About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'
2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.
Alexander Loktionov was born in Lyon, studied and works in Cambridge, and in 2022 launched a new Egyptology programme at the HSE Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies (IOCS). In this interview with the HSE University Age-mates project, he spoke about the Horus on the Crocodiles stele, the emblems and gilding of St. John’s College, the attitude of modern Egyptians towards the pyramids, and his hope of uniting Russian and Western Egyptological traditions.
How did you become interested in Egyptology?
I was born in France, and this country is very closely connected with both ancient and modern Egypt. It happens that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-Francois Champollion. As for our contemporaries, such figures as the poet Georges Moustaki, the singers Dalida and Claude Francois, and the actor Omar Sharif are all from Egypt; they were born there and often talked about it.
The city of Lyon itself, where I was born and raised, is also very ancient. This is the former Roman colony of Lugdunum, from which the ancient theatre on Fourviere Hill and other buildings remained. I studied everything there as a child. My family ended up abroad not because my parents made a conscious decision to emigrate. They are doctors and worked in the Soviet UN office in Lyon. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they remained in the West so as to keep working in their specialty. We lived in France, then in Germany, then moved to England.
At home, I spoke with my parents exclusively in Russian, but the surrounding languages changed. At school, I studied Latin for quite a long time and in depth. As a result, after school, I wanted to study ancient languages and how people began to write in general. And at the age of 18-19, having entered the Archaeology and Anthropology programme at Cambridge, I embarked on the path of studying ancient Egyptian.
Which college did you attend?
I went to Selwyn, an Anglican college with a rich tradition in the antiquities. In England, a bachelor’s degree lasts three years, not four, as in Russia. But students come more prepared, because they start later, at the age of 18. I already had quite a lot of experience in learning languages, and in Cambridge I began to study Egyptian, Akkadian and Sumerian. In addition, I took general archeology, which included the archeology of Britain. We went on three expeditions, including one to Salisbury that was later ill-fated. It is next to Stonehenge.
Starting in the second course, when I began to study Egypt in more depth, a lot of museum work was added—in the Cambridge Archaeological Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and the British Museum. One of the first artifacts I encountered in Cambridge was the so-called ‘Horus on the Crocodiles’. It is quite an interesting object: a stele about 12 by 20 cm in size with Horus, the god of royalty and the patron of the pharaohs in Egypt on it. He is depicted as a child, standing on two crocodiles and holding snakes in his hands. Although I later realised that this is a fairly standard motif in Egypt, at the time it was all new to me, and I tried to figure out what it meant.
There was some text on the back of the stele. For six weeks, I very painstakingly translated it, and when I brought the translation to my professor, I learned that I had done it in vain. The text made no sense. It is believed that in Egypt no more than 1% of the population could read and write. But the hieroglyphs themselves had great power as material objects. The fact that someone has inscribed them on a stele makes that object holy. If you pour water on a stele, the water will absorb the strength of the hieroglyphs that are inscribed on the stele—as well as the divine energy of Horus himself, the god who conquers crocodiles and snakes. If a person drinks this water, he acquires divine power and thus approaches Horus and the world of the gods.
Are you saying that whoever inscribed this text was actually illiterate?
Many of the hieroglyphs there can be read separately (which I did), but the compiler of the text did not know all the rules of Egyptian writing. He drew the hieroglyphs in such a way that it was believable, so that he could sell it to someone, some person who could not read. In the end, the artifact wound up in the museum. Of course, after that I didn’t encounter anything else like this because I began to work much more deeply with Egyptian texts on papyri, ostraca—that is, material where the Egyptians knew what they wanted to say.
Where did you go to graduate school?
After the bachelor’s degree, I faced a difficult situation. If a person lives in England and has English documents, getting a bachelor’s degree is not very hard, financially speaking. But for a master’s or PhD, it’s just the opposite. You need a whopping sum of money: Cambridge costs 35,000-40,000 pounds a year. That’s why most people who are not from very wealthy families have to negotiate with some college to pay for it. For this reason, I left Selwyn and went to St. John’s College for a programme where my tuition was covered. Naturally, this meant that I had to start doing research work and publish. I stayed at St. John's College for a year, and for graduate school the state transferred me to Robinson College.
