Books Legacy Reviews

Beyond Egyptomania edited by Miguel John Versluys

What’s the secret behind Ancient Egypt’s lasting power?

The trouble began with the Empress’ visit.

It is 1867 and the world’s eyes are on Paris. The International Exposition has just opened. Representatives from the major powers are in town: Tsar Alexander II, Bismarck and Ismai’il Pasha (Khedive of Egypt) among others. It is Napoleon III’s big plan to boost French power and bolster the Second Empire.

Countries had been invited to set up a stall in the ornate Champ du Mars on the southern bank of the Seine. 42 took up the offer, creating kiosks in their national style, including Turkey, China and Siam. Over the coming weeks, the Japanese pavilion introduced many visitors to Japanese arts and culture, including a young Vincent Van Gogh. Many used the event to highlight their cultural and scientific clout. Krupp displayed a 50-ton cannon made of steel. A bold statement of Prussia’s militaristic intent, one year after the Austro-Prussian War and four years before the Franco-Prussian War which spelled the end of Napoleon III’s reign. The Exposition was to be the glittering pinnacle of his reign. 

If an Empress was overcome with desire for the Egyptian style, what chance for the rest of us. 

The highlight of the fair, as everyone agreed, was of course the Egyptian garden. This was Egypt’s first entrance on the international stage in her own right. Her autonomy had been recognised by the Ottoman Empire only the year before. Egypt put a lot of money into the fair to help promote its soft power and project its hard power to the assembled leaders. The Suez Canal Company set up a neighbouring stall.

The Egyptian garden was made up of several buildings representing a palace, a bazaar, a stable with animals and a replica Egyptian temple. The animals were popular. Visitors were astounded that a dromedary had only one hump and that an Egyptian donkey was so sweetly tempered. But it was the temple everyone remembered when they went home. It was the work of Auguste Mariette, a French Egyptologist who worked for Isma’il as Director of Antiquities (after a brief apprenticeship in Coventry to a ribbon manufacturer). 

The temple was ‘an atmospheric pastiche’, broadly built around the frame inspired by one of the temples of Isis at Philae. It took the best of various other temples including those of Dendera, Abydos, Ombos, Esneh and Edfu and from various periods of Egyptian history. It was decorated within with paintings and text similarly taken from places, 

Mariette had brought over items from the Bulaq Museum in Cairo including statues and a jewel case belonging to Queen Ahhotep. 

Everyone flocked to see the treasures.

Eugenie, Empress of France also visited. She was particularly taken by the ancient artefacts on display.  

Her eyes sparkled brighter than the gorgeous golden diadem decorated with two sphinges or the imitation lapis lazuli set in Queen Ahhotep’s broad gold cuff. 

In a haughty voice, she immediately let Isma’il know that she would be honoured to receive them from his hand. There was an audible gasp from the crowd and then silence. The Khedive was taken aback, but not letting it show and a gracious host, he said the decision was Mariette’s to make. The archaeologist turned, looked the Empress up and down and said: “No!”  

If an Empress, of France no less, then the most chichi capital in the world, was overcome with desire for the Egyptian style, what chance for the rest of us?

‘Anchored in philology’ 

The ancient world has been an enduring theme in the art and cultural landscape of the West for centuries. If pyramids and golden death masks are the Egyptian symbols par excellence today, a quick perusal of the images in a new book edited by Miguel John Versluys shows that sphinges, obelisks, hieroglyphs and strange animal gods have been the evocative symbols of the mysterious land of the Nile at different times.

Beyond Egyptomania: Objects, Style and Agency explores more fully what we mean when we talk about the legacy of Ancient Egypt. It is a collection of papers taken from an academic conference in January 2016 which brought together people from different fields. One contributor jokes that the conference motto could have been “I am not an Egyptologist”. This is a telling comment. As Jan Assmann points out ‘scientific Egyptology” does not tend to cover reception nor even the earlier history of the field pre-decipherment. There has been increasing work in this part of the discipline in more recent

This is an academic book, albet an accessible one, and the authors take time to analyse the underpinning theories. It is structured with four different introductions setting out different theoretical parameters followed by eight case studies ranging from the Iron Age to the nineteenth century and ends with four conclusions.

The book is about objects and how people respond to them. In one of the final contributions, David Fontijn, argues that “Egyptomania” happens when people become physically confronted with ancient objects.

A central idea in the book is the ‘agency of objects’ or that objects are imbued with values and qualities which transcend the individual.  This idea is an interesting one and certainly something to think about, but I am too much of a materialist. Although this approach does not take away from the agency of human beings, I would argue that objects are items of human interaction. Certain emotions or values can be abstracted onto objects such as a specific monetary value onto coins or a sense of the appropriateness of certain items for dinner parties, but these values are projected by individuals. The object does not have agency. Then again I would also argue the idea of human agency if understood to mean free will is flawed. It is interesting to note, that Fontijn argues the idea of the agency of objects ‘the notion that objects – to some extent – are capable of acting” was “circumvented or avoided in most contributions”.

