A new Dutch museum exhibit declares, “Egypt is a part of Africa,” which might strike most people who have seen a map of the world as an uncontroversial statement.
But the show at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden goes beyond geography. It explores the tradition of Black musicians — Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Nas and others — drawing inspiration and pride from the idea that ancient Egypt was an African culture. The exhibit is framed as a useful corrective to centuries of cultural erasure of Africans.
What might sound empowering in the United States and thought-provoking in the Netherlands, however, is anathema to Egypt’s government and many of its people, who have flooded the museum’s Facebook and Google pages with complaints — occasionally racist ones — about what they see as Western appropriation of their history.
Many Egyptians do not see themselves as African at all, identifying much more closely with the predominantly Arab and Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa, and many look down on darker-skinned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans. And some feel that it is their culture and history that are being erased in the Western quest to correct historical racism.
The exhibit “attacks Egyptians’ civilization and heritage” and “distorts Egyptian identity,” a member of Parliament, Ahmed Belal, said in a speech on May 2, soon after the exhibit opened and around the time similar fireworks erupted over a Netflix docudrama portraying the ancient Greek-Egyptian queen Cleopatra as Black.
Within weeks, perhaps aware of the appeal to its nationalist supporters, Egypt’s government acted. The authority that oversees all things ancient Egypt informed the Leiden museum’s team of archaeologists, including the show’s half-Egyptian curator, that they could no longer excavate in Egypt. Until then, Dutch Egyptologists had been working in the ancient tombs of Sakkara since 1975.
“If you don’t respect our culture or our heritage, then we will not cooperate with you until you do,” said Abdul Rahim Rihan, an Egyptian archaeologist who leads a group called the Campaign to Defend Egyptian Civilization.
Suggestions that ancient Egypt is a cultural ancestor of modern-day Black people are central to some forms of Afrocentrism, a cultural and political movement that arose to push back against often racist, colonialist ideas about supposed inferiority of African civilizations to European ones. Black people, in this telling, could be proud of their roots in the ancient kingdom that built some of the world’s greatest splendors.
But for Egyptians, it all adds up to a wounded sense that, just as Westerners plundered antiquities like the Rosetta Stone from Egypt and hogged the credit for discovering them in centuries past, they are once again seizing control of ancient Egypt from Egyptians themselves.
The museum exhibit, “Kemet: Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk,” looks at how Afrocentrism has played out in music. Beyoncé and Rihanna have adorned themselves as Nefertiti, the ancient queen of Egypt; Nina Simone said she believed she was Nefertiti reincarnate; and Tina Turner once sang about being Queen Hatshepsut — an ancient Egyptian pharaoh — in a past life.
The cover art for Nas’s 1999 album “I Am …” sculpts his features into King Tutankhamen’s famous golden mask. Miles Davis, Prince and Erykah Badu have all borrowed inspiration from the pharaohs for lyrics, jewelry and more.
“Kemet,” the ancient Egyptians’ word for their country, even commissioned an audio tour in Dutch, English and Arabic narrated by Typhoon, a Dutch rapper, as well as a new song by the Dutch rapper Nnelg about his connection to ancient Egypt.
Typhoon acknowledges on the tour that the musicians’ perspectives are “not the only way to think about ancient Egypt,” but he goes on to present the exhibit nonetheless as a correction of history.
“Although television programs and films in the Netherlands and in the U.S. often project only a certain image of Egypt to the public, dark-skinned people lived there as well, both in the past and the present,” he says.
The show, whose curator, Daniel Soliman, is half-Egyptian, appended a statement to the exhibit’s description online in response to the “commotion” on social media. It said it was seeking to explain “why ancient Egypt is important to these artists and musicians and from which cultural and intellectual movements the music emerged.”
Representatives for the museum declined to comment beyond the statement. But those defending the show have pointed out that most of the critics have not visited it.
For Egyptians, just how touchy this subject is became clear during the controversy over Netflix’s “Queen Cleopatra” series, when an Egyptian lawyer called for banning the streaming service in Egypt and the government dismissed the show as a “falsification of Egyptian history.”
Part of their anger may also stem from colorism: Some Egyptians tend to identify light skin with the elite, perhaps the result of age-old beauty standards that prize light skin and of centuries of rule by lighter-skinned conquerors from Europe and Turkey.
Egyptians’ fury centers in part on one Afrocentrist idea, by no means embraced by all who subscribe to Afrocentrism, that the Arabs who invaded Egypt in the seventh century displaced the true African Egyptians.
“This is an attack on the Egyptian identity,” said Dr. Rihan, the Egyptian archaeologist. “It’s not about skin color,” he added. “When you say things like that,” he said, “you’re taking the Egyptians out of their own history, against all evidence.”
Dr. Soliman began working on excavations in Egypt as a student before joining the museum. He is one of the leaders of the museum-affiliated team that normally spends weeks each year in the village of Sakkara, just south of Cairo, excavating tombs of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis.
Unlike European- or American-led archaeological digs of the past — witness the photographs of Howard Carter’s famous discovery of King Tut’s tomb — the Leiden archaeological team is careful to highlight the contributions of Egyptian workers, featuring them prominently in photographs and online diaries about each season’s excavations. Those efforts are in keeping with a growing trend in Egyptology toward giving Egyptians, once overlooked in the study of their own country’s history, more prominence in the field.
But that mattered little after word of Dr. Soliman’s exhibit spread.
The Dutch museum appeared slightly stunned by the tone of the social media criticism, noting that, while it welcomed “respectful dialogue,” racist or offensive comments would be removed.
Scholars tend to study ancient Egypt as a part of the Mediterranean world, with cultural and political links to Greece and Rome, as well as with Nubia, which roughly coincides with modern-day Sudan.
Though there is no scientific consensus on ancient Egyptians’ appearance or ethnic ancestry, many classicists say it is inappropriate to talk about race in that era at all, given that the ancients did not classify people as we do now.
Modern-day Egyptians, like the dialect they speak, descend from a family tree of many branches. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Albanians all conquered Egypt centuries ago. Circassians arrived as slaves, Levantine Arabs and Western Europeans as businesspeople. Nubians still live in southern Egypt.
But it is Islam and the Arabic language that predominate now, uniting Egypt with the mostly Arab and Muslim Middle East and North Africa rather than with the rest of the continent it sits on.
“Egypt is in a category of its own,” said David Abulafia, a Cambridge University historian who studies the ancient world. “With the lumping of everyone together, nuance has often been lost in the way African history is presented, as a bloc.”
But for Typhoon, the Dutch rapper, Egyptian exceptionalism feeds on discredited European theories that were “used to determine which ancient cultures were deemed important and thus couldn’t belong to Africa,” he says in the audio tour.
Such theories, he says, “separated ancient Egypt from its African context.”
Nina Siegal contributed reporting from Amsterdam.