Cairo has a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, and like the one in the U.S., it is more of an attraction for foreign dignitaries and a few local tourists. The difference is that there are two tombs at the Egyptian version. One tomb holds someone ‘unknown’ and the other holds former President Anwar El Sadat. I had a funny feeling about this pairing, and I looked back at my notes from an undergraduate course on nationalism in which I had read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.
Anderson uses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to present the distinctly contemporary flavor of nationalism. Because the soldier is unknown, he represents the entire nation. “To feel the force of this modernity,” Anderson writes, “one has only to imagine the general reaction to the busy-body who ‘discovered’ the Unknown Soldier’s name or insisted on filling the cenotaph with some real bones. Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind!”
The Egyptian government did something almost as sacrilegious by Anderson’s standards, placing Sadat’s cenotaph next to that of the Unknown Soldier, and hence robbing the latter of its force. Nobody could better outshine one unknown than the most known of all.
The two tombs sit under a massive open-air pyramid structure on the side of a highway. Most of the people who see the structure in a given day are not visitors but drivers stuck in traffic, for this area is always congested. Across the street stands the platform and parade-viewing area where Sadat was shot. A rusting, long empty observation tower overlooks three identical posters for the military’s current public relations campaign. In the three posters, three unknown soldiers hold three unknown babies and three captions read, “The people and the army are one hand.”
At the two tombs, pairs are everywhere. Two soldiers in red uniforms and dusty black caps stand guard with long rifles. Behind them, past two black Ottoman cannons, are two more soldiers wearing Ottoman garb: gold striped red coats, billowing bright blue pants, and tilted little maroon fezs. Behind them are two more soldiers, in tacky get-ups of Ancient Egyptophilia: white pajamas, gold pharaonic headdresses, and neon rainbow rayon breast-plates.
The unknown soldier’s tomb is a simple black cube that looks like the Ka’ba at Mecca. Behind it stands Sadat’s cenotaph, on which is written, “The hero of war and peace. He gave his life for the sake of peace and was martyred for the sake of principles.”
Sadat was killed on October 6th, 1981, eight years to the day after the crossing of the Suez Canal. Public monuments to his eleven years of rule focus for the most part on this victory, against Israel, and the Camp David Accords in which he made peace with Israel.
On October 10th, 1981, four days after Sadat’s assassination and one day after his funeral, the newspaper Akhbar al-Yom published a striking image. Unfolding the central crease, you see a simple drawing of Sadat’s face next to the Unknown Soldier pyramid, under which thousands crowd together around a procession of horses carrying Sadat’s coffin, wrapped in the Egyptian flag. Upon closer look, you notice that every soldier in the procession and every civilian in the audience has Sadat’s face. The bottom fourth of the front page reads, in letters three inches tall, “Farewell.”
As we walked around the big empty space under the pyramid, a young soldier in a black cap introduced himself as Abu El-Hassan and asked us if we wanted to take pictures. When we said we did not have a camera, he looked confused and lit a cigarette. He continued to smoke and drift languidly around the area, wiping a bit of dust off of some poles surrounding the cenotaphs.
At exactly 4:00 PM, the two modern-day soldiers stretched their arms and rifles straight in front of them and turned stiffly. Kicking one foot out in front and then the other, they proceeded slowly towards one another, clapping their shoes in unison against the sound of rushing traffic and the roar of passing airplanes. They began with about a step every three seconds, and as the process grew more labored they incrementally sped up until they were going about a foot a second. At nearly 4:02 they passed one another and at 4:03 each had reached the other’s original position, though one must have had longer legs, for he got to his destination first and smiled with embarrassment while the other finished.
Several French tourists approached with an Egyptian guide, who told them about Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. “Sadat was brave to make war, brave to go to war, and brave to stop war.”
At 4:10, the two front soldiers again turned and locked into slow, stately kick steps to return to the center of the black path. In the center, Abu El-Hassan scuffed the ground with his show and gazed at one, and then the other, and then took a long drag from his cigarette. The soldier with shorter legs suppressed a laugh under his mustache. When they reached the black path, they proceeded towards the pyramid, saluted Sadat’s grave, and disappeared behind it.