Approaching Egyptian studies through objects also distinguishes more neatly between “Scientific Egyptology” and what I call “Egyptomania” (a flawed term as Jean-Marcel Humbert demonstrates). Before the modern decipherment of hieroglyphs by Champollion, reading ‘images’ was an important way for scholars and thinkers to engage with Ancient Egypt. After that, as Anne Haslund Hansen writes, ‘the study of Egypt was anchored in philology’.

The ghost of Aby Warburg haunts the pages of this book. 

Although he never wrote about Egyptian art, the impact of his work and his theoretical frameworks inform how many of the authors approach the topic.  

Warburg’s life story is as fascinating as any in this book. The eldest son of a prominent banking family in Hamburg, he developed an early passion for art history against his family’s wishes. They wanted him to take on the family business. Aby made a deal with his brother Max, that Max could take over the business as long as he provided Aby with all the books he needed. He collected one of the finest art libraries in the world. In 1926 he turned it into a research institution which was affiliated with University of Hamburg. 

Warburg died in 1929 (two days after Black Thursday). In 1933, the institute and its library moved from Nazi Germany to London, where it has remained to this day. 

Warburg was interested in how images perpetuated themselves across the years and in different media. This was one way in which he developed his ideas of nachleben (after life) and Mnemosyne (memory). His life work was a Mnemosyne Atlas, a collection of images catalogued according to themes and motifs and pinned onto 40 boards. He moved the images around throughout his life. Although it is sometimes called unfinished, this misunderstands what the Atlas was.

Warburg was interested in how images perpetuated themselves across the years and in different media.

The German historian Jan Assmann, who wrote a chapter for this book, developed Warburg’s idea of ‘Mnemohistory’ which he said asks for the past, not “as it really happened” but as it was and is remembered’.

In his works he analyses how memories of the past dev like Moses the Egyptian which analysed how people remembered Moses during the early modern period. This is not a history of the ‘historic Moses’, but a history of the period in which the texts were written and how texts and memories were transmitted.  

This approach provides an approach to read early modern scholarship, making it a proper subject in its own right and placing it within its contemporary intellectual contexts.

Lovely Little bits: Egyptian luxuries in the ancient world

Even in the ancient world, several communities engaged with Egyptian objects as special items or used ‘Egyptian’ motifs or styles on luxury goods. Scarabs and small statuettes have been found in small numbers all over the Eastern Meditterenean. On Samos alone, over 2,000  Egyptian objects have been excavated from the  Temple of Hera.  

Although it is known as a Roman city, Pompeii (and neighbouring Herculnaneum) was full of Egyptian and Egyptian-style objects. Alongside the Isis temple, several villas had Egyptian or Egyptian style items or wall paintings. What is astounding is perhaps the range and the uses to which these objects were put. A statue of a falcon-headed crocodile was used as a water fountain, a wall painting showing Isis says ‘Be wary one who voids’ (my translation). Several paintings depict the landscape of Egypt (the Nilotic landscapes). The tone of these paintings vary. They often show Egyptian animals and plants. Some also depict Egyptians as small people or having sex. 

How much all this had to do with worship of the goddess Isis is not clear. 

Molly Swetnam-Burland discusses the ‘Black Room’ from the Villa of Boscotrecase in its ancient and modern contexts. This is important. Now displayed in the Met, the location of many people’s first interaction with Egyptian objects, nervously clutching an LL Bean bag and an Anthora coffee cup, the room creates a mood and atmosphere in visitors. It is created from three walls taken from a Roman villa destroyed by the Vesuvian eruption. 

Now displayed in the Met, the location of many people’s first interaction with Egyptian objects, nervously clutching an LL Bean bag and an Anthora coffee cup

The room is dark, with flat black walls and a few architectural details and small Egyptian style images showing stylised Egyptian figures worshipping animal gods (identified as Sobek, Anubis and Apis) against a yellow background. 

These images do not represent the reality of contemporary Egypt, but a Roman idea of the province.

As wall art, the paintings both depict an exotic vision of Egypt but also bring it into the Roman household. The paintings are both other and domesticated. What did the first audience think of these images or of the room in which they are found? It is hard to know. Of course, it depends in part on who was doing the looking? Slaves serving food may have perceived the ostentatious room differently to elite men.

This room was designed to project a luxurious and cultured lifestyle. In its presentation of an exotic foreign land, it reveals something of the self image of people in Pompeii. 

As Swetnam-Burland argues it was not just images of Egypt which impacted people but also materials itself. Many Egyptian goods were often luxurious – ivories, ostrich eggs and objets d’art but other Egyptian objects were consumed in Pompeii such as bread. Egypt was a province of Italy and there is a chance that the owner may have a connection to the land.

Isis from Pompeii

Cosmati lions

It might be presumed that during the Middle Ages the ancient world and especially Ancient Egypt were unknown. 

