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Summer 2004, Number 20

Fuller graffiti





Graffiti from Egypt and the Sudan: the Kiosk of Trajan by Roger O. De Keersmaecker,
Graffito-Graffiti, III Mortsel (Antwerp) Belgium, 64 pp. illus. soft bound, 2004. Available from the author: 15.00 excl. p&p.

Yesterday's act of vandalism can be today's valuable research resource. Egypt has a long record of graffiti beginning with rock drawings engraved on rock surfaces in preliterate, predynastic times. Ancient Egyptian graffiti have long been recognised as an important field of study which attracted such giants of Egyptology as Wilhelm Spiegelberg and Jaroslav Cerny, but the study of modern graffiti is relatively young. The classic work is G. Goyon's Les inscriptions et graffiti des voyageurs sur la Grande Pyramide (Cairo: Societe Royale de Geographie, 1944), and more recently the topic has been studied by Michel Dewachter and Jochen Hallof. Roger de Keersmaecker's series is a worthy successor.

Archaeologists recognised long ago that the history of an archaeological feature does not end with the departure of the original inhabitants. But Egyptologists have been very slow to accept this and some of the major Egyptian monuments have been deprived of their post-pharaonic history by wanton destruction of later (Coptic, Islamic and modern) remains. Yet these have their role to play in the evaluation of the monument. Travellers' graffiti, for example, can indicate how much of a structure was sanded up and how much of it was accessible. The names inscribed near the capital columns of some Upper Egyptian temples are not necessarily evidence of their writers' physical prowess.

'Vandalism' is a judgemental term and graffiti writing must be seen in the contemporary context. The most recent graffiti writers who have acquired an aura of historicity are those of the 19th century. Among the 97 inscriptions recorded by De Keersmaecker the earliest is that of an otherwise unknown P. Chabuy, probably a soldier in Napoleon's expeditionary force, of 1799. Almost all of them were made by Western travellers and about two thirds are dated. This suggests that the graffito was primarily intended as a record of an achievement, a statement for posterity that a famous monument was visited. Among the names is Captain A.L. Corry RN, who visited Philae in January 1818. The name of this intrepid seaman is known from other monuments. Ego probably played some part in graffiti writing, perhaps never more so than in the cases of 'Smith 1836' and 'George 1883'. De Keersmaecker lists only one graffito in Arabic, and that without a facsimile copy.

De Keersmaecker numbers the graffiti, indicates their position on a plan, presents them in facsimiles, discusses their writers, lists other examples of the same travellers and gives their bibliography. Only two are shown in photographs. Over thirty general views of Trajan's Kiosk, mostly dating from the 19thcentury,are included.

This is an unassuming but pleasing and well researched publication. The history of travel derives valuable information from graffiti written by travellers and tourists, and there is something attractive and satisfactory about finding a small inscription in the hand of a person whom one is researching. For this, we may forgive them their temporary lapse of standards in the treatment of monuments, behaviour which we would strongly deprecate nowadays. Roger De Keersmaecker is to be congratulated on a very useful contribution to the study of travellers to Egypt. We shall eagerly await the next volume.

Jaromir Malek

Note: Volumes I (The Kiosk of Qertassi) and II (The Temples of Semna and Kumma) from the author at the same rates. Visit the regularly updated website www.egypt-sudan-graffiti