The Enduring Legacy of Ancient Egypt

Egypt is the source of all the world’s culture. 

Egypt is the source of all the world’s culture. 

Herodutus tells a story about Hecateus, a Greek historian. He was discussing lineages with an Aegyptian Priest in Thebes. Hecateus claimed to be the distant descendant of a god. He traced his forebears back to sixteen generations. 

The priest is having none of it.  He takes the historian to a room full of wooden statues of earlier Priests. Each put up in succession. He makes Hecateus count them all. 345 and not a god amongst them. 

“You Greeks are just children.”

Egyptian art is often read as a cultural cul-de-sac. Fascinating, alluring, gorgeous, but a cul-de-sac nonetheless. This is perhaps says more about the worldview of modern Western scholars who “rediscovered” Egypt in the early Nineteenth Century. We should perhaps consider that Egypt was a major source of knowledge for Greek and Arab thinkers, a great influence in art and thought and a touchstone of civilisation. 

Ancient Egyptomania

Even in antiquity, other cultures prized and borrowed elements of Egyptian art. Craftspeople in Mesopotamia may have been influenced by the temple reliefs of Egypt. Egyptian style objects have been excavated in Nimrud, capital of thee Neo-Assyrian empire (911 – 605 BCE). The cosmopolitan architecture in Persepolis (built 518-16 BCE), which merged elements from different cultures, drew in part from Egyptian architectural style with sumptuous cavetto cornices. 


Homeric Greeks

The first interaction between Egyptian and Greek traders took place during the Myceanean period. Small Egyptian gods have been found across the Meditterean outside Egypt. A statue of the god Amun in Egypt, Bastet in Cyrpus and scarabs all over. 

More intriguing perhaps are the works of the Late Geometric and Orientalising period. Jars showing Sphinx like shapes and other animals

This was the period of the Trojan War and Egypt is mentioned briefly in the works of Homer. When Paris and Helen flee the court of Menelaus in Paris, they first head to Egypt. Their steerman Canopus is drowned in the sea and gave his name to the town in Egypt (also known as Pikuat).

An intriguing object that gives some evidence for this interaction is the Gurob Boat Model held by the Petrie Museum in London. It is a model of a Mycenaean ship with its blach hulls. In the words of Shelley Wachsmann “if Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, then at present the Gurob model is the nearest we can approach to that ship type”.


Over 1,000 Egyptian-style objects have been discovered in the Temple of Hera on the Greek island of Samos, set in the gorgeous blues of the Aegean Sea. This includes over 600 items in faience, 200 in bronze and other objects in alabaster and ivory. These largely date to Dynasty 26. The bronzes represent male Egyptian gods – Bes, Harpocrates, Horus, Ptah and Reshef. Only two bronzes of goddesses have been found, identified as Neith and Mut. Bronze statuettes of Egyptian gods outside of Egypt are rare. The items were likely dedicated in the temple as votive objects for the goddess Hera.

Classic Greeks

Egyptian influence on Ancient Greece was profound. 

According to Plato, Solon, the law giver of Athens and one of the famous Seven Sages of Antiquity, travelled to Egypt. He spoke to a high priest who told him about Atlantis. Plato and his first audience, obviously understood Egypt as an old civilisation.

The first Greek sculpture is often linked to idealised and static statues of young men, called Koroi. They have some of the immovable power of egyptian sculpture, although a small detail renders them more lifelike. One foot is pushed forward, and the weight is moved to the ball of the foot.

There is more than a passing similarity between an Egyptian column (shaped like papyrus, lotus and palm) and a Corinthian column. Coincidence?

Greeks settled in Memphis and Naukratis. In Memphis, Greeks integrated with Egyptian society and customs. Naukratis was a Greek colony built to support trade between Egypt and the Meditternean.

Greek interest in Egypt only intensified with take over of Egypt by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Within Egypt, Greek and Egyptian people and styles interacted creating new cultural forms alongside traditional Greek and Egyptian forms. 

Two notable trends should be highlighted. The first was the foundation of the city of Alexandria, on the site of a town called Rhakotis. Alexandria became an important economic and cultural centre in which different communities interacted.

The second was the creation of the god Serapis by Ptolemy I. Serapis combined elements of the Egyptian and Greek gods. The creation and spread of this deity are shrouded in mystery but he was popular. He was worshipped widely around the Meditterenean, notably in Delos and Campania. As we will see popularity in these gods exploded during the Roman period. 

