Egyptomania - Egypt in the popular western culture
Egyptomania is the term that best describes the western fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and history.
To the western imagination, ancient Egypt is often seen as an out of this world civilization. For centuries, the notion that religion, science, arts, agriculture and architecture developed in Africa long before Europe, has conjured up ideas of alien travelers from outer space or even a highly advanced civilization from this planet, traces of which has completely vanished and are only manifested through esoteric means, landing in Egypt during prehistory to reveal the secrets of the Pyramids and the Sphinx to supposedly backward African people.
To the Greeks of the Hellenistic era, Egypt was already an old culture whose origins were unknown and imbued in legend. Herodotus saw ancient Greek religious rites and mythical animals like the phoenix as originating in Egypt.
After the Arab conquest, Middle Age Europe lost contact with Egypt, its only source of information being the biblical accounts, which had little to do with actual historical investigations. In the Bible, Egypt is depicted as a land of idolaters and enslavers, with the Pharaoh portrayed as a tyrannical oppressor of the Jews.
By the time of the Renaissance, the desire for knowledge, hindered by lack of facts, created a wave of speculation that pictured Ancient Egyptian civilization as a source of western mysticism and occult wisdom, which could be somehow interpreted by the readings of the Tarot. Attempts were made to decipher and interpret Egyptian hieroglyphs as mystical writings containing kabbalistic, Hermetic and other hidden sacred doctrines. A perception that Egyptian monuments, notably the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx, could somehow embody the coded secrets of long forgotten ancient knowledge increased during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century with the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians.
sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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.
When Napoleon, in Alexandrian fashion, set up to conquer Egypt in 1797, a sudden burst of popular interest in all things Egyptian spread across Europe, and the term Egyptomania was coined. The Age of Romanticism embraced the distant, both in space and time. Egypt became the perfect scenario for artistic imagery, a remote vast desert land scarcely populated by exotic people amidst monumental ruins half covered in the sand of times at the banks of a mystical river whose unexplored source was deep in the heart of a primitive continent. Egypt suddenly had an aesthetic impact on literature, art and music. Paintings such as "The Rest in the Flight to Egypt", sonnets like Shelley's Ozymandias, and grandiose operatic productions like Verdi's Aida are inspired on this romantic vision of Egypt.
Western Architecture was also affected by Egyptomania in what is known as the Egyptian Revival. Plush mausoleums in the Egyptian style flourished in European and American cemeteries, influenced by the notion of ancient Egyptian culture as obsessed with the cult of the dead. Numerous obelisks were uprooted from their original context to be replanted on the most unfamiliar places, including the Vatican and New York's Central Park. The obelisk as a symbol of power in its purest form was employed to commemorate George Washington. James Lick, a self-made California millionaire of the 19th Century, wanted for his tomb a huge pyramid built on a whole square of San Francisco. Luckily for him, this project was never carried out.
The Art Deco movement of the early 20th Century relies on many decorative elements derived from ancient Egyptian architecture. It was precisely at this time that two iconic Egyptian figures emerged. Nefertiti became an ideal of feminine beauty after her painted limestone bust, currently in Berlin, was unearthed at its sculptor workshop in Amarna in 1912. This amazing discovery was followed ten years later by an even greater discovery, the unspoiled tomb of Tutankhamen, filled with spectacular treasures of gold and jewelry.
The event was hyped by the media with the infamous "Curse of the Mummy", which has been effectively exploited by Hollywood, from "The Mummy" starring Boris Karloff to today's "special effects" versions, all featuring them as fearful reanimated monsters playing on the American fascination for the living dead and on their anxieties about revenge by those they have dominated. Egyptian mummies had been a favorite collector item of Europeans, whose imperial concept of guardians of civilization gave them the "right" to retrieve all kinds of antiquities they could bring back to Europe for museums, research and private collections.
It was to be expected that the new film art form would follow in the previous artistic manifestations of Egyptomania. Two well known spectacular cinematic productions feature ancient Egypt as a lavish civilization of gold palaces, diamond studded dresses and polished marble floors. These are Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956), starring Charlton Heston and Yul Bryneer, and "Cleopatra" (1963), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The movie Stargate and recent versions of The Mummy continue to influence people's fanciful perception of ancient Egypt as an alien powerful force that needs to be tamed by western technological superiority.
Egypt has been branded to American and western culture in advertising, cartoons, products and games. Today, the fascination for Egypt and all things Egyptian still exists. The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas is a contemporary example of the enduring impact of Egyptian imagery. So is the pyramid of glass and steel in front of the Louvre. And many different exhibitions in museums all over the world demonstrate people's continued interest in ancient Egypt.
Category: Ancient Egypt
Despite its many inaccuracies, "The Ten Commandments" does contain some correct interpretations of Ancient Egyptian beliefs, such as the obliteration of a name as the worst punishment for any Egyptian:
"Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time."
Pharaoh Seti also recites a real ancient Egyptian prayer - "I protected the helpless, I nourished the orphan...".
The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the temple facades and the sphinxes are genuine words and not mere decoration.
* Although Rameses II and Seti I were historical figures, Rameses' wife's name was Nefertari, not "Nefretiri", as in the film, and there's no evidence whatsoever that she was a cunning wife infatuated by another man.
* The place of the "Throne Princess" was real, and was designed to ensure legitimacy as well as symbolizing the presence of the Goddess Isis in the royal lineage. Ancient Egyptians traced heritage through the maternal, not the paternal line; the royal line of succession was through the women.
* An Egyptian wall painting was also the source for the lively dance performed by a circle of young women at Seti's birthday gala. Their movements and costumes are based on art from the Tomb of the Sixth Dynasty Grand Vizier Mehu.
* The expression "the son of your body" for a biological offspring is based on inscriptions found in Mehu's tomb.