Although knowledge varied, Egypt was also known to scholars through various texts and reports from people who had travelled to Egypt (including during the Crusades, when Egypt was attacked). Egypt was known to Christian scholars in particular because of its role in the Exodus story and the narrative of Christ’s infancy. 

Visitors to Rome could still see several important Egyptian objects including obelisks and sphinges (plural of sphinx). One medieval guide book even pointed these out to pilgrims. 

One group of sculptors specialised in Egyptian style lions and sphinges for churches. The lions were likely based on the ‘Nectanebo lions’ which were located in front of the Pantheon for many years, possibly taken from a nearby Isis temple. These lions were an important model or inspiration for many future lion statues. 

The inspiration for the sphinges are less well known. 13 statues or groups of them exist, often in pairs. Some wear a Nemes wig (similar to Tutankhamun’s), but others have human hair. The viterbo sphinx even smiles.

Screenshot 2021-04-27 at 15.24.21
Image taken from book under Fair use. plate 27 Side view of the sphinx of Viterbo (Museo Civico, inv. 117), made by »Fr. Paschalis romanus« in 1286

Centrality of Rome

Although the book ranges across millennia, many of the case studies centre around Rome, both the city and its empires. 

Rome was the great mediator between Egypt and ‘the West’. Ancient Egyptian objects and monuments had been a constant presence. The city was an important tourist site for centuries. An important place for pilgrimage in the medieval period and later an important stop on the aristocratic Grand Tours. It was for many people the location of their first encounter with Egypt. The city was also home to Athanasius Kircher, an important figure in the early modern ‘Republic of Letters’ who acted as a node in the network of scholars working in Egyptian studies.

The word ‘Egyptomania’ was first used in a letter written by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Count of Bristol and Bishop of Derry in 1797. Around ten years later John Soane spoke of an ‘Egyptian mania’. The two men had been friends in Rome, when they were younger, during their Grand Tours. They regularly took their coffee together in the English Cafe on the Spanish steps.

The cafe had been designed by Giambattista Piranesi in the Egyptian style. A lover of Italian and Egyptian artforms, he is better known today for his engravings of Roman ruins and nightmarish prisons. 

One of his more intriguing works however is Diverse Maniere, a book containing amongst other things Egyptian style chimneypieces. These are largely imaginary. Chimneypieces did not exist in Ancient Egypt. 

Piranesi rendered these with skill and precision. An almost virtuoso imagination and love of detail. They show his intuitive understanding of the “Egyptian style”. Although Piranesi had a love of ancient Egyptian art, he specifically chose those elements which were different and heightened the dramatic effect of his work.

These are largely imaginary. Chimneypieces did not exist in Ancient Egypt. 

In her chapter, Anne Haslund Hansen shows in detail the process by which the elements chosen by Piranesi were selected (or made available) by the authors of books or travellers to Egypt.

Although he was inspired by both the objects and surviving monuments in Rome, he also studied contemporary books. The most important book was Comte de Caylus’ Recueil d’Antiquités. Illustrated books compiling images of ancient artefacts were popular. Authors used objects from Rome, but also objects studied in Egypt or brought back from Egypt. These were not random but informed by practical exigencies on the one hand (what objects can you safely move over the seas) and by the less tangible demands of what ‘objects’ defined an Egyptian style. There is a circular reasoning going on here.

It would be fair to say that Piranesi transcended his sources and created images that are both clearly Egyptian and wholly original.

Caffè degli Inglesi
Designs for Caffè degli Inglesi by Piranesi


This is an important addition to the study of Egyptian reception in “the West” which simultaneously deconstructs the core concepts of Egyptian style and the West in order to analyse more fully those trends which can be called Egyptomania. Its structure demonstrates the tensions and distance between theoretical reading and more sustained investigations of particular case studies. A real strength and pleasure are the arguments between individual contributions. 

Even as it analyses lesser known aspects of ‘Egyptomania’, the book’s approach also obscures what has been left out. Sometimes this is reasonable. Given the size of the book, it is perhaps understandable that the last case study is dated to the Napoleonic period. An extension beyond this period, might unbalance the book. But it leaves so much unexplored.  

The case studies focus on largely elite objects, or those which have been patronised by the elite. This is a result of the nature of the surviving evidence tending towards expensive items which survive, the prestige those objects still possess and the focus of the academy. What about non-elite objects? What about objects that don’t survive, except in textual or visual records? 

The real absence however are non-European objects. The case studies almost wholly focus on Egypt and Europe. Ann C Gunter’s chapter analyses objects found in tombs in the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Laurent Bricault’s chapter analyses Ptolemaic coins from Myndos in modern day Turkey. The understanding of scholars in Europe about Ancient Egypt was always informed on some level by interaction with contemporary Egypt. As Okasha El Daly has shown, Arabic scholars engaged with ancient Egyptian monuments and objects. 

Even while the work analyses objects and what they tell about the interaction with the Egyptian style, the actual contemporary country itself is not analysed. In Egypt itself, ancient styles and themes were ‘rediscovered’ at various times, including most recent during the Arab Spring.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics