A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
What accounts for our intoxication with things Egyptian?
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was hooked on Egypt. His desk was covered with a small army of Egyptian gods, goddesses, and noblemen. Over the famous couch hung a print of Rameses the Great's temple at Abu Simbel. Fragments of mummy cases were suspended from the bookcase. What was it about Egypt that attracted Freud so strongly? In a letter to a lifelong friend, Freud confessed that he had "picked up a few Egyptian antiquities. These things put me in a good mood and speak to me of distant times and lands." Freud is not alone in that.
I succumbed to Egyptomania decades ago. My life has been spent studying ancient Egypt, but that doesn't explain why my house is packed with Egyptian kitsch-pseudo-Egyptian lamps, teapots decorated with hieroglyphs and crocodiles, and mummy movie posters on the walls. Do used-car salesmen have their walls plastered with vintage ads for Model Ts or Edsels? It is easy to be consumed by Egyptomania, but far harder to explain it.
Our fascination with ancient Egypt and its appearance in popular culture stems from several factors. There is, foremost, the civilization's antiquity. One of the first to suffer from Egyptomania was Herodotus, the Greek historian and tourist who visited Egypt around 450 B.C., when the pyramids and sphinx at Giza were already two thousand years old. In his Histories he exclaims that "nowhere are there so many marvels in the world." Of the Egyptians he wrote, "They have existed ever since men existed upon the earth." Herodotus was clearly fascinated by this almost mythical antiquity.
For an ancient civilization to have an impact on modern culture, it must also be accessible. That's where Egyptian art comes in, as a window through which everybody, not just scholars, can see something of life along the Nile thousands of years ago. There are statues of gods and goddesses, reliefs of pharaohs and queens, and tomb paintings with scenes of daily activities. And what do people look for in this inviting ancient landscape? Egyptomania seems to have three focal points: the Egyptian pursuit of immortality, a belief that the Egyptians had secret or profound knowledge, and simple escapism.
Modern history, too, has added to the Egyptomaniacal mix. In the 1820s, the encyclopedic Description de l'Égypte, compiled by the scholars who had accompanied Napoleon's expedition, brought the monuments and people of the Nile to the European public. In the 1840s, steamships made travel to Egypt convenient, bringing tourists there and unleashing a flood of travel books eagerly read by those who could not afford the journey. Finally, in 1922, King Tut's tomb and its treasure were discovered. These events brought Egypt to the masses, and the masses to Egypt, fueling Egyptomania.
Bob Brier is an Egyptologist on the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.