Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.69 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.69

Ronald H. Fritze, Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy.   London:  Reaktion Books, 2016.  Pp. 444.  ISBN 9781780236391.  $35.00.  


Reviewed by Maya Muratov, Adelphi University (mmuratov@adelphi.edu)

Preview

Ronald Fritze’s book joins a plethora of publications dedicated to the fascination with ancient Egypt, which fall under the wide term Egyptomania.1 The book is substantial in size and broad in scope. It is apparent that the author is much more at ease with the texts, hence the book’s emphasis on literary sources, and not on the (equally) rich visual and material culture of Egyptomania, the focus of the majority of works on the subject. Therefore it is not surprising that the illustrations are few and their selection at times seems random.

In the introduction, the author underscores the difference between Egyptomania and Egyptology2—and it is important to realize that this book deals with the former. Egyptomania is a social phenomenon that has very little to do with actual Egypt and more often than not belongs to the realm of popular culture; it is related to Egyptology only inasmuch as when new and fascinating finds or scholarly discoveries stir up the popular imagination. This particular focus on misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Egypt and its culture is undoubtedly related to Fritze’s interest in the history of pseudo-science, the subject of his earlier publication.3

The book consists of 12 chapters arranged in two parts. Part one “Egyptomania through the Ages,” comprises eight chapters, arranged in chronological order. It begins with a chapter on “The Real Egypt,” which covers the basics —geography and the environment — followed by a brief overview of Egyptian history. Chapter Two, “Ancient Egyptomania: Hebrews, Pharaohs and Plagues,” treats the Hebrew accounts of ancient Egypt, from the earliest biblical reference in Genesis through the works of Josephus.

The Classical Egyptomania—that of the Greeks and Romans—perhaps the earliest “proper” Egyptomania, is the subject of Chapter Three. It contains a basic overview of historical encounters of the Greeks and Romans with Egypt. A discussion of accounts byGreek and Roman historians, travelers and writers (from Homer to Herodotus, Diodorus, Strabo, to Ammianus Marcellinus, to name a few) is followed by a brief section on Egypt in Greek mythology. Roman Egyptomania is not treated separately and is centered on the textual descriptions of monuments (which often were tourist attractions) and on their misinterpretations, rather than on the monuments themselves. The numerous and often inventive Egyptianizing and pseudo-Egyptian objects (for example, the Isiac Tablet, a.k.a. tabula Bembina) are not considered at all. Chapter Four, “Medieval Egyptomania: From St. Augustine to the Renaissance” includes three main sections. “Islam and Egyptomania” —concerned with misconstructions of the Muslim Arabs who visited or settled in Egypt —is largely based on the writings of the Medieval Muslim scholars and travelers, historians and geographers. One case in point is a debate by 22 scholars on whether the pyramids had been built before or after the Great Flood, as summarized in a survey by Abu Ja-far al Idrisi (1173-1251). As for the medieval West, its knowledge and understanding of Ancient Egypt at the time came mostly from the biblical accounts (the author correctly states that this was the case for the most part until the 19th century). Confusions abounded, and the pyramids were regarded as the granaries of Joseph, a misunderstanding that originated in AD 333, when Egeria visited Egypt on the way to the Holy Land. Naturally, preoccupation with Egypt as the place of refuge for the Holy Family persisted as well. The third part is concerned with the cultural influence of Hermeticism and with the lore surrounding Hermes Trismegistos, identified for centuries with Egyptian Thoth, god of wisdom and knowledge.

Egyptomania from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment follows in chapter Five. Obsession with and interest in the Hermeneutic tradition continues—so does preoccupation with and misunderstanding of the hieroglyphs. Chapter Six begins with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt—an event that became the cornerstone of and the main reason for the birth of Modern Egyptomania, epitomized by extensive collecting and looting. Here, the careers of Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Bernardino Drouetti, and Henry Salt are discussed. Egyptomania in the 19th and early 20th century is the subject of chapter Seven. Here we encounter the fascination with the mystery of the preservation of the body and mummy-mania, including the notorious unwrapping parties. These interests are undoubtedly connected to the rise of European and American tourism, and much of the narrative is based on the accounts of well-known travelers, such as Gustave Flaubert, John Lloyd Stephens, Harriet Martineau, Herman Melville, and Elbert Eli Farman, who accompanied the former president Ulysses S. Grant on his Nile tour.