Does this mean that all three colleges had Egyptology faculties?
Egyptology was part of the faculty. What is a college in the first place? It is a monastic house. A person comes there, he lives there, is engaged in spiritual affairs, and some are ordained. In Cambridge there are colleges with a more traditional Anglican bias, some have a Catholic bias, and already in the 20th and 21st centuries, colleges with less religious influence appeared.
In colleges, students live, eat, drink, enjoy themselves, and have a social life. In addition, each college has a staff of teachers who also live and work there, but besides this, all members of the college are also members of the central university and its faculties. Selwyn and St. John had teachers of Egyptology. But there was nothing of the kind at Robinson, where I was sent, and by then it was time for me to start teaching. So in 2015, I got my first Egyptology students.
Frankly, I wasn’t exactly delighted with my move. St. John’s dates to the 16th century, early Henry VIII, Gothic, with coats of arms, gilding and portraits. But there was nothing like that at Robinson, of course. It is the newest college at the University of Cambridge; it has a much smaller budget and the building is an early Thatcher, built in the early 1980s during an economic crisis. But in the long run, it turned out to be important and useful to come to a place where I had to build up Egyptology myself; there was no one else there to do it. This experience was very useful to me later, first when I stood in for the professor of the entire faculty of archeology at Cambridge, and then when I went to Washington to work as an Egyptologist at the Library of Congress. There, I also had to single-handedly represent the entire discipline. As a result, when I got to HSE University, I faced a similar task. I didn’t have to start entirely from scratch because there was a lot of Egyptology in Moscow, but HSE had no organised Egyptology faculty.
How did they learn about you?
As I later learned, the IOCS had long planned to start an Egyptology faculty. And Egyptology is a rather small world. When you start looking for an Egyptologist, it isn’t hard to find one. Selwyn also had a Visiting Fellowships programme at the time by which scholars from Russia could come to England for a while to work and live in Selwyn, use the Cambridge Library, and generally get to know what Cambridge is. Alexey Vdovin, an historian from HSE University, came on this programme and was the first to tell me about these plans to start an Egyptology faculty.
While those plans were maturing, I moved to Christ’s College, where I now work and live. This is also 16th century, Henry VIII, gothic, and with lots of gold. I am both a teacher and a supervisor for the students. During the pandemic, the IOCS wrote to me with specific questions: Did I want to teach? How do I see the whole thing? I answered that I can teach the Egyptian language myself and we thought about inviting my Western colleagues for other programmes. That is difficult to do now, but it remains a possibility for the future; we haven’t broken off ties with anyone.
When the difficult times started this year, I realised that from a purely practical point of view it would be extremely difficult for me to come to Russia. My parents are in England, my whole life is there, and a full-scale move would be, first, overwhelming, and second, not exactly in the best interests of everyone concerned. When a new programme opens, I want to focus on it, on the students, on teaching, and not on moving. So I conduct the classes online. At the same time, I’ve retained contact with Cambridge and my access to libraries. Every year, I try to order new books for the HSE Univesity library to build up an Egyptological collection. But this takes time, and so far, I am relying heavily on the resources at Cambridge.
Does the people at Cambridge know you also work at HSE University?
Of course. And I think they are very flattered that Cambridge trains specialists who then travel around the world, often occupy senior positions and establish new academic traditions abroad. When we recruited students, it was openly said that the programme was developed on the basis of what had already been done in Cambridge. But at the same time, we teach, of course, in Russian, and all the other teachers are from Russia, have Russian degrees and take a Russian approach.
Our program is a unique hybrid of Russian and Western Egyptological traditions. From the standpoint of science, this is the most important thing—that we try to connect two very disparate traditions. Western Egyptology is not well known in Russia. Of course, professionals read Western sources, but little of that reaches the level of students. In the West, very, very little is known of Russian Egyptology, and this is unfortunate.
What is the fundamental difference between Russian and Western Egyptology?
