by Sharon Singer 867 words
EGYPTOMANIA, Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs
Bob Brier, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
This book is a quick and delightful read for anyone interested in ancient Egypt and its influence on our own culture. Egyptomania, as defined by Bob Brier is "the extreme fascination with all aspects of ancient Egypt."
Most people consider the beginning of western civilization in Greece and Rome, but this is missing the great cradle that nurtured Greece and Rome -- ancient Egypt, a culture that lasted three thousand years. Herodotus made the earliest record of ancient Egypt around 450 BCE and claimed that "all aspects of Greek civilization [can be traced] back to the Egyptians." However, this book is not so much about ancient Egypt itself, but its amazing influence on the west in three significant time periods: ancient Rome, 19th century Europe, and present day.
Brier begins with Cleopatra, who brought the Egyptian cult of Isis to ancient Rome. This is where Egyptomania really took off. The Egyptian goddess Isis, (the subject of the new Canadian opera currently in development, Isis and Osiris) was worshipped as a mother goddess by Roman women. The solar disk around the head of Isis "would later morph into the Madonna's halo. Roman devotees of Isis frequently wore small vials of Nile water around their necks for protection, a precursor of holy water."
When the Roman Empire became Christian in the 4th century, the ability to read hieroglyphs ended as all Egyptian temples were closed. The last dated hieroglyph was written in 394 CE as Christian zealots destroyed pagan writings and pagan temples. "By the Middle Ages the fascination with all things Egyptian had vanished, as had most knowledge of Egypt."
Fifteen hundred years later, Napoleon's campaign led not only to the rediscovery of ancient Egypt, but also to the deciphering of hieroglyphs resulting from the find of the century: the Rosetta Stone.
Although Brier recounts the military aspects of the campaign, it is the drawings and artifacts that the French brought back from Egypt that are the most significant result. Napoleon had brought savants with him : "150 engineers, scientists, and scholars, architects, surveyors, and cartographers--to map Egypt and its monuments." Their work resulted in the publication of the Description d l'Egypt, "five massive volumes of engravings depicted the antiquities, thee volumes told the natural history, and two depicted modern Egypt." This spectacular work is indeed a treasure since many of the illustrations are the only records we have of wall paintings, reliefs, artifacts, and even buildings that no longer exist, or are in a much greater state of ruination.
Napoleon's campaign created a tsunami of Egyptomania, the first in modern times. After the defeat of Napoleon by the British in 1801, the British confiscated the sculpture and antiquities discovered by the French and turned them over to the British Museum, including the Rosetta Stone.
In 1881, the discovery of a hidden cache of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahri, recounted in the Egyptian film The Night of Counting the Years, created another sensation and ""mummy mania [was in] high gear."
The most spectacular find in all of Egyptian archaeology was the intact tomb of Tutankhamun discovered in 1922. In the late 1970s more than 8 million Americans saw the Tutankhamun exhibition (and three-quarters of a million Canadians). Museum curators invariably point to Egypt and dinosaurs as their "two biggest attractions."
Brier outlines the novels and movies that have been inspired by ancient Egypt and have broadened and intensified our interest. The list is extensive and includes films from as early as 1899 with Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb, The Mummy of King Ramses in 1909, Cleopatra with Theda Bara in 1917, The Mummy in 1932 and its many remakes including The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb which incorporates a version of the Egyptian myth of Osiris and his evil brother Seth. More recently, great filmic successes set in ancient Egypt include The Egyptian (1954), Valley of the Kings (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), and 1963's Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.