Magazine article The Spectator

Three Books on Ancient Egypt

Magazine article The Spectator

Three Books on Ancient Egypt

Article excerpt

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. …

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