Byline: BETTANY HUGHES
THERE is something about all that gold, all those snakes, the insouciantkohl-rimmed stares that makes the blood run high. When the Egyptian Hall openedin 1812 at number 22 Piccadilly, displaying "upwards of Fifteen thousandNatural and Foreign Curiosities, Antiques and Production of The Fine Arts",there followed a crush and one fatality.
The last time King Tut was seen in London in 1972 at the British Museum, 1.7million people came to pay homage, the largest exhibition in human history.Still everyone wants a part of Egypt's pastand now Egyptomania has hit our capital once more: Tutankhamun and the GoldenAge of The Pharaohs opens at the O2 next week. This time, Charles and Camillaare being given a private preview before the show opens, and the Gold Tieevening (in association with The Prince's Trust) has become the hottest ticketin town.
So why does Egyptomania persist? There are many splendid ancient civilisations:the Hittites, the Thracians, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians. All equallypowerful and equally prolific. But their names raise only a flicker ofinterest. I have yet to see a Phoenecian-themed mousepad (journalists have beensent a glitzy Egyptian-style-hologram version for the O2 exhibition, where Tut,at certain angles, looms out of his tomb).
Why do we love the boy-king, Nefertiti, Isis, Horus et al with such a passion?Is it because a Cleopatra outfit is sexier than the tunics of our own Celtictribes? Is it the allure of code-breaking? Rather, I believe above all it issymptomatic of our desire for Golden Agesfor a time when human beings did superhuman things. If, as a race, we haveachieved absolute brilliance once, we think we can do so again.
This is the key. Rulers such as Khufu managed to build a pyramid that was for4,000 years the tallest structure on earth; Rameses II, the most powerful manin the world, found time to father 96 sons and 104 daughters. Temples boastcolumns 70 feet high; Egyptian arrows were developed that could be shot thelength of three football pitches. Recent research shows the pyramids were builtnot on the sweat of slaves but by paid farmers who dragged those monumentalstones into place, for nine days out of a 10-day week, as a religious acta gift to their gods and glorious community.
Of course there were bad times, but evidencefrom graffiti scratched onto ostraka (broken shards of pottery) through totouching, poetic confessions in Books of The Deaddemonstrates that many Egyptians had a gratifying sense of common purpose, andof the genius of their civilisation. Women even had rights. Two weeks ago Ivisited the Temple of Denderah to investigate the massive sanatorium whereheavily pregnant ladies were cared for by priests with herb poultices, hotbaths and the like. Now that is impressive.
The Egyptians also appear to have wanted the same things that we do. Theydespised chaos (isfet), and yearned for truth, order, the right way (ma'at).Their presence might spice things up a little now, but the irony is that vaststretches of Egypt's 4,000-year ancient history 'It is the stuff offairy-tales. Egypt's geology and climate combine to preserve remains withunique excellence were peaceful. The Egyptians went so far as to compose, withtheir arch rivals the Hittites, the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's first extantpeace treaty. …