Hand in Hand with Politics: The Challenges of Egyptian Studies in Serbia

By: Branislav Anđelković

There is a saying that Balkans, sometimes rightly compared to a “powder keg”, is a place where the East offered a hand to the West but the West refused to shake it. The Balkan Peninsula is a land bridge between Europe and Asia, through which pass major cultural boundaries. The Balkans are a border, and an arena, between two different cultural spheres with contrasting world views, value systems, aesthetics, and artistic tendencies: Rome and Byzantium, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, West and East, Modern and Oriental. And we cannot forget that there are deep divisions within the Balkans, particularly between north and south. These divisions have unfortunately manifested themselves as open warfare but have also been expressed in the politics of Yugoslavian Egyptology.


Figure 1: Scarab excavated in Serbia. Photo courtesy of B. Anđelković.

Archaeological objects from the Near East appeared sporadically in Serbia and can be classified in four chronological and contextual settings. The first – represented by a glazed composition scarab found in a local Iron Age ruler’s grave mound (dated 550-520 B.C.) in Southwestern Serbia – corresponds to prehistory (Figure 1). The second, the era of Roman domination, includes a number of artifacts, chiefly figurines, lamps, and inscribed altars, connected to Egyptian or syncretistic deities, chiefly Isis, Isis-Fortune, Harpocrates, Anubis, Hermes-Thoth, and others. These are mostly of Roman rather than Egyptian manufacture, though during the construction of Roman emperor Galerius’ palace in Eastern Serbia (ca. 300 A.D.) a number of architectural elements including some columns and statuary were made of Aswan red granite and other Egyptian stone (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Aswan red granite column fragment from Roman palace in Eastern Serbia April 14th 2013. Photo courtesy of B. Anđelković

The Middle Ages have yielded only objects related to the Christian cult (such as Coptic pottery, textiles, and bone boxes), brought from the Holy Land and Egyptian monasteries by Serbian monks and pilgrims. The fourth stage encompasses the Enlightenment and its echoes in Serbia when, among other things, the attempt was made, albeit briefly, to promote interest in Ancient Egyptian civilization as the common heritage of humanity.

One aspect of this was Egyptian collections. In 1888 the ‘Belgrade Mummy’, recently identified as Early Ptolemaic priest Nesmin from Akhmim, was donated to the National Museum in Belgrade (Figure 3). The collection of Egyptian antiquities in the City Museum of Vršac (northern Serbia) was established in 1894, and the Egyptian collection of the City Museum of Sombor (northern Serbia) was founded in 1899. The modest corpus of Egyptian antiquities in Serbia – including an 8.5 kilogram gilded bronze Osiris statue from Beni Suef, and three alabaster vessels from Djoser’s Step Pyramid presented during 1970s to Yugoslav President Tito by then President of Egypt Anwar El Sadat – comprises 177 items if we include Ptolemaic bronze coins and Coptic textiles.

Figure 3: Belgrade mummy coffin. Photo courtesy of B. Anđelković.

It is noteworthy that all of the 19th century donors of Egyptian antiquities were born and lived north of the Danube and Sava rivers in what was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Vojvodina, the northern province of Serbia. In the area south of the Danube and Sava rivers, namely most of present-day Serbia, where culture was more closely related to the Ottoman Empire, there were neither donors nor collections of Egyptian antiquities. Additional confirmation of this pattern is the fact that there are some 4000 Egyptian pieces in Croatia, within the Western political and cultural sphere, whereas immediately to the south, in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, influenced by the Ottomans, there are none. By some irony of fate Egypt herself was for centuries under Ottoman suzerainty and remained nominally an Ottoman province until 1914.

Similar contrasts appeared in Yugoslav participation in the UNESCO Nubia Campaign – the rescue of Nubian monuments and sites affected by the Aswan High Dam Project. In 1960 the Yugoslav federal government established a ‘National Committee for the Realization of the Ancient Nubian Monuments Preservation.’ A Yugoslav team was engaged from November 1963 to May 1964 in detaching fresco paintings from the walls of the Christian church in a former temple of Amun of Ramesses II in Wadi es-Sebua, the small rock-cut chapel of Horemheb at Abu Oda, the 8th century Central Church of Abdallah Nirqi, and the 11th century Christian church at Sheikh Abdel Gadir (in Sudan).

To express its gratitude, Egypt subsequently donated a number of antiquities to Yugoslavia, including the 22nd Dynasty mummy of Kaipamau from the Asasif Necropolis to the south of Deir el-Bahri (TT192). The antiquities should have been sent to the National Museum in Belgrade (Serbia) but were redirected to the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb (Croatia). It should be noted that both institutions that participated in the Nubia campaign were from Belgrade – the Yugoslav Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, and the Faculty of Architecture (University of Belgrade) – let alone that Zagreb already had quite a large Egyptological collection.

The challenges of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern studies in Serbia remain related to two major issues. The first, ethnic and political rivalries, was present while Serbia was one of six republics within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In April 1970, an Educational and Cultural Cooperation Agreement was signed between SFRY and Egypt which permitted a team of Yugoslav archaeologists to excavate in Egypt. The expedition to the site in Lower Egypt was to be led by Dr. Sava Tutundžić from the University of Belgrade and some 50% of the excavated finds were to be given to the Archaeological Collection of the University of Belgrade. But due to the silent rivalry between the Yugoslav republics and latent in the federal government, the excavation was repeatedly postponed until the agreement expired. Well-informed government sources stated that a colleague from Slovenia and her friend, a senior Communist party federal government official from Slovenia, did not like the idea of Belgrade becoming the center of Yugoslav Egyptological research.

The second issue that badly affects Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern studies in Serbia is recent Serbian cultural nationalism or even cultural xenophobia. The Egyptological episodes from the former Yugoslavia described above would hardly have been possible without at least the “active passivity” of the Serbian side and its officials. The same attitude was demonstrated by the fact that the National Museum in Belgrade removed its modest Egyptological collection from the permanent display in the early 1960s, and worse yet, gave away its single Egyptian mummy to Montenegro, namely to the ‘Art Gallery of Non-aligned Countries “Josip Broz Tito.”’ The coffin with the Belgrade mummy then lay unpacked (wrapped in a thin sheet foam firmly bound with iron wire) in the Gallery’s depot from 1986 until November 1991. It was only after the Chair of Near Eastern Archaeology from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Belgrade petitioned the National Museum to demand the mummy – along with another Ptolemaic period coffin – be returned from Montenegro, that were they sent back to Serbia.

Courses on ancient Near Eastern archaeology were introduced in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade in 1955. A Chair was founded in 1968 but was abolished during the reorganization of the Department of Archaeology in mid-2000s. Today, a number of courses dealing with the Ancient Near East and Egypt are given at the Faculty of Philosophy, the only institution in Serbia that has ever employed Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian archaeology specialists (two of us at the moment). Unfortunately, from the very beginning of Near Eastern archaeological courses in Serbia the prevailing attitude within the local archaeological community was mostly negative. The usual mantra, a product of the political concept and the cultural mentality, was that ‘we have the archaeology of our own soil and do not need a foreign one.’

It is hardly a surprise that “Serbian roots” and the origins of “Serbian territory” are pushed further and further back in time and space by a number of local archaeologists with pseudo-archaeological theories. An historical perspective shows that whenever archaeology and politics go hand in hand it is always at the expense of archaeology. In that light it should be noted that the Section for Near Eastern Archaeology of the Serbian Archaeological Society was established in 1991 and successfully functioned until 2008, when the nationalist wing within the Society took over.

In spite of the political circumstances and misunderstandings, the interest of the general Serbian public in ancient Egypt and Egyptian antiquities is enormous. For the last twenty years the Belgrade mummy has probably been the most presented archaeological piece in the Serbian mass media. Thanks to the City of Belgrade’s recent donation of the special $45,000 climate controlled display case, the mummy of Nesmin from Akhmim will see its 125th anniversary in Belgrade (1888-2013), well protected for future generations. So, with all ups and downs, if you ask me am I an optimist concerning the Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian studies in Serbia, my answer is: in the long, persistent, and patient run – yes!

Branislav Anđelković is assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade.

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