‘To the Past we must go as a relief from To-day’s harshness,’ the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall wrote in 1923, as illustrated newspapers were bringing Tutankhamun back to life. The First World War was over, but its aftershocks rippled on. Golden treasure, a boy pharaoh and lost tombs in the Valley of the Kings offered readers an escape. The inscrutable Orient and its discovery by the West made for a familiar storyline – a myth to meet the needs of empire, which endured as empires fell.
Like his one-time colleague Howard Carter, Weigall was a child when Britain invaded Egypt in 1882. But unlike Carter, who kept on digging through the First World War, Weigall had given up archaeology for a writer’s life in England. He produced books on ancient Egypt, a few adventure novels and a film column for the Daily Mail, and had a sideline as a set designer. Perhaps Egyptology equips people to create illusions. If Toby Wilkinson’s new book, A World beneath the Sands, is anything to go by, some Egyptologists operate under quite a large one: that the history of their field is something to celebrate rather than scrutinise. The drama plays out against palm trees, pyramids and Nile boats, with top billing for white European men. A few Americans and Englishwomen take minor roles; Egyptians are somewhere in the wings.
Egyptians ‘care not one jot for their history’, Weigall told his readers, and almost a century on, Wilkinson takes it as given that West is best; to understand and value ancient Egypt, he believes, is a European gift. ‘Our fascination’ with ‘Oriental civilisations’ stirred Egypt’s political self-awareness ‘for good and for ill’, his book begins. Passive Egypt offered ‘only minor resistance’ to invasion and occupation, he claims, until 1952, when revolution placed its antiquities in Egyptian hands – ‘for better or worse’. This is inaccurate as well as reactionary. Words like ‘oriental’ and ‘native’ (which are used throughout the book) are both dated and revealing. Egyptian resistance took many forms, and the country wasn’t handed independence, but won it in the face of censorship, martial law, and the imprisonment and exile of many of its leaders.
Most histories of Egyptology begin in earnest in July 1798, with the arrival at Alexandria of the French fleet and 36,000 troops under Napoleon’s command. France wanted a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean to stem the flow of India’s riches to Britain. It was a military expedition with cultural ambitions. Napoleon let no one forget that he was following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. A Commission on Sciences and Arts accompanied his troops: a corps of 151 savants, few of them out of their twenties. There were surveyors, engineers, mathematicians, printers, shipbuilders, architects, physicists, mineralogists, medics, a few naturalists and three gunpowder makers. Egypt was to be prospected for its future usefulness to France. While the study of Egyptian antiquity was not the expedition’s primary aim, it became its tangible legacy in the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopedia that took twenty years and a new engraving technique to produce.
As the historian Juan Cole (not cited by Wilkinson) has shown, Arabic sources and the diaries of French soldiers undermine the triumphalism of both Napoleon’s initial victories and his eventual defeat by a British-Ottoman alliance. Under the terms of the French surrender, the savants were allowed to keep their notes and drawings, but the British seized a collection of antiquities destined for the Louvre – including a stone slab found at Rashid (or Rosetta) in the Delta, whose three inscriptions were already seen as a potential key to reading hieroglyphs. Words were added to the sides of the slab when it reached London: ‘Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801’ and ‘Presented by King George III’.
On 27 September 1822, Jean-François Champollion wrote his Lettre à M. Dacier, presenting to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres his system for reading Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, derived from the Rosetta Stone. He finally set foot in Egypt in 1828, on an expedition sponsored by the Duke of Tuscany, and felt ‘as if he had come home’. His ‘swarthy complexion and excellent Arabic meant that he could easily pass for a native’, Wilkinson writes, echoing Champollion’s own claim to have ‘adopted the manners and customs of the country’. ‘The Europeans have already concluded that I look like a Copt,’ Champollion wrote.
Champollion was one of several European men who made their way to Egypt in the early 19th century convinced that it was, somehow, their home. Johann Burckhardt, William Thomson (known as Osman effendi), John Gardner Wilkinson, Robert Hay and Edward Lane also ‘went native’ on their travels. Like Champollion, they aped the robes and turbans of the Ottoman ruling class, browned their skin, and made a show of living in ‘Oriental’ style. Hay, Burton and Gardner Wilkinson took their sex lives native, too. Gardner Wilkinson had so many sexual partners on tap that he happily shared ‘his houses, his interests and his women’ with like-minded travellers. Hay and Burton bought partners at the slave auctions of Cairo, where a white-skinned Balkan woman cost considerably more than ‘a black-skinned Abyssinian’. In recounting such exploits, Wilkinson doesn’t burden readers with context or analysis.
Antiquities attracted buyers, too. By the 1830s, the museums of London, Paris, Leiden and Turin had fine Egyptian collections, formed with the help of consular connections in the country. Any traveller worth his turban brought statues, papyri, amulets, coffins and mummies back to Europe. The wali (‘guardian’) of Egypt, Albanian-born Muhammad Ali, moved to limit this trade in 1835 with the first antiquities law in Ottoman territory; it predates the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in Britain by almost fifty years. The edict banned the export of antiquities and established a museum for the wali’s personal collection, the Antiqakhana, overseen by the influential scholar and reformer Rifa’a al-Tahtawi. Educated at al-Azhar and in Paris, al-Tahtawi was influential in presenting the country’s ancient history in textbooks used by generations of 19th-century Egyptian children (he is also one of the few Egyptians mentioned in Wilkinson’s book, although only in passing).