Chapter Eight addresses the aftermath of the seminal discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter in 1922. This unleashed what the author refers to as ‘Tutmania’ and mass Egyptomania. One of the outcomes was a developing tradition of the fictitious and proverbial “Curse of the Mummy”—the evil magic (Egypt was always considered as the birth-place of magicians) as retaliation against disturbances of the tombs by the explorers. Tutmania was a new and a much larger wave of Egyptomania, affecting music, architecture, interior design, and fashion.

Part Two is dedicated to some aspects of modern Egyptomania. Chapter Nine discusses its influences on occultism, particularly on the three main secret societies (of the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, and Theosophists) and their off-shoots. They not only adopted Egyptianizing symbolism and pseudo-accoutrements, but also often claimed to be direct heirs of ancient Egyptian mystery schools and of magical traditions practiced by the ancient priests, or the guardians of the skills and esoteric knowledge of the ancient master builders. Various rather unconventional theories that consider Egypt the ultimate cradle of all civilizations and those that attribute the origins of pyramids and of the animal-headed Egyptian deities to various aliens—are discussed in Chapter Ten, “Egyptomania on the Fringe of History.” Chapter Eleven, “Egyptomania and African Americans,” deals with Pan-Africanism and its connections to Ancient Egypt. It presents a survey of the development of Afrocentrist thought based on the writings of the main theorists of the movement. The last chapter, “Egyptomania in Fiction,” mainly focuses on the 20th century (from Cecil B. DeMille’s "The Ten Commandments" of 1923 to William Dietrich’s The Rosetta Key of 2008) and on the mysteries, one of the most likely places to invoke Egypt.

There certainly could be many approaches to treating this extremely diverse phenomenon. For his very dense book Fritze chose what one could refer to as an encyclopedic approach. Numerous digressions, such as descriptions of documents and plots of novels and films pepper the book. Although this could be very useful, it does not leave much room for analytical discussions or for a unifying argument.

Egyptomania is a manifold phenomenon. An overview of visual assimilation of Egyptian forms and superficial appropriation of terms and ideas makes it clear that their true content and meanings were not important; rather, throughout the centuries people found it possible to create their own mythology based on these forms and ideas. The “Myth of Egypt” had absolutely nothing to do with the real Egypt. One would have liked a short chapter offering a psychological approach to this societal obsession.

A short select bibliography is compensated for by an ample references section.

This book could be of interest to a wide audience—and it might serve as an excellent basic text for a special topics seminar.

Despite numerous works, Egyptomania remains an elusive subject. Interestingly, the words of Helen Whitehouse, written twenty years ago, remain quite true today: “Egyptomania has been amply documented in its visible manifestations; the focus should now shift to a more penetrating analysis of the mental constructs of Egypt that lie behind this selective use of its imagery. Perhaps we might then see more clearly why Egypt is everyone’s past.”4


Notes:


1.   For the term, Doyle, Noreen. 2016. “The Earliest Known Uses of “L’Égyptomanie”/”Egyptomania” in French and English.” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 8: 122-125. Here are some selected works: Brier, Bob. 1992. Egyptomania. Brookville, NY: Hillwood Art Museum. Curl, James Stevens. 1994. Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival, a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. Humbert, Jean-Marcel, Michael Pantazzi, and Christiane Ziegler, eds. 1996. Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Colla, Elliott. 2008. Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Brier, Bob. 2013. Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Seyler, Dorothy U. 2015. The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press. Brier, Bob. 2016. Cleopatra’s Needles. London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.
2.   For a thorough treatment of Egyptology and its development as a discipline, see: Thompson, Jason. 2015. Wonderful Things. A History of Egyptology: 1: From Antiquity to 1881. Wonderful Things. A History of Egyptology: 2: The Golden Age: 1881-1914. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press.
3.   Fritze, Ronald H. 2009. Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions. London: Reaktion Books.
4.   Whitehouse, Helen. 1997. “Egyptomanias.” American Journal of Archaeology 101(1): 161. ​

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