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Unlocking the spell of the pharaohs

Three recent books explore the abiding allure of Ancient Egypt — that has entranced millions, from Alexander the Great onwards

8 October 2016

9:00 AM

8 October 2016

9:00 AM

Egypt: People, Gods, Pharaohs Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen

Taschen, pp.296, £17.99

Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy Ronald H. Fritze

Reaktion Books, pp.464, £25

Writings from Ancient Egypt Toby Wilkinson

Penguin Classics, pp.337, £10.99

Here’s a book to make an Egyptologist of everyone. A compendium of accepted gen on the gift of the Nile, Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen’s (updated and reissued) Egypt: People, Gods, Pharaohs ‘aims to answer some basic questions about life in Ancient Egypt and whet your appetite to find out more’, and achieves both in appropriate abundance. It looks great, reads well, even smells nice — and is positively jam-packed with wonderful things.

Citing the fundamental continuity of 3,000-plus years of pharaonic culture, the Hagens tuck away a (very) concise chronology at the back of the book, and then get on with the business of showing us what Ancient Egypt looked like, and who/why/how/when/where. The Valley of the Kings; mummification; daily life: the structure is, perforce, not particularly original. But between all the statues, scrolls, amulets and 19th-century collapsing-temple illustrations, there is still room to be surprised by more unusual bits: the dream-analyses of Kenherchepeshef (‘drinking warm beer = bad’), the pornographic Turin Papyrus, and the life of Paneb, foreman, drunk and womaniser, who may or may not have been executed by impaling. (We will not inquire too closely into ‘the Scribe with Illegible Handwriting’.)

The authors conclude with a section on ‘Egypt and the Western World’ that incorporates some unabashed remarks about the level of scholarly and financial support the Egyptians now receive to protect the cash-cow of their national heritage. All the same, though, they lament that these days Ancient Egypt is only ever in our thoughts when a restorer breaks the beard off Tutankhamun’s mask.

This is not the way that Ronald Fritze sees it. Early talk of ‘Cleopatra chairs’, Katy Perry videos and Highgate cemetery in his Egyptomania laid the groundwork, I thought, for a promisingly unorthodox investigation into what, exactly, it is about Ancient Egypt that has obsessed the outside world since before Herodotus.

I was wrong, alas. Or, rather, I was right; but by the end of Fritze’s introduction both the promise and the unorthodoxy had somehow vanished.


Egyptomania is an awkward project, being a more or less academic survey (Professor Fritze is not an Egyptologist) of an emphatically non-academic subject: to wit, all the wonky ways in which (mostly) westerners have used and abused Egyptian history from Ben Carson right back to the Book of Genesis. It is also a book of two distinct and not necessarily compatible halves.

The first part, ‘Egyptomania through the Ages’, is a comprehensive brief on how the Hebrews regarded Egypt as at once a place of captivity and potential refuge; how the Greeks came to believe all philosophers had gained their wisdom there; how Alexander began a tradition of monarchical pilgrimages; how Muslim writers collected their own body of literature in appreciation of the country’s mysteries; and how Renaissance scholars inadvertently began the drive towards a genuine understanding of Ancient Egypt through their obsession with the (non-existent) Hermes Trismegistus. Notwithstanding Fritze’s claim that he is writing ‘a history of Egyptomania, not of Egyptology’, until this point the two strands are essentially inseparable.

The second part, ‘Varieties of Modern Egyptomania’, on the other hand, is 140 long pages of Rosicrucianism, black supremacists and people who think the pyramids were or still are some sort of outpost of Atlantis — most of it with little or no connection to the realities of Ancient Egypt, but all of it laboriously enumerated as though it were a subject of the utmost seriousness. Fritze’s insufficiently ironic tolerance of such ‘alternative scholarship’ (the Bible, we’re informed, ‘has proven hard to correlate’) and his rather flat and over-explicatory tone combine to leave the hitherto enthusiastic reader trawling leadenly through a catalogue of pseudo-religions, academic truthers, and the plot summaries, seemingly, of every Victorian Egypto-melodrama (or perhaps ‘fleshpotboiler’) ever. (If you want to read things which are at least not wilfully wrong, go back to the source materials for the first half, most of which are fascinating.)

Fritze’s view of Egyptomania as a ‘widespread and persistent aspect of popular culture’ is plainly overstated (Tutankhamun, yes; Champollion, no), and his lack of any obvious personal Egyptomania — apart from two half-anecdotes about some things he saw in shops — is only puzzling. To the author too, apparently: ‘Why Egypt is so attractive in popular culture remains something of a mystery.’

To return to Egypt proper, then, you must have access to the written word. Writings from Ancient Egypt, translated and introduced by Toby Wilkinson, provides an excellent starting point.

Egyptian obsessions with stability and order, and the conservative attitudes of the bureaucratic elite (Wilkinson suggests hieroglyphic literacy of ‘no more than ten per cent, at any period of pharaonic history’ — and fewer than 1,000 people since), can render the vast majority of extant writings somewhat formulaic. There are a lot of lists. But his selection of 40-odd texts, many of them previously unavailable to the general reader, shines light on a ‘surprisingly rich and varied corpus’: first-person accounts of invasion and rebellion, a hymn about the king devouring the gods, a dialogue between a man and his soul, some tax legislation, and a letter from Pepi II to his emissary Harkhuf, reminding him to bring him back a dancing pygmy.

Wilkinson has opted for a fluid, contemporary flavour in place of literalist accuracy (impossible, anyway, in many circumstances. Translating Egyptian wordplay, for instance, is almost a complete non-starter). The texts are mercifully light on apparatus, and the notes unabashed about textual corruption, scribal errors, and other difficulties. One sub-section is rendered, in full, ‘…an obscure maxim about gluttony…’.

Literary colleagues might especially enjoy the final section: ‘Teachings’. In amongst some light relief on how to not waste time on chores, resist adultery and ‘be friendly with your local policeman’, these deal principally with how to immortalise oneself through writing. The ‘Satire of the Trades’ goes through the terrible alternatives: the jeweller, the fisherman, the stonemason. ‘So if you know writing, it will be more beneficial for you/ than these jobs I have put before you.’

Still: look on my works, and all that. There is not one famous scribe from Ancient Egypt.


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