Egyptomania: Why the Rest of the World is Obsessed with Ancient Egypt
By Emily Tain/Arab America Contributing Writer
Egyptomania is defined as a general fascination with all things related to Ancient Egypt. Also known as Egyptophilia, the Egyptian Revival, and Egyptianizing, the phenomenon tangles myth and reality to create a nostalgic view of Egypt from over 2 millennia ago. So why are people still interested in a topic that has been studied for thousands of years? As described by Dr. Ronald H Frieze, Ancient Egypt is both “comfortably familiar and intriguingly exotic.” While its art and architecture are recognized by most, much mystery remains around what has been historically romanticized and what is actually accurate. In fact, Egyptomania is nothing new; Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans were all known to have had, at the very least, a deep appreciation for Egypt and the innovations created within it.
The Classical Period
The historical and archeological record shows that Egypt was prevalent in Hellenic culture within the Classical period. Both Egypt and its mythology appear within Greek myth. The Greeks even attempted to assimilate some Egyptian gods into their lore. This fascination can be seen through the writings of the Greek writer Herodotus, who is considered the “father of history” and fell in love with the civilization after traveling to Egypt. A strong point of obsession for both the Greek and Roman visitors was that of Egypt’s geography. The Nile, home to creatures such as the hippopotamus and the crocodile, created an abundance of fertile lands that the Greeks and Romans could not help but envy. Equally marvelous were the pyramids, obelisks, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, now one of the seven wonders of the world.
The port of Alexandria was rife with cultural diversity and blooming with knowledge, making it a hub for Mediterranean travel. What travelers saw in Egypt was brought back to their homes in some capacity, whether it be art, architecture, medicine, or religion. For example, the Cult of Isis was moderately prevalent in the Roman Empire: within the ruins of Pompeii can be found a temple for the Egyptian goddess, showing a lack of contestation between the Roman and Egyptian pantheons. The Romans also enjoyed Egyptian art and art styles and especially admired Nilotic style paintings and murals. Filled with chaotic scenes set in mystical environments, these paintings allowed their viewers to step into a world so different from their own from the comfort of their own villas or temples.
The Middle Ages
Despite the fervent fascination classical civilizations had with the foreign place, the fall of the Roman empire is the beginning of obscurity for Ancient Egypt. With a boost in monotheistic practices, the West had little interest in exploring or glorifying the pagan land. The ability to read hieroglyphics was lost, and so too was the appreciation Europe once had for Egyptian culture. Medieval culture did however have an obsession with superstition and magic, so some elements of Ancient Egypt remained relevant, just not as much as the classical period. One group however sought to preserve literature written about Egypt: the Arabs. Islamic scholars translated Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician, and more into Arabic and Persian so that they may retain the scientific knowledge described by these ancient and classical societies.
Renaissance through Enlightenment
Egyptomania rebounded during the Renaissance along with its Mediterranean counterparts in what we know now as classical studies. With some families gaining significant amounts of wealth, people could afford the time to delve into these subjects. Scholars and historians rediscovered art and artifacts, leading Europeans to emulate what they found through the construction of obelisks, pyramids, and sphinxes. As demonstrated by these constructions, Egyptian architecture had a major influence on Western architecture thereafter.
Impact of Napoleon
The actual exploration of Egypt did not begin until the mid 18th century. These explorations eventually led to the invasion by Napoleon during which his forces found the Rosetta Stone; Greek, Demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphics were all featured on the tablet. Scholars, at this point in time, were able to utilize the Greek script in order to decipher the other two scripts, leading to the rediscovery of hieroglyphics. From this point, Egyptomania only increased (though in most cases, it could only be appreciated by the wealthy). 19th and 20th-century culture buzzed around the myriad of rediscoveries. This included its architectural achievements, fascinating characters like Cleopatra and Tutankhamen, and mystical practices like mummification. In fact, invaders would take mummies from Egypt to grind them up and use them in medical practices or as paints.
What many do not realize is that Egyptomania still exists in the 21st century. Within pop culture, it can be found in movies like The Mummy, Exodus, and Gods of Egypt, TV series like House of Anubis, and books like Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles. One can even find an example of Egyptian architecture right in our nation’s capital: the Washington Monument is modeled after the Egyptian obelisk. Though Egyptomania focuses on Ancient Egypt, modern Egypt still receives benefits from the rest of the world’s interest in its history. According to Dr. Frieze, tourism composes roughly 11% of Egypt’s economy. This is due to sites like the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the aforementioned Lighthouse of Alexandria. While it may feel like modern scholars have access to everything that can be known about Ancient Egypt, there is still a great deal of mystery and intrigue surrounding the topic.
Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy by Dr. Ronald H Frieze
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