Dr. El-Baz on Egypt’s Role in Digitally Preserving Culture

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Egypt Proving To Be A Leader In Digitally Preserving Culture

By SHEILA RILEY, FOR INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY Posted 07/29/2011 04:46 PM ET

Egypt’s complicated relationship with technology includes preservation and promotion of its heritage along with attempts to silence political opposition.

During the December and January protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the government clamped down on Internet access. Egyptians turned to social media to spread their message, and then-President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down.

But the government has long sponsored numerous technological efforts on behalf of its culture.

“Since the advent of the Internet, the Egyptian government has been doing a very admirable job in preserving the ancient archaeological heritage,” said Farouk El-Baz, a Boston University academic.

Egyptian-born El-Baz directs the university’s Center for Remote Sensing, a research facility that uses technology to discover and preserve archaeological sites.

Cyberspace is home to archaeological maps, excavation reports, data, explorers’ narratives of Egypt, and images of ancient Egyptian, Islamic and Coptic art and artifacts.

El-Baz says a lot of digitization occurs in the basement of the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, which houses the world’s largest collection of pharaonic artifacts.

North of Cairo on the Mediterranean, an online treasure trove of Egyptian history and culture exists at the New Library of Alexandria, at bibalex.org. It includes a digital archive of some 10,000 maps and 3,500 papyri.

The library’s digitization of books include “Description de l’Egypte,” 20 volumes of observations compiled by French scholars and scientists during Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798-1801 expedition.

Egyptophiles online also can visit Eternal Egypt, at eternalegypt.org. A joint effort of Egypt andIBM (IBM) in Arabic, French and English, it includes virtual tours of sites and museums, along with a 3D reconstruction of King Tut’s tomb.

Shama Kabani, president of Dallas-based Marketing Zen Group, got a firsthand look at Egypt’s use of technology to portray its complex history in June. She visited Cairo’s Smart Village, a technology cluster and business park. There, visitors can view Culturamacultnat.org/general/Room/pages/Culturama.aspx — a nine-screen panorama of Egyptian history featuring an interactive timeline.

Kabani was in Cairo as part of a joint program of the U.S., Egypt and Denmark to train Egyptian entrepreneurs.

Culturama presents the big picture, say, the years King Tut ruled. And it presents the minutiae, which might be the hieroglyphics on the boy king’s royal chair.

It provides critical context that a visit to the pyramids, while fascinating, cannot, she says.

“Egyptian history is intricate and detailed,” Kabani said. “There’s also a lot of overlap with Islam and Christianity.”

Another advantage to Culturama is that it can incorporate new information, she says.

“It has the ability to evolve,” she said. “If new images or artifacts are discovered, they can be included easily in the timeline.”

There are also nongovernmental efforts to tell Egypt’s stories via technology. The American University in Cairo, which has a campus on Tahrir Square, runs one.

Called University on the Square, AUC’s project is putting together an online chronicle of the two-and-a-half weeks leading to the Mubarak regime’s overthrow. The website is aucegypt.edu/onthesquare/Pages/ots.aspx.

“We’re archiving the moment in Egypt when there was a large-scale desire for a democratic civil society,” said Bruce Ferguson, dean of humanities and social sciences.

Ferguson heads the AUC effort. The independent, English-language liberal arts university was established in 1919.

AUC’s goal is preservation.

“The purpose is to collect and present as much of the images and experiences of Tahrir Square during the revolution,” Ferguson said.

What happens with the materials later isn’t the main concern, he says.

“Future historians will do with it what they please,” he said. “We just want to capture as much of it as possible.”

University on the Square will include interviews, photographs and videos that describe the experiences of students, faculty, staff and alumni in Egypt and elsewhere.

“We don’t think that it just happened in Tahrir Square,” Ferguson said. “Because of the technology, we think that the revolution was experienced around the world.

“People are grateful for the opportunity to tell their story and for a place to preserve their images.”

Similar efforts are under way. The National Archives of Egypt will collect material for an online repository from the entire country, Ferguson says.

The Tahrir Square protests and their aftermath haven’t slowed government programs to preserve Egyptian culture, say Boston U’s El-Baz.

“One of the interesting effects of Tahrir Square is that Egypt became even more protective of its heritage,” El-Baz said.