The main difference was during the Soviet era. Soviet Egyptology put a lot of emphasis on social issues, wrote that there was a class struggle in Egypt, that the slaves fought with the nobles. It is rather difficult to agree with this. They also paid less attention to pharaohs, tombs, the Book of the Dead—what the West calls the ‘great traditions’. Soviet Egyptology, unlike Western Egyptology, was much more interested in those who were not at the very top.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Mikhail Korostovtsev, Vasily Struve, and Isidor Lurie published many translations of texts of a more everyday nature. Lurie had a large monograph on a judicial investigation in Egypt: papyri of the 13th-12th centuries BC showing the trials of tomb robbers. There are no similar monographs in the West; this information can be collected from individual articles in individual journals, but it has never been compiled into something unified. As someone who wrote a dissertation on Egyptian justice, I don't know what I would have done without these Russian sources on social issues.
And if we go back to the completely heroic past, then Vladimir Golenishchev, who was born in the mid-19th century in St. Petersburg, is considered one of the founders of world Egyptology. He is a little more famous in the West, but not to the extent he is known here.
Golenishchev, by the way, left most of his materials to the Hermitage, and as far as texts are concerned, this is a collection that is widely known both in Russia and in the West. The Pushkin Museum has a very strong collection in terms of fine arts. So our students, especially those in their first years, who still cannot read very well, will be interested in looking at fine arts. In addition, 2022 was rich in exhibitions: The Mummies of Ancient Egypt. The Art of Immortality at the Pushkin Museum and an exhibition at the Hermitage devoted to the 200th anniversary of deciphering. The students had somewhere to go.
Do you advise students to go to Cairo?
The Egyptian Museum, which was in the centre of Cairo, was closed. Everything was transported directly to the pyramids, on the plateau of the pyramids of Giza. A gigantic new museum is being built there, but it hasn’t opened yet. Of course, I would really like to go there when it opens, and many students would, too. The decision to move everything away from Cairo was due to problems during the period of instability. When Hosni Mubarak was removed from power in 2011, and a year later Mohamed Morsi, the museum was repeatedly attacked by mobs, and a lot of things were stolen. It was partly just a robbery and partly the actions of Islamist groups that oppose the ancient Egyptian heritage, believing that it is incompatible with faith.
Aren’t the current Egyptians descendants of the ancient Egyptians—and don’t they speak Arabic? Why is that?
The main language is Arabic; it is a product of political changes in the 7th-8th centuries, when the Arabs came to Egypt. Some modern Egyptians consider themselves descendants of the ancient Egyptians, but some do not, and this is the root of political problems. There is a point of view among many modern Egyptians, Arabs, that we are a Muslim people, we have our own culture, and what was here before us is not ours and interferes with the correct interpretation of Islam. At the very least, they say, we shouldn’t support it; at most, it should be destroyed. These most radical voices are not much different from the Taliban in Afghanistan who blew up the Buddhas.
Another school of thought is that we are Egyptians in any case, we live on this land, this is our culture, our heritage. The regular Egyptian government, which tends to be secular, uses this to promote pan-Egyptian nationalism, and in this regard, Egyptology is quite beneficial to them. And under Mohamed Morsi, the more Islamised side of the Egyptian establishment came to power, and although he himself did not call for the destruction of monuments, many of his supporters used it as an opportunity to destroy quite a lot of things.
Another factor is that the Coptic Christian Church is preserved in Egypt. Coptic is descended from Ancient Egyptian; it is its direct successor, and it is the language of the church that is still in use. There are 15-20 million Copts in the world, of which 2-3 million now live in Egypt. This is a minority, but it is a significant number that consider themselves the direct descendants of the Egyptians—both at the linguistic level and, to some extent, at the cultural level. In the Coptic church, for example, although it is Christian, the church is divided into zones in the same way as an ancient Egyptian temple would be divided, and the image of Jesus Christ is very similar to the image of the ancient Egyptian Isis and Horus.
It often happens that professional Egyptologists find themselves on the side of the secular government and the Coptic minority, and this can lead to conflict either with fundamentalist Muslims or simply with the local population.
Egypt is a huge country, and not all of its inhabitants see a connection with ancient monuments, with excavations. It seems to them that people come either from the capital or from abroad, or are Gentile Copts and do something here, but what does this have to do with them? This is a very serious and complicated question: What must be done to try to explain to local people that the ancient Egyptian heritage is important?
