People matter more than things, agreed; but no one watching the turbulence in Egypt can be indifferent to what has happened at the Cairo Museum. The damage to the mummies and the loss of precious artefacts recalls the terrible loss of material in Iraq or, a couple of decades earlier, in Lebanon. Yet, to many of our commentators, the effect on oil prices and speculation about the political consequences of what looks increasingly like the fall of the Mubarak regime is what matters.
For much of the twentieth century we in Europe thought of security in military and political terms. Defend ourselves against aggressors and all would ultimately be well. In the last twenty years or so, we have come to recognize that food and water security are even more essential, something our forebears understood but which we in our increasingly urban lives could easily forget. Looking at what is happening in Egypt, I want to ask if there isn’t another kind of “security” we need to think about, heritage security.
When I was a child, my mother used to go once a week to visit someone I’ll call Hedwig. Hedwig had escaped one of the German death camps but she had lost everything she valued. Pretty well all she had was contained in a carrier bag which she carried with her everywhere. What she most lamented was the fact that she had lost every physical remembrance of her family and culture and was adrift in a land where she didn’t speak the language very well and could share nothing of her inner world of memory and reference. She had been robbed of her heritage, which also meant for her a loss of identity.
We define ourselves in many different ways, but our sense of belonging to a group (be it family, nation, Church or whatever) is largely expressed through our ownership of places, language, artefacts and rituals. We can survive the loss of some of these but not all. Even losing some can do enormous damage. There are still Hedwigs in the world, and because what they suffer isn’t tangible, we tend to dismiss its importance. Perhaps we need to value our heritage more, not just because it is beautiful or interesting, but because it is intimately bound up with our sense of being human.