Sphinx, pyramid destruction? Extremist calls for demolition of Egyptian antiquities

I took a long stroll through the cavernous Egyptian Museum, just off Tahrir Square, this month.

It was the first time I went though the museum without breathless Egyptologists yanking me around, impatient children or a looming deadline.

The place was packed, not with tourists, but mostly with Egyptian schoolchildren. They were led around by amazingly patient guides explaining the most minute of details about every little bit and piece on display.

A few of the schoolchildren weren't listening very closely, but most were paying attention. They clearly did feel a connection, at some level, with these ancient pharaonic artifacts. And not surprisingly. They must have recognized, in those ancient faces, their ancestors.

Certainly, if you look closely at some of the more lifelike statues, you will see faces identical to the faces you see every day here.

There are some in Egypt, however, who seem hell bent on repudiating, indeed destroying, the link between Egypt's distant past and its messy present.

Morgan Al-Gohary, a jihadi sheikh with a history of radicalism, appeared on the private Egyptian TV channel Dream TV 2 Saturday evening and declared that if he and his ilk ever came to power, they would not hesitate to destroy the Sphinx and the pyramids.

He's no stranger to the notion of vandalizing ancient artifacts, boasting to the show's host, Wael Al-Abrashi, that while in Afghanistan, he took part along with the Taliban in the demolition of the Bamyan Buddhas in March 2001.

His threat was met by Al-Abrashi and the other two guests with shock. Just to be clear, Al-Abrashi asked the same question three times.

Al-Abrashi: "Am I going to wake up tomorrow to find that, just as you did with the statue of Buddha, that you have demolished the Sphinx and the pyramids?"

Al-Gohary: "That is dependent upon abilities and possibility. According to our Sharia, every pagan and idol must be destroyed."

Al-Abrashi: "If you are in power, will you destroy the Sphinx and the pyramids and all the pharoanic statues and all the pharoanic artifacts?"

Al-Gohary: "Everything, if it is a pagan statue or idol, that is worshiped or suspected to be worshipped, or is worshipped by one person on Earth, must be destroyed. We, or someone else, must destroy it."

Al-Abrashi: "So you would destroy the Sphinx and the pyramids?"

Al-Gohary: "Yes, we will destroy them, if they were worshipped before or afterwards."

One of the guests, writer Nabil Sharaf Al-Din, seemed repulsed by this and told the sheikh: "You don't know the history of your country well. Those pharaohs were the first to know religion in the world." The Sphinx and the pyramids, he continued, "are mankind's heritage and not the property of Egyptians alone. They are the property of all mankind."

The sheikh was unswayed.

Al-Gohari's threat inspired Cairo's prolific blogger, known simply as Zeinobia, to write a blog on her website, egyptianchronicles.blogspot.com, titled "Visit the pyramids while you can!!"

The Egyptian Revolution, born in rapture and enthusiasm, now resembles Pandora's box. Hope sprang forth, but so did extremism, demagoguery, crime, disorder and fear. And no one has come up with a way to put them all back in the box.

In the days of Hosni Mubarak, everyone knew the extremists lurked on the dark, outer fringes of Egyptian society, but most kept a low profile, were behind bars or holed up in Afghanistan or Pakistan. In the new Egypt, they've come out of their cells and back from exile, and like Al-Gohary, rant on national television or make inflammatory speeches in Tahrir Square.

Egyptians have heard this all before -- that the pyramids and the Sphinx are pagan monuments and idols, and must therefore must be destroyed. There was a widespread rumor last year that a Salafi (ultraconservative Muslim) leader was advocating covering the monuments in wax but that proved to be spurious.

It's no secret, however, that the extremists here don't like what these ancient monuments represent -- proof that magnificent human achievement is not the monopoly of any one religion or race.

In fact, Al-Gohary is not the first one to call for the destruction of Egypt's ancient landmarks.

Back in 1378, an equally zealous Muslim mystic took offense at the Sphinx and took it upon himself to try and demolish it. There are several versions of what happened next. Some stories say a flash flood ensued, and villagers, fearing a pharaonic curse, promptly lynched him. Other accounts say he was charged with vandalism and subsequently executed.

The point is that the Sphinx, minus its nose, is still here.

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