Bust of Serapis found in the London Mithraeum


The Romans had an ambiguous relationship with Egypt. 

Egypt had come increasingly under Roman influence until it was conquered in 30 BCE following the Battle of Actium. Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony committed suicide and Octavius took over the province as a personal charge. 

Egypt’s soft power was felt most strongly through its religious traditions. The goddess Isis was worshipped across the Roman world. The first temple in Italy, predated Roman control of Egypt but the religion only grew following control. The Emperors, Caligula and Domitian, were both supporters of the religion and developed a major temple in Rome: The Iseum Campense. 

The Egyptian religion focused on three or four gods: Isis, Serapis or Osiris, Anubis and Horus.

The Romans were snooty about animal gods in Egypt. Augustus refused to sacrifice to the Apis bull in Memphis, but he continued to support temples. In Egypt, the crocodile gods of the Fayum were popular throughout this time. The only real exception to this was the god Anubis.

Priest with mask of Anubis, Temple of Isis in Pompeii

Egypt was also a source for artistic influence. This can be seen most clearly at Pompeii

Imagery of the Nile Valley were popular. Over 100 scenes have survived. They often show a riverside with archetypal Egyptian animals and plants. Many also show Egyptians who were portrayed as “pygmies” performing sexual acts. The reason for this is not fully clear. The quality ranges widely but the Palestrina Mosaic is easily the most accomplished of these works.



There is a narrative that Ancient Egypt disappeared beneath the sands in Antiquity, sometimes when Alexander invaded Egypt, sometimes the Romans and sometimes the Arabs. It never disappeared. Even the temples continued to be used as churches.

Medieval Egyptians were fascinated by Egypt. This was partly due to its links with the religious texts of the three major Egyptian religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Scholars were also interested in the history and language of their forebears. Some Egyptians saw archaeology as a lucrative business. Ibn Tulun (868 and 884 CE), even made it a state monopoly.

European travellers continued to visit Egypt during this period, often as a site of pilgrimage and tragically as the site of conflict during the crusades. When not fighting, European visitors were often more fascinated in Egypt’s factory chickens than with the ancient objects found there.

During the middle ages, Rome was still full of Egyptian antiquities including pyramids, obelisks and sphinges. The great temple of Isis was probably still standing as late as 1084, when Rome was sacked by Normans. This meant that Egypt was never completely forgotten by educated Europeans. 

Indeed the Mappa Mundi shows the pyramids of Egypt, which were believed to be granaries made by Joseph.


Early Modern

During the Renaissance, Western intellectuals became more interested in the past. Egyptian objects were part of the physical remains found in Rome. Giordano Bruno in particular was fascinated by Hermes Trismegistus.

For a long time, these objects were the only Egyptian artefacts known in the Western World. The most famous Egyptian object was probably the Mensa Isiaica (the Isis Table). It is a bronze tablet with silver inlays, acquired by Cardinal Bembo after Charles V forces sacked Rome in 1527. There is now a consensus that it was made in Ancient Rome in an Egyptian style. The table displays hieroglyphic text and was used by many scholars who attempted to crack the hieroglyphs. 

One of the most notable, scholars who attempted to decipher hieroglyphs was Athanasius Kircher. A member of the Jesuits, Kircher was a polymath with a wide range of interests. He set up a museum in Rome with many Egyptian objects. He also claimed to have deciphered Hieroglyphs, although his translations have been disproved.


Age of Reason

Europe was fascinated by Ancient Egypt during the Age of Reason. Many baroque paintings were set in Egypt (often depicting Moses or the Holy Family in exile). It was also the setting for Handel’s magnificent opera Israel in Egypt which tells the story of Moses and the Exodus. 

Sphinges and obelisks became key parts of Baroque architecture, alongside “classical” domes and colonnades. This is most obvious in Rome, which has more standing obelisks than Egypt. Bernini, the brilliant baroque architecture and sculpture, was a virtuoso of using obelisks within classical settings. Whilst sphinges are common in Paris and London.

Egyptian elements were also used in more austere architecture of this period, the so-called Neo-Palladian style which is sometimes associated with Republican aspirations. In England, the champion of this style was Lord Burlington. His Villa at Chiswick (West London) is an exemplar of cool classicism with nods to obelisks in the chimney pieces. The garden is full of sphinges and obelisks.

In America, the obelisk became a way to symbolise republican aspirations and antiquity. The Washington Memorial is perhaps the most famous obelisk in the world.

One of the reasons for this interest was freemasonry. The Freemasons claimed a descent from the masons who built the pyramids (and/or the Temple of Solomon). Some of their symbols drew directly from egyptian art and architecture such as the pyramid. These were seen as supremely rational, which was something the masons aspired to. The most famous example is the pyramid on the American dollar bill, but the pyramids in Parc Monceau in Paris are also part of this interest.

Egyptian religion via Freemasonry is also a prominent part of the plot of Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Egypt was drawn on to give a splash of excitement to classical architecture. If you look closely at the buildings on Regents Street in London, designed by John Nash, you can see Egyptian elements. These are placed on top of a classical body. In Italy, the great Piranesi designed ornate fireplaces and a cafe with Egyptian elements.

Egyptian elements crept into posh houses in Europe. The Wallace Gallery in London is one of the best places to see examples of Louis XVI architecture. Whilst in England in 1790, Josiah Wedgwood designed an Osiris Canopus, demonstrating his knowledge of Egyptian styles.


The Age of Empire and Exploitation

Egypt exploded into the modern age with a bang on 1 July 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the country. The aim of the mission was to strengthen French power in the region and weaken Britain’s links to India. Napoleon also took with him a group of 160 scholars (savants) who studied Egypt.

They were not the first European scholars in Egypt and Egyptians scholars had also studied the antiquities of their country, but it had a massive impact on European knowledge. Vivant Denon, a French diplomat who joined the expedition, published his sketches in 1802 in Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte. This is often considered the book which kick started Egyptian revival style in the West.

The more academic work Description de l’Égypte was published between 1809 and 1829. It covered almost all aspects of Egypt including natural history and the modern country, as well as Ancient History.

The French expedition was primarily a military one. In response Britain attacked the French forces and forced the French to leave. Britain also took control of all the Egyptian antiquities collected by The French. One of the goods taken by the British as spoil was the Rosetta Stone, a stone with inscriptions in three scripts – Hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek. This was key to the “cracking” of the riddle. 

The English polymath Thomas Young used the inscriptions to make some foundational discoveries such as the fact that the script was partly sound and letters. His work was followed by Jean-François Champollion, a gifted and driven linguist. He had dedicated his life to translating the language. He followed Kircher’s intuition and learnt Coptic. He also realised that cartouches held royal names. Ultimately Champollion made the break through and in 1822 published his findings in a letter. The

Alongside the scholars, a less than scrupulous band travelled to Egypt to collect archaeology for profit. The Great Belzoni was such a figure. A former circus strong man, he first travelled to Egypt to demonstrate a hydraulic machine used. He used his engineering know how and possibly brute strength to get large scale ruins out of Egypt. He used his impresario skills to set up shows. He created a replica of Seti I’s tomb in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (which also exhibited disabled people).

It is often stated that from 1798, Egyptology was put on a scientific basis. There is a truth in this however, it would be more accurate to say it was put on a colonial basis.

European interest in the country became only more pressing with the building of the Suez Canal, funded by French and British interests. Verdi even composed Aida, an opera set in Ancient Egypt for the opening ceremony. It opened in Cairo on 24 December 1871.

The UK invaded Egypt in 1882 to protect their interests over the Suez Canal and due to concerns over the democratic reforms led by Ahmed ʻUrabi. The British Prime Minister, Gladstone, a Grecian classicist, ordered the bombardment of Alexandria on 11-13 July. Photos of the city preempt later scenes of aerial bombardment.

For the next forty years Egypt became the ‘Veiled Protectorate’, ostensibly part of the Ottoman Empire, but in reality under UK control.

Art and Fashion

Following Napoleon’s invasion, Egypt had a vogue in Europe.

The streets of London and Paris are full of Egyptian items, but the most interesting aspect of this was the fashion for Egyptian furniture and ceramics. 

Wedgewood and Sevres both produced Egyptian inspired ranges. The Sevres Egyptian Service was produced as a divorce present for the Empress Josephine and was donated to the Duke of Wellington. It is partly on display in V&A and in the Iron Duke’s former residence at Astley House in London.

In England the designer Thomas Hope was fascinated by Egyptian styles. The Egyptian Room at Duchess Street was a la mode. All that remains today are two sphinges either side of a quiet side road off Portland Place.

In France, the First Empire Style also drew on Egyptian influences. The Musée Marmottan is the best place to see this in Paris.

