Egypt in the Western imagination

Egypt in the Western imagination

Egypt in the Western imagination has loomed large from the very first written texts in the Greek and Hebrew traditions. Egypt was already immemorially ancient to outsiders, and the idea of Egypt as a figment of the Western imagination has continued to be at least as influential in the history of ideas as the actual historical Egypt itself. All Egyptian culture was transmitted through the lens of Hellenistic conceptions of it, until the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Champollion in the 1820s.

After Late Antiquity, the Biblical image of Egypt as the land of enslavement for the Hebrews predominated, and "Pharaoh" became a synonym for despotism and oppression.

However, Enlightenment thinking and colonialist explorations in the late 18th century renewed interest in ancient Egypt as both a model for, and the exotic alternative to, Western culture.


Classical texts

Herodotus, in his "Histories", Book II, gives a detailed if over-romantic and imaginative description of ancient Egypt. He praises peasants' preservation of history through oral tradition, and Egyptians' piety. He assumes Egypt to be the birthplace of religion, and Greek religion to be directly descended from it. He lists the many animals that Egypt is home to, including the mythical phoenix and winged serpent, and gives inaccurate descriptions of the hippopotamus and horned viper. Herodotus was quite critical about the stories of the priests (II,123), but successors were more gullible, like Diodorus Siculus who visited Hellenistic Egypt in the first century B.C., where he was told by priests that many famous Greek philosophers had studied in Egypt. Unable to speak Egyptian, and unable to read hieroglyphs, the Greek visitors were eager and uncritical believers of whatever the priests, translators, or guides told them and they were glad to note down that their Greek civilisation descended from an even more ancient one. As time went by, the Egyptians understood better what the Greeks wanted to hear, and the stories became ever more fanciful, and the priests' list of famous Greeks having studied in Egypt became longer. By the time Plutarch writes about Egypt, even Lycurgus - who may have never existed - has visited the place. Both Plutarchus and Diogenes Laertius (3rd century) mention that Thales studied in Egypt, whilst nothing is really known about Thales from his own time - if he ever existed. Iamblichus of Chalcis in the 3rd century AD gets to know that Pythagoras studied in Egypt for 22 years. From the thus evolved classical texts, a mythical Egypt emerges as the mother-country of Religion, Wisdom, Philosophy, and Science.


Egypt is mentioned 611 times in the "Bible", the first time in ] .

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the West lost direct contact with Egypt and its culture. In Medieval Europe, Egypt was depicted primarily in the illustration and interpretation of the biblical accounts. These illustrations were often quite fanciful, as the iconography and style of ancient Egyptian art, architecture and costume were largely unknown in the West. Biblical hermeneutics were primarily theological in nature, and had little to do with historical investigations. Throughout the Middle Ages “mummy,” made by pounding mummified bodies, was a standard product of apothecary shops. [cite web | title =Mummy | publisher ="Encyclopedia Britannica Concise" | url = | accessdate =2007-06-30]

During the Renaissance, the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher gave a fanciful allegorical "decipherment" of hieroglyphs, and Egypt was thought of as a source of ancient mystic or occult wisdom. In alchemist circles, the prestige of "Egyptians" rose. A few smart scholars, however, were not naive: Isaac Casaubon in the 16th century unmasked Corpus Hermeticus of the great Hermes Trismegistus as the work of a Greek writer of around the 4th century.

18th century

The 18th century witnessed the rise of a first authentically historicist imagination, one that attempted to picture the cultures of the distant past as truly different in "kind", not merely in curious detail and superstitious idolatry. Early in the century, Jean Terrasson had written Sethos, a work of fiction, which launched the notion of Egyptian Mysteries. In an atmosphere of antiquarian interest, a sense arose that ancient knowledge was somehow embodied in Egyptian monuments and lore. Following the Rosicrucian example, an Egyptian imagery pervaded the European Freemasonry of the time and its imagery, such as the eye on the pyramid — still depicted on the Great Seal of the United States (1782), which appears on the American dollar bill — and the Egyptian references in Mozart's Masonic-themed "Die Zauberflöte" (The Magic Flute, 1791), and his earlier unfinished "Thamos".

The revival of curiosity about the Antique world, seen through written documents, spurred the publication of a collection of Greek texts that had been assembled in Late Antiquity, which were published as the corpus of works of Hermes Trismegistus. But the broken ruins that appeared in settings of the newly prominent iconic episode of the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" were always of Roman character.

With historicism came the first fictions set in the Egypt of the imagination. Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" had been set partly in Alexandria, but its protagonists were noble and universal, and Shakespeare had not been concerned to evoke local color.

19th century

The culture of Romanticism embraced every exotic locale, and its rise in the popular imagination happened to coincide with Napoleon's failed Egyptian campaign. A modern "Battle of the Nile" could hardly fail to stir renewed curiosity about Egypt beyond the figure of Cleopatra. At virtually the same moment, tarot captured the imagination of the Frenchman Antoine Court de Gebelin, who brought it to European attention, giving it occult and mystical qualities, which could best be expressed by attributing to it the keys to the occult knowledge of Egypt. This all gave rise to the so-called Egyptomania.

The imaginary mythical Egypt came to decay with the decypherment of hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion, published in 1824. Inscriptions which a century before were supposed to contain occult wisdom, disappointedly proved to be kings names and titles, funerary formulae, boasting accounts of military campaigns. The burst of new knowledge about the real Egyptian religion, wisdom, philosophy, exposed the image of mythical Egypt as an illusion created by Greek and Western imagination.

