Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941

Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941

Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941

Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941


The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 was a landmark event in Egyptology that was celebrated around the world. Had Howard Carter found his prize a few years earlier, however, the treasures of Tut might now be in the British Museum in London rather than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. That's because the years between World War I and World War II were a transitional period in Middle Eastern archaeology, as nationalists in Egypt and elsewhere asserted their claims to antiquities discovered within their borders. These claims were motivated by politics as much as by scholarship, with nationalists seeking to unite citizens through pride in their ancient past as they challenged Western powers that still exercised considerable influence over local governments and economies. James Goode's analysis of archaeological affairs in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq during this period offers fascinating new insight into the rise of nationalism in the Middle East, as well as archaeological and diplomatic history.

The first such work to compare archaeological-nationalistic developments in more than one country,Negotiating for the Pastdraws on published and archival sources in Arabic, English, French, German, Persian, and Turkish. Those sources reveal how nationalists in Iraq and Iran observed the success of their counterparts in Egypt and Turkey, and were able to hold onto discoveries at legendary sites such as Khorsabad and Persepolis. Retaining artifacts allowed nationalists to build museums and control cultural heritage. As Goode writes, "Going to the national museum became a ritual of citizenship." Western archaeologists became identified (in the eyes of many) as agents of imperialism, thus making their work more difficult, and often necessitating diplomatic intervention. The resulting "negotiations for the past" pulled patrons (such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Lord Carnarvon), archaeologists (James Breasted and Howard Carter), nationalist leaders (Ataturk and Sa'd Zaghlul), and Western officials (Charles Evan Hughes and Lord Curzon) into intractable historical debates with international implications that still resonate today.


My introduction to this subject was serendipitous. While doing research in U.S. State Department records at the National Archives, I repeatedly came across references to Persepolis and an ongoing crisis in U.S.-Iranian relations during the 1930s, which aroused my curiosity. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, I had visited Persepolis in 1969 and again in 1971, but I had never connected it in any way to foreign affairs. I decided to investigate once the current research was completed.

That was well over a decade ago, and I have been engaged on this project ever since. I quickly discovered a triad of actors involved in that and other, similar regional crises. There were U.S. diplomats supporting American archaeologists, who encountered increasing challenges from local nationalists. These three groups have provided the subtitle and, more important, the substance of this study.

Originally, I intended to focus on Iran, but gradually the project spread beyond its borders to include Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for the more I researched, the more clearly I could see similarities and links between developments in these four countries. My career path led me to three of these nations, first the long residence in Iran, then a yearlong Fulbright grant in Turkey, and finally numerous visits to Egypt as director of study-abroad programs. This has afforded opportunities to visit archives, museums, and sites and to interview several archaeologists. Upon reflection, I suppose the broad scope of this study was almost predestined, for I have always had a keen interest in the various peoples of the Middle East, especially the Arabs, Persians, and Turks, and an appreciation for the many parallels in their histories.

Other works have taken up the subject of the intersection of archaeology and nationalism, but they have done this almost exclusively within the borders of a single nation. Of this genre, Donald Reid's fine study on Egypt, Whose Pharaohs? (2002), and more recently Magnus Bernhardsson's Reclaiming a Plundered Past (2006) on Iraq come readily to mind.

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