Egypt in the modern world

European Egyptology before Napoleon

How Egypt enticed the world for centuries.

The last decades of the eighteenth century are seen as watershed moments in world history. The years include the American war of Independence and the French Revolution. These were the years of High Enlightenment. European scholars engaged with the history of Ancient Egypt long before Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt 1798.


Egyptology in Medieval Europe

During the medieval period scholars were less interested in Pharonic Egypt. The first European visitors to Egypt to bring back reports were pilgrims.  Egypt was an itinerary on pilgrimages to the holy lands. Egypt was a holy land visited by both Moses and the holy family. It contained several ancient monasteries. Some claimed to possess relics of immense power such as the Burning Bush in St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Egypt was mentioned in several apocryphal texts in Latin and Coptic which retold the miraculous stories of Jesus’ infancy in Egypt.

Another draw to Egypt at this early stage was the mythic kingdom of Prester John, which many believed to be located south of Egypt. Prester John was supposed to be a Christian king of immense power. His kingdom shifted from India to Central Asia to Africa. The Irish monk Symon Semeonis travelled to Egypt in 1323. He claimed to have seen slaves in Egypt who came from his kingdom. Joos van Ghistele travelled to Egypt in 1485 with the intent of visiting this kingdom in Ethiopia. The Sultan of Egypt refused him a visa.

It is sometimes forgotten that the crusaders intervened in Egyptian affairs in the twelfth century. Some tropes survived antiquity. The crusade historian Joinville writes of the Nile’s “beneficent flood which comes only from the will of the almighty”. The link between the Nile and divinity was a central belief in antiquity.

Medieval Europeans knew something of the monuments of ancient Egypt. A mosaic of Joseph in Egypt in San Marco’s basilica in Venice depicts pyramids as granaries used by Joseph to stockpile supplies for the seven lean years he predicted.  A belief Republican Ben Carson shares.


Egyptology in the Renaissance

The Renaissance saw a rebirth of interest in ancient history and an increase in knowledge of Greek language and literature in Western Europe. It was a religious period and pilgrimages continued to the holy lands.

Felix Fabri travelling to Egypt in 1483 wrote of the pyramids and the sphinx. He doubts the belief that the pyramids were granaries. He also wrote of the Sphinx “an immense stone idol which has a female form” which he thought was an idol of Isis. Jean Adornes travelling in Egypt in 1470 wrote that the Pyramids could not be granaries because there was no storage space inside. He identified them as funerary monuments but dated them to the Roman period due to a Latin inscriptions.

Bernard van Breydenbach was the first scholar to engage with textual history of Egypt. His travelogue published in 1486 was the first to mention Herodotus in his references to the pyramids. Joos Van Ghistele (whose embassy to Prester John was thwarted by the Sutlan) references Diodorus Siculus.

Then, as now, Scholars were intrigued by the flora and fauna of Egypt. Pierre Belon Du Mans wrote of the crocodile and hippopotamus. George Lengherand wrote of the flora of Egypt. Several authors also wrote of the industrial hatcheries of Egypt.


The Age of Reason

The seventeenth century saw an increase in travel to Egypt. Many travellers were more scholarly than before, but this does not mean that they were more scientific. The first book linking the pyramids and astronomy was published in 1646 by John Greaves.

Egypt was linked to knowledge throughout this period. The hieroglyphics, which received fresh investigation, were believed to hide hidden knowledge. Francois de La Boullaye Le-Gouz’s travelled to Egypt to discover lost books linked to the bible. He wanted to prove the strong foundations of Catholicism.

Athanasius Kircher was a brilliant polymath who attempted to decipher hieroglyphics. European collections contained many items from Egypt (or claiming to be Egyptian) dating back to the Roman period. He also used the fourth century text by Horapollan which claimed to explain hieroglyphs. Kircher’s work was comprehensive in scope but built on very weak foundations. He was the first however, to identify that Coptic was the last form of the ancient Egyptian language. Of all the authors named here, he is the one with relative fame and he has himself become a popular subject for study.

Cornelius de Bruyn (1681) writes of the tombs of Saqqarah and mummy openings: “After we’d smashed in the wooden coffin and found the whole body […] He had his face covered, like most of them”. Mummies were revered as medicinal ingredients. Anthoine Morision writes about beating and mixing a little of mummy with some olive oil. It stops the flow of blood and heals dislocations.

Olfert Dapper Egyptian pyramids 1670


The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment experienced advances in Egyptology. These years are seen as a period of scientific scepticism, rationality and advances in historical study. They were also the peak years of the transatlantic slave trade.

Scholars had begun researching Egyptian history using travellers reports and the classical authors. Paul Lucas could draw on the work of members of the Royal Academy such as Antoine Banier who wrote a work on the animal cults in Ancient Egypt.

In this years, even before Napoleon, Egyptian goods were fashionable. Marie Antoinette collected ancient artefacts and commissioned items in the Egyptian style. The imagery of Free Masonism, popular in these years, drew on pharaonic imagery. The high cultural peak of this egyptomania was Mozart’s Magic Flute. Sarastro is the chief priest of Isis and Osiris and combines Enlightenment values and Hermetic obscurantism.

Several works were published on Egypt in these years but three stand out. Frederic-Louis Norden was one of the first Europeans to travel to Upper Egypt. Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, published 1755 and then 1795  was a scholarly analysis of the monuments of Egypt. His plates show cut thoughts of the pyramids and detailed images of different styles of pyramids.

The Bent Pyramid in the 18th century from Frederic-Louis Norden.


Benoît de Maillet was French consul in Egypt. He made several trips around North Egypt but never went to the South. He repeatedly explored the Pyramids of Giza. He was the first to suggest taking Pompey’s Column to Paris. He discovered a demotic script in a mummy and argued that the Egyptians used two different styles of writing. He believed that the hieroglyphs were not secret language but allowed an illiterate populace to read inscriptions. He argued that the Egyptians believed in a single divinity expressed through various divinities. Jean-Baptist Le Mascrier published Maillet’s memoirs as a comprehensive work covering all that was known about Egypt at the time. He called it Description de l’Egypte. Inaccuracies abound.


Further reading

Florimond Lamy and Marie-Cécile Bruwier L’égyptologie avant Champollion 


Picture references

Olfert Dapper Egiptische Piramiden by New York Public Library {{PD-US}}

Frederic Louis Norden La pyramide rhomboïdale au XVIIIe siècle. by Frederic Louis Norden {{PD-US}}






By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics