home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


15 june 2017

I am something of an Egyptomaniac, though the intensity comes and goes. As an obsessive museum-goer, I have sometimes devoted decades to seeing anything but Egyptian stuff, which can be unbelievably monotonous. At other times, I've been adamant about seeing every object in every Egyptian collection I pass, which can be unbelievably monotonous for my companions. I've seen traveling Tutankhamen exhibits twice, in Chicago in the 1970s and Philadelphia in the 2000s. I've made pilgrimages to Egyptian collections in Munich, Copenhagen, and Berlin. I would be a pretty good guide to the Egyptian galleries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. And now that I've read Ronald Fritze's Egyptomania, I might be able to lead a tour without having to make a lot of stuff up.

Though as Fritze is quick to point out, his book is not a history of Egypt or of Egyptology, but of true Egyptomania, and thus for the most part an account of people making stuff up. People are still doing it. Ben Carson took heat for opining that the Pyramids were the granaries of Joseph, but he was only tapping into a medieval tradition that believed just that (124, 377). "Hard" Afrocentrism – insistence that Egyptians were "black" heirs to subSaharan cultures, developed the first world civilization, and diffused it to all other parts of the world, including the pre-Columbian Americas – persists as a pseudo-knowledge. And of course there's a new Mummy movie in theaters (Tom Cruise) as I type this, promulgating who knows what kinds of nonsense about ancient Egypt – though one hopes, in that case, not with the expectation that anyone will take it seriously.

Fritze gives capsule geographies and histories of ancient Egypt, and then begins his account of other peoples' fascination with the Nile as far back as possible. The Hebrews framed their history and culture in opposition to those of the Pharaohs. Greeks and Romans were fascinated by Egypt too, and not just for its exploitable wealth. They grooved on its weirdness: Egyptians honored cats in ways I find perfectly reasonable, but ancient Westerners found incomprehensible (83-84). The sheer power of the Pharaohs validated Alexander the Great's project of conquering the known world. He placed his stamp on the ancient civilization by founding Alexandria and being buried in state there. The Romans were comparative wannabes, but Pompey, Caesar, and Antony all seemed to need to make their way to Egypt – you couldn't bestride the narrow world like a colossus till you'd seen the Pyramids. And Cleopatra, naturally. Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale.

Egypt was part of the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, but largely disappeared from the Western imagination after the fall of the Roman empire. From its realistic imagination, that is, inasmuch as it had one. For St. Augustine, interaction with Egyptian culture was a matter of "carrying off its gold": refracting the lore and achievements of a millennia-old civilization entirely through what it could tell Augustine about his own particular brand of Christianity. It is fascinating to see, in Fritze's elaborate history, how knowledge that circulated freely in the ancient Roman world was lost in medieval times, only to be ultimately recovered. Attention to a single strand of culture like Egyptomania makes the notion of a Renaissance somewhat more respectable than recent revisionist views might allow, as it was in the fifteenth and later centuries that the West began once again to have some reliable information about Egypt, albeit mostly literary.

After Napoleon, all restraint on Western imagination of Egypt was lifted. But at the same time, Western knowledge of Egypt became many times better. Nile tourism became obligatory for people of a certain class and savoir-faire. Decipherment of the Rosetta Stone paved the way for true Egyptology, even as pop shock-horror mythology burgeoned. Mummies became coveted objects, especially for medicinal purposes – what could people have been thinking. In the 19th century, writers began to compose lucid texts for popular audiences, a tradition that Fritze continues: he is especially appreciative of the American John Lloyd Stephens and the English writer Lucie Duff Gordon.

Tutankhamen, emerging from his unsealed tomb in 1923, gave Egyptomania another exponential boost. This is where I come in, as I noted, though I wouldn't join the ranks of Tut fans for another 40+ years. My mother had a coffee-table book called Treasures of Tutankhamen or something like that, a pretty good and pretty pretty item, and I read it incessantly. One time I did something bad and was punished by not being allowed to see the two-part "King Tut" episodes of the late Adam West's Batman. I'm still upset about that.

Mummies became staples of horror films, and Biblical spectacles featured Pharaohs; Mika Waltari's Egyptian was another of my mother's favorite books. Hieroglyphs and kohl-cosmeticked eyes became pop touchstones. Interpretations of Egyptian esoterica, on the fringiest of fringes since the days of Hermes Trismegistus and the Rosicrucians, began to seep into TV-era consciousness. The proportions of the Pyramids were supposed to be prophetic, like some sort of geometrical Nostradamus. But Fritze quotes Bertrand Russell's observation: "It is a singular fact that the Great Pyramid always predicts the history of the world accurately up to the date of the publication of the book in question, but after that date it becomes less reliable" (271). I also remember the 1970s theory that razor blades would stay sharp if you put them under little pyramids. Say, Ben Carson, there's an idea: maybe the Pyramids were gigantic knife-sharpeners.

Much of Fritze's tour through the past two centuries of Egypto-fanaticism is in the form of a wry catalog. He saves his argumentative ammunition for Afrocentrism, a school of thought he's apparently taken on in other books. Not that there's anything wrong with historical attention to Africa, or he wouldn't be writing this book; but that theories that trace all human achievements to the lore of Egypt are the newest in a long series of historiographical obfuscations. Fritze minces no words, and makes a solid point: the way to cultivate respect for African civilizations is to refrain from making stuff up about them.

Fritze includes a vast amount of information. Here and there are some omissions or questionable statements, but they're minor. I might add Bolesław Prus, Norman Mailer, and Ismail Kadare to his list of historical novelists, though he admits he's barely scratched the surface of the ancient-Egypt genre. I found Fritze's insistence that Tutankhamen was an archeologically insignificant Pharaoh (226, 239) to be odd. It may be true in terms of pure bulk of original knowledge, but certainly the very intactness of the tomb was important in academic terms, no matter what its content. And I was perplexed by Fritze's remark that "Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles drew its inspiration from the curse of the 'Unlucky Mummy'" (211). There's nothing Egyptian about the Hound, as I recall. It seems that Fritze is compressing a couple of tangential facts. A man named Bertram Fletcher Robinson recounted an old yarn to Conan Doyle, in part suggesting the dynamics of the novel. Robinson later died, some time after making some amateur Egyptological researches (and some time after The Hound was published, 228). And Conan Doyle himself, inevitably, wrote a couple of Egyptian short stories as potboilers (213-15). Suffice it to say that some connection exists, roundabout though it may be.

Fritze, Ronald H. Egyptomania: A history of fascination, obsession and fantasy. London: Reaktion, 2016.