As the nineteenth century progressed, art became more monumental. Paintings set in Ancient Egypt were very fashionable. Many continued to have biblical themes, but scenes of an imagined Egyptian life become more popular. Such paintings say more about the idea of East amongst Western patrons. Many paintings are visually interesting, but lack a certain je n’sais quoi… John Martin is perhaps the most interesting of these painters. Lawrence Alma Tadema is the best. His paintings evoke antiquity, with something of the uncanny about them.


Nothing beside remains

Egypt also inspired European literature during this period. The most notable example of the early is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias inspired by the great bust of Ramses II taken by Belzoni:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb, Cheops a reanimated mummy travels to 2126 where he witnesses women with flame headdresses, steampunk robots and the internet. The Mummy became a stock of horror stories at this point.

Egypt was also an empty stage on which to project European desires and anxieties. This is most clear in Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia which transfers Victorian society onto North Africa. It was also an attempt to depict what was known of late-antique Egypt.

The most important literary response towards Egypt was the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud was fascinated by Egypt from childhood. He collected artefacts throughout his life. He likened his theories of the unconscious to the contemporary archaeology led by Sir Flanders Petrie and undertaken by many Egyptian specialists. His most famous theory drew on the Greek myth of Oedipus with its unnatural relations and an Egyptian monster.


Tutankhamun and the Twenties

Egypt enjoyed another vogue during the 1920s.

In 1922, Howard Carter and a team of Egyptian labourers, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, a minor pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It is still the only complete tomb from antiquity. The finds enraptured the World.

Britain at this time was recovering from the First World War. The discovery enraptured the world. The young king was a poignant reminder of the loss of so many young lives in war, but also another world.

It was also a time for the push back of colonialism across the world. In February 1922, Egypt was declared an Independent country by the UK except for four key areas, including the military and foreign relations. The Egyptians saw in Tutankhamun a symbol for their country’s long history and new future. It was a test case for protecting their heritage. They refused Carnevon and Carter permission to keep objects. 

Carter sought to make money from the photographs. His carefully staged photographs reveal the anxieties and institutional racisms of the colonial project.  

Another important discovery, which became well known during this period was the so-called Nefertiti bust. Discovered in 1912, it was taken to Germany as part of the partage system under shady conditions. A masterpiece of Egyptian art, Borchardt requested that it was kept secret for over ten years. It was first displayed in 1924. (The Egyptian authorities immediately requested it back). The female face fitted a contemporary forms of beauty.

Gold Inlaid Canopic Coffinette of Tutankhamun Dedicated to Imseti and Isis_CREDIT IMG
Gold Inlaid Canopic Coffinette of Tutankhamun Dedicated to Imseti and Isis (CREDIT: IMG)

Pharaonism and surrealism

In Egypt, Pharaonism was a nationalist movement linking modern Egypt to its ancient past in opposition to it’s more recent Arabic history. At the same time, scholars of Egypt associated Egypt with the Arabs. Ahmad Kamal examined the etymology of Egyptian language to identify possible connections with the Arabic language. 

Another Egyptian art movement of the period, Arte et Liberte was influenced by Surrealism. Egyptian motifs are at a more subliminal level.

Art Deco

The elegant and stylised curves of egyptian architecture was a key influence in the architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes called Art Deco, architects and designers drew on many styles for a refreshing new look. The style has defined the twenties in the West as a time of parties and frivolity. The style influenced postmodern architects, who “quoted” earlier buildings. 

The numerous references to Egyptian archaeology in books of the period allude to the general interest. The “Art Deco” period was also the Golden Age of Cinema. 

Four films of Cleopatra were released between 1912 and 1934. Only brief fragments survive of the 1917 film starring Thera Bard. The 1934 film directed by Cecil B Demille is perhaps the greatest. It was inspired by historical sources, but drew on the imagery of earlier artists such as Alma Tadema.


The Harlem Renaissance

This influential movement led by African-American artists and writers drew on African art, alongside their own experiences in America, as part of a celebration and affirmation. In Literature, this is seen most clearly in The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

In visual art, Aaron Douglas and Meta Vaux Warrick are exemplars. Douglas’ graphic design, such as the play bill for the Krigwa Platers, shows African and Egyptian symbolism and motifs. 

W.E.B. Du Bois, the great intellectual, edited The Crisis which published many artists influenced by Egyptian motifs. It also engaged with the political situation in Egypt. In June 1921, Saad Zaghul was even named Man of the Month. 

To be continued

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics