancient Egyptian civilization. This movement, based on ideologies dating back to the 19th century, aims to raise public awareness of African culture and its contributions to human civilization. However, it often stirs controversy with its claim that the roots of ancient Egyptian civilization are African and that its greatest achievements were built on the shoulders of Black Africans. This assertion frequently triggers widespread and sometimes angry reactions within Egypt.
Recently, images circulated on social media in Egypt showed an Afrocentric group visiting the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, Cairo. They were accompanied by a tour guide explaining the history of ancient Egyptian civilization from an Afrocentric perspective. This incident provoked intense discussions on social media and in the Egyptian media, with many expressing strong opposition to the views promoted by this movement.
One notable opinion came from renowned Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass. He asserted that the explanations given by the Afrocentric tour guide were baseless, describing them as “just nonsense.” Hawass added: “The Black Kingdom of Kush ruled Egypt around 500 B.C., after the end of the pharaonic civilization. When the kingdom ruled Egypt, it left no impact on the civilization. I believe that it was the Egyptian civilization that influenced the Kingdom of Kush, not the other way around.”
Hawass emphasized that the inscriptions and paintings on Egyptian temples from the Old Kingdom to the end of the Late Period depict the Egyptian king with captives from Africa, Libya, Syria and Palestine before him. He noted that the features of the Egyptian king do not resemble those of people with dark skin. Hawass accused the Afrocentric movement of causing confusion by spreading false and misleading information, attributing the Egyptian civilization to alleged African origins. He clarified: “We are not against Black people at all, but we are against this group that entered the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to announce ideas with no basis in truth.”
A leading figure in the Afrocentric movement is African American activist Molefi Kete Asante, who has, since the 1980s, tried to raise awareness of African culture throughout history, highlighting its identity and importance, especially in the US and Europe. Since its inception, the movement has aimed to raise awareness of how Europeans dominated African civilizations through colonialism and slavery. It urges every African or person of African descent to appreciate their roots and cultivate their awareness and knowledge of traditional African civilizations.
One of its most controversial theories is the claim that African history and culture originated in ancient Egypt, which it posits as the cradle of global civilization. The movement asserts that this heritage was stolen and its achievements hidden and falsified by Europeans and Westerners. According to the movement, the roots of Egyptian civilization are purely African. This perspective often leads to controversy, as many archaeologists argue that there is no scientific basis of historical evidence for these ideas.
The origins of the Afrocentric movement can be traced back to the 19th century, a period marked by the emergence of Pan-African sentiments and the effort to restore the honorable historical narrative of African peoples. Today, intellectuals and activists strive to reclaim African history from the shadows of colonialism and Eurocentrism. Figures like Marcus Garvey, Cheikh Anta Diop and Asante have played pivotal roles in shaping this concept.
This is not the first time the Afrocentric movement has sparked debate regarding the origins of ancient Egyptian civilization. In April 2023, Netflix caused controversy and anger in Egypt after producing a docudrama that adopted the movement’s narrative, depicting Cleopatra with African features. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities responded officially, accusing the streaming platform of flagrantly distorting Egyptian history. 

Egypt is a country with a complex and multilayered identity, situated at the crossroads between Africa and the Arab world.

Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy

Many Egyptians criticized the movement on social media following the release of the “Queen Cleopatra” miniseries, accusing it of attempting to steal their civilization and history and falsify facts. In recent decades, the Afrocentric movement has heavily focused on ancient Egypt, claiming it was primarily an African civilization. This perspective challenges traditional Egyptology, which often emphasizes the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern connections of ancient Egypt.
Proponents of this movement argue that various pieces of evidence, including historical texts, artistic descriptions and genetic studies, support the African origin of ancient Egyptians. They frequently cite historical texts by ancient writers like Herodotus, who described Egyptians as having Black skin and curly hair, characteristics more aligned with sub-Saharan Africans than with Mediterranean or Middle Eastern peoples. Artistic descriptions in ancient Egyptian art are also contentious, as members of the movement interpret paintings and inscriptions as depicting African features. Furthermore, genetic studies add another layer to the debate, with some research suggesting that ancient Egyptians had genetic ties with Africans, though the interpretations of these studies are often complex and debated within the scientific community.
These claims usually provoke strong reactions in Egypt, where many Egyptians take pride in their pharaonic heritage and consider it a unique product of the Nile Valley. They also see these claims as challenging long-standing national narratives.
News of the Afrocentric delegation’s museum visit even reached the Egyptian parliament, where lawmaker Ahmed Bilal Al-Barlasi submitted an inquiry to the minister of tourism and antiquities. Al-Barlasi described the movement as “African Zionism” and held the minister fully responsible for the incident. He stated: “Amid an inexplicable and unjustifiable governmental silence, the voices of the Afrocentric movement have risen in recent years, aiming to mobilize international support in museums and cultural circles worldwide to falsify Egyptian history and steal Egyptian civilization, stripping Egypt’s identity from its people and attributing them all to African roots. They consider the Egyptian people to be colonizers of the land and thieves of the civilization.”
Al-Barlasi added: “A few days ago, the Egyptian people were shocked by the visit of a delegation affiliated with the movement to the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo, where a prominent figure of the movement stood among them, explaining their alleged history. Had this person not posted about the event on social media, no one would have noticed and the incident would have passed unnoticed, just as previous incidents did."
Al-Barlasi warned that “leniency toward this movement and its ideas is leniency in dealing with Egyptian national security. Allowing groups belonging to this movement on Egyptian soil and within Egyptian museums while promoting lies makes it easy for them to spread their falsehoods worldwide, claiming they are the rightful owners of the land and identity. The real disaster is that this happens amid official Egyptian silence in the face of these allegations.”
He continued: “The incident at the Egyptian Museum must not pass without informing the entire Egyptian people about the reasons behind what happened, holding the officials accountable and informing the Egyptian nation about the measures the ministry is taking against this movement, which is spreading in museums worldwide and promoting its theories, some of which are being adopted by museums like the national museum of the Netherlands and the Metropolitan Museum.”
In my view, the controversial visit by the tourist delegation should open the door to a broader discussion about Egyptian identity and its place within the Arab and African worlds. Egypt is a country with a complex and multilayered identity, situated at the crossroads between Africa and the Arab world.
Historically, Egypt has been a melting pot of diverse cultures and influences, from the pharaonic era through the Greek, Roman and Arab periods. In modern times, Egypt’s identity has become more integrated with Arab heritage, a fusion solidified by the spread of Islam and the Arabic language.
Nevertheless, Egypt’s African roots cannot be denied, as the Nile River, which flows from the heart of Africa, is the lifeline of Egyptian civilization. I believe it would be best to open a broader discussion about Egyptian identity without bias toward any one identity. Egypt is a composition of the layers formed throughout its history. We cannot exclude one layer in favor of another; it is not logical to discard the Mediterranean layer in favor of the Arab one or the African layer in favor of the Greek one. These are the pillars that supported the building of Egyptian civilization and continue to support it today.

Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide.
X: @ALMenawy

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