The Pyramids of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and one of the most recognisable human structures on the planet, are located just outside Cairo. They rise impossibly from the sands of the Sahara, where there have stood for over 4500 years. These massive structures seem beyond the capabilities or requirements of humans. It is no wonder that some have attributed them to gods or aliens.
To be near such a familiar landmark is a thrill. The pyramids have long been emblematic of Egypt in the Western mind and the sense of history is palpable. Their sheer size is surprising. Each block is about a metre high and twice as long and, piled high upon each other, they combine in their thousands to create a giant stairway to the heavens.
Their location is also a surprise. Photographs (like mine) usually give the impression that these structures are remote from civilization – separated in space and time from the rest of the world. However, the truth is altogether different. Over the centuries, Cairo has expanded right up to the foot of the Pyramids and if you were to point the camera in a slightly different angle the sprawling city would become very visible.
But why share the truth when you can share an illusion?
I have been thinking about how the stories we tell about places are often untrue, or at least misleading. We create a mythology about them based on the narrative we want to create or the belief we want to sustain. Like Instagram influencers, we crop out the parts of the picture that are inconvenient to the ‘truth’ we want to share. The way that we create an augmented reality around ourselves every day, ‘living our best lives’ in our heavily filtered and curated social media feeds, certainly implies that we humans are a lot more concerned with how things appear than how they actually are.
We tell ourselves stories about who we are as communities, cities and nations that rarely stand up to dispassionate scrutiny. We convince ourselves that our countries are the best by ignoring their worst attributes. We claim our neighbourhood as the friendliest and overlook the ways it is downright hostile to strangers.
For instance, the (Irish) government spends millions internationally on advertising campaigns selling Ireland as a place of ‘a thousand warm welcomes’ yet migrants who come to these shores seeking asylum face a process that has been criticised as “inhumane and degrading”.
Israel cynically trades on the notion that it is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, carefully obscuring the fact that non-Jewish citizens are often not seen as full citizens or that the Israeli state ignores international law to sanction illegal settlements in the disputed West Bank.
The UK’s notions of grandeur around its imperial past produced the fractured psyche that inspired Brexit, while the United States works hard to convince itself that it is the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, sweeping under the carpet a history of slavery, genocide and sneakily destabilizing states that it doesn’t quite like. Trump supporters who want to Make America Great Again either endorse that history or subscribe to a national myth that’s delusional.
This delusion can become denial. As when Indonesia collectively buried its head in the sand after a million (or more) Indonesians were massacred in a frenzy of violence in the 1960s . The state conspired to suppress memory of the event by refusing to acknowledge it. Details were omitted from official history textbooks and the incident was rarely mentioned in the country until the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing forced a reckoning of sorts.
All countries tell these elaborate National Lies, some requiring boundless self-delusion, as much to hold ourselves together as to distinguish us from others. The concept of national identity is inescapably connected with inventing these kinds of narratives: The one side of the story that we tell ourselves while everyone is watching.