The Pharaoh protects his patrimony? Was that the message Hosni Mubarak meant to send last week when, amid the tumult and the broken glass from looting expeditions to the Egyptian Museum, he created a Ministry of Antiquities?

The new minister is Zahi Hawass, a flamboyant archaeologist, television presenter, and long-standing government antiquities official who was occasionally given to escalating the usual anti-Zionist gestures to apparently more pointed acts such as cancelling the state reopening of the Maimonides Synagogue in the name of avoiding offence to Muslims.

Hawass has been a tireless campaigner for restoring to Egypt objects such as the Nefertiti bust in Berlin, the Dendera ceiling paintings in the Louvre or the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum – or, more heftily, the obelisks in Paris, London and New York. So the image of him – available on the web – grieving over damage to two mummies and a beautiful model boat representing the vessel conveying the dead to the afterlife might not seem to help the cause of repatriation.

Paradoxically, though, it’s exactly during times of revolutionary upheaval that the fate of antiquities – their redundancy or their indispensability to the future – gets most hotly contested. Partly that’s because when civil authority dissolves, the temptation to plunder is usually irresistible; and partly because all revolutions have at least an iconoclastic streak in them. The glee of desecration, of smashing the taboo, is inseparable from the adrenalin rush of other kinds of liberation. The only issue is whether the images to be violated are just the icons of the detested ruler, or the whole repertoire of memory fetishes that commanded reverence before the paroxysm of freedom – tombs and portraits, thrones and statues – also get demolished in the name of cleansing for the future.

At stake, too, is what you might call the psychology of patriotic honour – an intense matter in any revolution. It’s no accident that, as I write, the front line of the street battles is at the perimeter of the National Museum, from where the cohorts of pro-Mubarakites emerged chanting, “No more vandalism” even as they threw paving bricks at demonstrators in Tahir Square. So the contest for legitimacy turns – amazingly – on who has the better claim as protectors of the nation’s antiquity. No matter that before troops took over guard duties, improvised civilian patrols formed a human chain around the museum to protect it from plunder. The force of the counter-attackers’ claim is that the anti-Mubarakites are the heralds of chaos, the true threat to the mummies.

Much turns then on the battle over vandalism. High-minded guardians of revolutionary dignity – who want to make sure the righteous anger of The People does not degenerate into the animal rampages of The Mob – often do their utmost to take command of cultural heritage, marking some artefacts down for destruction while preserving others for the sake of the reborn Nation. In 1793, during the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David made a great public bonfire on what is now the Place de la Concorde of the fetishes of monarchy – thrones and sceptres and the like. However, it was a citizen bishop, Gregoire, who first coined the word “vandalism” to stigmatise mobs who, in the name of purging France from all traces of royal memory, had taken a hammer to the royal tombs of the chapel of St Denis.

The same cultural dynamics have been at work in different ways in more recent revolutions. The Soviets chose not to demolish their traditional culture but let it wither away alongside the strenuous productions of the Revolution. Maoist iconoclasm declared war on its own classicism (while allowing, in practice, some remnant to survive), and the Taliban (reviving an old tradition of Islamic aversion to human imagery) obliterated the colossal Bamiyan Buddhas. But lest you suppose this is not the sort of thing we chaps go in for, go and take a look at the headless and defaced statues in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral as a reminder of our own capacity for iconoclastic brutality. If Neil MacGregor were not so sunny a scholar, he could just as easily make a gripping radio series called A History of the World in a Hundred Mutilations.

The patriarch of all revolutionary preservations was the autodidact Alexandre Lenoir who, aghast at the destruction of medieval and Renaissance monuments by those “vandals”, led a one-man campaign to rescue them from the sans-culotte hammers. He carried off cartloads of medieval sculptures and tombs to the Convent of the Petits-Augustins, where he catalogued and assembled them in processional chronological order.

Thus was born Lenoir’s Musée National des Monuments Français, the first attempt to provide – eventually for the public – a walk-through experience of French history, from the Merovingians through to the Enlightenment and the present day, via sculpture, furniture, tapestries and the like. It is the ancestor in Paris of the present Musée de Cluny (founded in part by Lenoir’s son) and of the rooms in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some of these ensembles – such as the tomb of the Merovingian king Clovis – were fanciful but that didn’t stop the public from being gripped by the entombed memory of Abelard and Heloise.

The young Jules Michelet, who would become the greatest of the romantic historians of France, remembered being entranced as a child by the sculptures set out in Lenoir’s Elysian garden – a communion between the revolutionary present and the medieval past that lit a slow, deep burn in his literary imagination. Let’s hope that the antiquities of ancient Egypt are similarly cherished, rather than hurt, by the uncontainable passions of the revolutionary moment.

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