| Last June, I got an email from a Chicago-based Egyptologist looking for images of Pharaonic graffiti or protest signs for her course on identity and Ancient Egypt. At the time, I didn't have any. The Revolution Artists Union camped out by KFC on protest days had included a few Ankh Amouns in their art, and I had briefly seen some graffiti of a cartoonish pyramid and an anorexic sphinx next to the tag “white revolution.” Other than that, Tahrir Square had been seemingly uninterested in incorporating Pharaonic icons in its uprising.So I was not expecting to run into an offering scene on the American University in Cairo (AUC) wall along Mohamed Mahmoud Street at the end of February. Or a Ramses-like prisoner scene on Champollion Street a week later. More than a year after the original protests, Pharaonic-inspired graffiti has blossomed like lotus flowers around Downtown Cairo.
What started as a memorial to the victims of the February 1 Port Said football riot has grown into what its artists call the “Tomb of Tahrir,” a defense of not just the revolution but of the Egyptian identity itself.
The mural is the work of artists Ammar Abo Bakr and Alaa Awad, both teachers at the Luxor Fine Arts College, along with Hanaa El Degham, a Germany-based Egyptian artist who returned to Egypt in February. Abo Bakr created the portraits, while Awad painted most of the Pharaonic scenes. El Degham wove these two distinct art styles into a cohesive piece, adding her own touch of social commentary with a “pyramid of crisis” depicting a chaotic mound of people burdened with butane gas cylinders.
Intrigued by the art style and potential symbolism of the murals, I headed to an AUC panel discussion featuring the artists on April 2. But the trio made it very clear this would not be an art appreciation class.
“It’s not really about theory. It’s about the reaction to the events,” said Abo Bakr. “It would be very selfish if I just talked about my method or my view of my paintings because I believe it is a collaborative work that comes in the defense of the Egyptian identity with all of its resources, be they Coptic, Islamic, Pharaonic or whatever.”
Active on the Cairo protest scene since October, Abo Bakr started painting the Port Said portraits immediately after the fatal match, working while football Ultras and security forces clashed just meters away. “This came as part of a desire to participate — to turn, actually, this Mohamed Mahmoud Street into a tomb.”
As natives of Luxor, the artists took their inspiration from the tombs they know best. “When you walk into an Ancient Egyptian tomb, it is a place where you would feel relief,” El Degham said, commenting on the lotus flowers and decorative flourishes she used to connect the portraits with the Pharaonic scenes. “And you would feel it was as if that was the real home of the Ancient Egyptian.”
Politics through brushes and spray cans
While Pharaonic-themed graffiti is relatively new to Cairo, Mariam Ayad, an Egyptologist and AUC associate professor, says that it has precedent in Luxor in the past year, often drawn by these same artists, their colleagues and their students. Ayad notes that the scenes are quite accurate, even as the artists have reinterpreted them in light of current events.
She notes that the scene of mourning women looking toward a coffin appears in several tombs, most notably in Theban tomb 55, belonging to a nobleman named Ramose. “The [Mohamed Mahmoud Street] interpretation is more poignant than the original. [It] still expresses a funeral and the composition is very similar, but there’s something," says Ayad. "[Maybe it’s] the colors they used […] or the fact that this is a graveyard of Tahrir that makes it just more relevant and emotionally engaging than when I saw it years ago on the walls of the tombs of Luxor.”
The Mohamed Mahmoud artists also painted a snake with three human heads wearing military caps, an interpretation that Ayad says combines several motifs. ”There’s the evil snake Apophis that threatens the solar barque every night during the nightly journey of the sun,” she notes. But this snake is not originally depicted with human heads. There is also a snake portrayed in a 19th dynasty funerary composition called the Amduat. “There, the human heads are not necessarily evil, but rather condemned individuals who might not have made it all the way to the afterlife,” she explains.
“That’s what I like about their interpretation,” Ayad continues. “It’s not […] a superimposition of the content. There’s really a full integration and internalization of the content, so when they use [these motifs], they have this added layer of meaning to them and this added depth of suffering and anguish.”
The Mohamed Mahmoud murals have impressed many, and some in the AUC community have petitioned the university to preserve the paintings on its old campus walls. But while the artists have taken their inspiration from Pharaonic houses of eternity, their work on Mohamed Mahmoud Street is not destined to be eternal.
“I am totally against the [opinion] that graffiti should be preserved as is because the mural, the graffiti is indeed a response to the events that are taking place,” Abo Bakr said emphatically. “There has to be new murals to come as a response to new events or current events.”
Whatever the events and whatever the response, the artists hope their response will help resurrect the Egyptian sense of identity.
“We started to revive the popular images in order to show the Egyptians that [..] we do have heritage, we do have symbols,” El Degham said. “Because currently, we need this kind of communication with our heritage in order to be stronger.”