If you had a choice, where in Egypt would you most like to do excavation work?
I am attracted to Amarna (Egyptian name Akhetaten—‘horizon of the Sun’). This is a very Cambridge answer, because the Egyptologists who taught me there had done work in Amarna. A lot has already been excavated and accomplished there. In particular, the Amarna cuneiform archive is widely known. This is the correspondence of two pharaohs - Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten). Few people know about this, but during the period of Akhenaten, the Egyptians begin to write cuneiform at the court. This seems to me very interesting in terms of the influence of Mesopotamian intellectual culture on Egypt.
Why is this interesting from a purely archeological point of view? Amarna is a new city that Akhenaten ordered built from scratch in the desert in only a few years. It is not like the Egyptian Memphis or Thebes that have developed organically over the centuries. No, this is an ideal city with a very interesting landscape. There is an Egyptian hieroglyph ‘akhet’ that means the rising sun over the gorge. And Amarna is situated in such a way that we can see this hieroglyph in nature, if we look from the city to the mountains.
With the huge administrative burden that you carry, is there any time left for scientific research?
There isn’t much time right now, but I'm trying. I’ll be publishing an article about the connection between Egyptian and Mesopotamian justice soon. The middle of the second millennium BC is a period we associate with the so-called Hyksos. Initially, this people appeared in Palestine and then spread to Egypt. At first it was believed that they conquered Egypt, but now it is generally accepted that it was more of a mass migration. They rise to power and early Semitic influences begin to appear in Egypt.
In the realm of justice, we see the emergence of very harsh corporal punishment. A different system of interpretation of the law is being introduced. Initially, ancient Egyptian law was largely based on precedent; there was no legal code as such. And in the new Egyptian kingdom, that is, after the Hyksos, codification begins to appear. There are steles where it is written that if someone does something, something will happen to him.
In addition, I continue to deal with issues related to the history of Egyptology. Both in Russia and in England. This is a somewhat unavoidable topic: since I work in both countries, I need to understand a little better how we got to where we are now, what this disunity of Egyptological traditions stems from, and how it can be changed in the future. With new technologies, it becomes easier.
In this regard, I have a lot of hopes for our group. We have recruited 13 people and the next recruitment won’t be until 2027. This means that over the next five years we want to train very good Egyptologists who will understand both Western and Russian Egyptology. And at the end of this five-year plan, some of them will be able to teach others. Of course, I don’t plan to stop working with HSE University; I will definitely continue to work and try to grow. I love HSE University very much, but I didn’t study there, so I’m unlikely to be able to understand an HSE student from the inside the way a person who has gone through it can. And what I want is that in 2027 we will have people who can consolidate the tradition, make it so that it does not depend on one person. And they will further develop this discipline right there in Moscow.
Do you notice any difference between HSE University students and Cambridge students?
Cambridge students are older, already 19 or 20. They are more experienced and know that they have only three years ahead of them, so they need to start very quickly. HSE University students are younger; they’ve just left school and have less language training so, of course, a little more work is needed with them, especially at the initial stages, so that they get up to speed. I’m not criticising in any way—it’s just a reflection of different education systems.
Cambridge has a challenging schedule where the course is split into very small groups. Classes are structured in such a way that you load students very intensively for two hours, and then they have a week of non-contact time when they need to digest it and complete a task, and the professor teaches other students. At HSE University classes, everyone is together, so there is more contact time, but the intensity of teaching during each class is lower.
In Cambridge, from the first year students begin thinking about what they will go on to do next. Cambridge is a tense place in general; it is very close to the country’s power structures and its graduates go into parliament and politics where they have to make major decisions. Influential people constantly visit Cambridge, and this creates the feeling that it really is for very ambitious people.
HSE University is also a prestigious university, but if someone at HSE chooses to study Egyptology, it is unlikely that they are striving to later become president or prime minister. These are people who are interested in the subject; this is their main motivation. They don’t have the kind of ambition that would change all that, and so first-year students at HSE University are more fun-loving, friendly and carefree.