On the most popular 19th-century level, all of ancient Egypt was reduced in the European imagination to the Nile, the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx in a setting of sand, characterized on a more literary level in the English poet Shelley's "Ozymandias" (1818):

round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Egyptian Revival architecture extended the repertory of classical design explored by the Neoclassical movement and widened the decorative vocabulary that could be drawn upon. The well-known Egyptian cult of the dead inspired the Egyptian Revival themes first employed in Highgate Cemetery, near London, which was opened in 1839 by a company founded by the designer-entrepreneur Stephen Geary ((1797-1854); its architectural features, which included a 'Gothic Catacomb' as well as an 'Egyptian Avenue', were brought to public attention once more by James Stevens Curl. [James Stevens Curl, "The Victorian Celebration of Death", 1972, pp. 86-102.]

Ancient Egypt provided the setting for the Italian composer Verdi's stately 1871 opera "Aida", commissioned by the Europeanized Khedive for premiere in Cairo.

In 1895 the Polish writer Bolesław Prus completed his only historical novel, "Pharaoh", a study of mechanisms of political power, described against the backdrop of the fall of the Twentieth Dynasty and the New Kingdom. It is, at the same time, one of the most compelling literary reconstructions of life at every level of ancient Egyptian society. In 1966 the novel was adapted as a Polish feature film. [Christopher Kasparek, "Prus' "Pharaoh": the Creation of a Historical Novel," "The Polish Review", 1994, no. 1, pp. 45-50.]

20th century

In 1912, the discovery of an exquisite painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, unearthed from its sculptor's workshop near the royal city of Amarna, added the first new celebrity of Egypt. The bust, now in Berlin's Egyptian Museum became so famous through the medium of photography that it became the most familiar, most copied work of ancient Egyptian sculpture; Nefertiti's strong-featured profile was a significant influence on the new ideals of feminine beauty of the 20th century.

The 1922 discovery of the unlooted tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun introduced a new celebrity to join Nefertiti — "King Tut". The tomb's spectacular treasures influenced Art-Deco design vocabulary. Also, for many years there persisted rumors, probably tabloid-inspired, of a "curse"; the rumors focused on the alleged premature deaths of some of those who had first entered the tomb. A recent study of journals and death records, however, indicates no statistical difference between the ages at death of those who had entered the tomb and of expedition members who had not; indeed, most of the individuals lived past age 70. The idea of a "mummy's curse" inspired films such as "The Mummy", starring Boris Karloff, which popularized the idea of ancient Egyptian mummies reanimating as monsters. Another literary occurrence at that time of Egypt is Agatha Christie's 1936 mystery novel "Death on the Nile".

The mystification of Egypt took a new start in the context of Afrocentrism. Afrocentrists claim that Egyptians were black, based on ambiguous and sporadic occurrences in literature, and on the fact that Egypt was sometimes called Kemet (meaning the black country). Taking again Herodotus, Diodorus and others literally, and drawing on 18th century Freemasonic imagination, Afrocentrists claimed that the ancient black Egyptians made significant contributions to ancient Greece and Rome during their formative periods. Again, Egypt becomes the mystified cradle of civilisation. But the Egypt they refer to is not the real Egypt as archaeology shows it after Champollion, but it is again the Greek-European Egypt of Mysteries.Sometimes, these theories go together with conspiracy theories where whites supposedly have erased all evidence of the cultural indebtness of Greece to Egypt. It is from this context where every claim can be called true that stories arose such like that Cleopatra was black (she was as Greek as the rest of the Ptolemaic family), or Moses (see Henri Gamache) or that Aristoteles copied all of his work from the Library of Alexandria (which was founded after his death).

Hollywood's Egypt is a major contributor to the Egypt of modern culture. The cinematic spectacle of Egypt climaxed in sequences of Cecil B. deMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and in Jeanne Crain's Nefertiti in the 1961 Italian Cinecittà production of "Queen of the Nile", and collapsed with the failure of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra" (1963). The 1966 Polish film adaptation of Bolesław Prus' novel, "Pharaoh", while spectacular, left something to be desired.

In 1978, Tutankhamun was commemorated in the whimsical song, "King Tut", by American comedian Steve Martin.

A best-selling series of novels by French author and Egyptologist Christian Jacq was inspired by the life of Pharaoh Ramses II ("the Great").

21st century

HBO's miniseries "Rome" features several episodes set in Greco-Roman Egypt. The faithful reconstructions of an "ancient Egyptian" court (as opposed to the historically correct "Hellenistic" culture) were built in Rome's Cinecitta Studios. The series depicts dramatized accounts of the relations among Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIII, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra is played by Lyndsey Marshal, and much of the second season is dedicated to events building up to the famous suicides of Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony in 30 BCE.



*Assmann, Jan, "Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism", Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-674-58738-3.
*Breasted, James Henry, "A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest", with Illustrations and Maps, New York, Bantam Books, 1967.
*Curl, James Stevens, "The Egyptian Revival", revised and enlarged edition, New York, Routledge, 2005, ISBN 0-415-36119-2 (paperback alkaline paper), ISBN 0-415-36118-4 (hardback alkaline paper).
*Herodotus, "The Histories", Newly translated and with an Introduction by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1965.

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