Egypt's antiquities face bigger problems than Chinese graffiti

How a young Chinese boy defaced an ancient Egyptian temple, and unwittingly joined a long tradition in the process.

The Chinese words 'Ding Jinhao was here' is seen on artwork in the 3,500-year-old Luxor temple in Luxor, Egypt, May 6.

A picture of a graffiti that a Chinese boy wrote on one of Egypt's grandest Pharaohnic temples went viral on Chinese social media over the weekend, stirring debate in that country over whether the legions of inexperienced tourists it sends abroad each year is replacing the old image of the "ugly American" with that of the "ugly Chinese."

The photo was posted on Friday by a fellow Chinese tourist, who was outraged to find that a countryman had defaced the monument.

In Egypt, the questions were far more practical in nature: Why, and how, is the government failing to protect the ancient temples, tombs and pyramids that lure millions of tourists a year? And how did this particular instance of defacement go undetected for so long (the parents of the boy, now in middle school, indicated he defaced the temple on a trip some years ago).

The Chinese teenager scrawled "Ding Jinhao was here" on one of the reliefs at the Temple of Luxor, which Pharoah Amenhotep III began constructing circa 1340 BC, or nearly 3,500 years ago. It has remained untouched for years. The temple is in the center of modern-day Luxor, a town on the banks of the Nile that was known as Thebes in antiquity and is today on the UNESCO World Heritage list, along with the surrounding region.

After the pyramids at Giza, the temple, connected to the equally famous Karnak Temple by a sphynx-lined boulevard, is one of Egypt's most visited ancient monuments.

At busy times, thousands of tourists a day pour through the complex (and at night, when it is spectacularly lit). That it's possible to scrawl graffiti there is unsurprising, though that it went unnoticed and unaddressed for so long is more alarming – as is the fact that parents would leave a child unsupervised long enough to carry out his vandalism.

State-run Xinhua, which generally operates as a government mouthpiece, writes that Jinhao's graffiti "caused his countryfolk to reflect on how to build a good national image... Leaving graffiti is common among Chinese tourists, damaging historic sites and demonstrating poor education and behavior."

China's image abroad has been a growing issue for the Communist Party that runs the vast country because in the past decade it's begun unleashing ever more of its increasingly wealthy citizenry on the world. In April, the United Nation's World Tourism Organization said China had for the first time become the largest source of international tourism, with 83 million Chinese traveling abroad last year and spending $102 billion in the process. The UN said Chinese spending on tourism is up 8 times from what it was just a decade ago.

China's export-led economic growth has been phenomenal, and has already left profound marks on Egypt and across the Middle East, displacing much of the local textile industry and manufacturing. Even local crafts have not been spared. In Egypt, it's traditional to light ornate lamps called fanoos during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, yet in recent years the locally produced glass and tin lanterns have been displaced by cheaper plastic Chinese versions. 

From an Egyptian perspective, the graffiti at Karnak is the least of the problems for its antiquities – a minor nuisance similar to a group of Russians who illegally climbed the Great Pyramid at Giza a few months ago and obtained some amazing pictures in the process. Far more troubling has been the rampant looting of less famous Egyptian sites accompanying the collapse of law and order since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Dahshour, a 4,500 year old grave and pyramid complex not far from Cairo, has been particularly hard hit.

The Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Egypt, at times publicly ambivalent about the symbols of pre-Islamic Egypt, has not made protecting that site a priority, though whether out of disinterest or distraction, is hard to say.

At any rate, the Chinese boys graffiti joins a long tradition of defacing Egypt's monuments that, when they get old enough, become interesting in themselves. The oldest vandals may be the Pharoahs themselves, who had a habit of defacing the tombs of dead predecessors, scratching out the cartouches that named the royal builders and often replacing them with their own names. When the Greeks came to Egypt, they felt compelled to scrawl on the monuments, as did the Romans after them. Egypt's early Coptic Christians wrote their names and crude paintings on the grand old temples, as did French soldiers in Napoleon's expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century (an earlier version of this piece stated the wrong century), as did the British who came after them.

Studying this graffiti is common among archeologists and historians.

All of which is to say, that young Jinhao was joining a grand and ancient tradition, however destructive, without knowing it. The world's wealthiest and most powerful nations have been drawn to Egypt for thousands of years. As the Chinese move into those ranks, more of them will come to Egypt, and leave their mark in one way or another.

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