Muhammad Ali lifted the export ban, however, to let Richard Lepsius ship antiquities to Berlin. The head of a Prussian expedition that retraced the savants’ steps in the 1840s, Lepsius made his first visit to the pyramids on 15 October 1842, Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s birthday. On the pyramid of Khufu, his team unfurled the Prussian flag, sang a royal hymn, and set up a brightly painted hieroglyphic paean Lepsius had composed in the king’s honour. Lepsius also wrote an ode to Champollion (they shared a birthday), but that was only in German.
To Muhammad Ali, and the dynasty he founded, largesse and tolerance towards foreign visitors made diplomatic sense. For decades he sought European expertise to expand Egypt’s military, agricultural and industrial capacity. The French ministry of war trained Egyptian officers; when they applied what they had learned at home, Europeans denounced the wali as a despot. Egypt was somehow supposed to do what Europe couldn’t: modernise without becoming modern. When Muhammad Ali built several saltpetre factories to manufacture gunpowder, his reuse of ancient temple blocks caused outrage. He was a threat not only to his overtaxed and oppressed people but, worse, to Egyptian antiquities.
In An Appeal to the Antiquaries of Europe on the Destruction of the Monuments of Egypt (1841), America’s vice-consul in Cairo, George Gliddon, blamed Muhammad Ali for the wanton neglect and devastation of ancient sites, and urged Western powers to intervene to assure their preservation. Gliddon’s concerns didn’t stop him shipping mummies’ heads to Philadelphia, where Samuel Morton was devising his theories of racial difference based on cranial shape and size. His books Crania Americana (1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844) laid the groundwork for scientific racism in America. Gliddon and the Alabama slave-owner Josiah Nott honoured Morton’s memory in Types of Mankind, an apologia for slavery that went into eight reprintings (Wilkinson doesn’t mention any of this). Using ancient art, chimpanzees and, of course, the mummies’ skulls, it argued that the ancient Egyptians were light-skinned Caucasians and black Africans their slaves. Gliddon’s Appeal had praised Champollion ‘for delivering antiquities “out of the house of bondage”’ – that is, Muhammad Ali’s Egypt. Human beings in actual bondage mattered less.
During the American Civil War, a Union naval blockade kept Southern cotton, grown on slave plantations, from reaching English mills. Deprived of their American supply, the British turned to Egypt. The ensuing cotton boom coincided with the construction of the Suez Canal. French influence still held sway. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who oversaw the project, had known Muhammad Ali’s son, Said Pasha, who governed Egypt from 1854 to 1863, since their youth (de Lesseps’s father was a diplomat in Egypt and Tunisia).
Said, like most of Muhammad Ali’s successors, was firmly Francophone and outward-looking. His predecessor (and nephew), Abbas I, was not. In 1850, the Louvre had sent a minor curator, Auguste Mariette, to Egypt to buy papyri. Finding few for sale, he turned to illicit digging. In the desert west of Cairo, where Strabo had described the sphinx-lined alley of the Serapeum temple, Mariette found first one leonine figure, then two, then hundreds in a row. In the dead of night, Egyptian workmen lowered him underground. He was right: they had found the burial place of the sacred Apis bulls. In secret, Mariette crated up antiquities for export back to France, fobbing off fakes on the inspectors sent to watch him. Abbas was furious at Mariette’s dishonesty (Wilkinson calls him ‘wily’ and ‘brazen’), but French diplomats convinced him to regularise the status of Mariette’s activities. In the meantime, some 230 boxes reached the Louvre – among them, a wooden statue of a scribe with lifelike inlaid eyes, the famous Scribe accroupi.
Though ‘archaeology’ is often represented in books like Wilkinson’s as if it were a science that emerged fully formed in the Enlightenment, both the word and the concept only entered common use in the mid-19th century. To excavate was to dig around, rummaging for the remains of the ancient past. Shared methods and professional standards were decades away, and ethical standards further still. Mariette was well rewarded for his thefts after Said Pasha replaced the murdered Abbas. Said established a Service des Antiquités in 1858, with Mariette at its head, and a renewed state collection was planned for Cairo. This was, Mariette wrote, ‘like taking possession of Egypt for the cause of science’. With a government boat at his disposal, and the power to call up corvée labour, Mariette set thousands of men digging throughout the Nile Valley. This time, what was found didn’t go to the Louvre, but to a museum in Cairo’s Bulaq (‘beau lac’) district. Mariette brought his family from France to join him in the director’s residence next door.
Mariette’s successes mirrored Egypt’s in the 1860s, under the ambitious reign of Ismail Pasha. Awarded the title khedive by the Sublime Porte, Ismail had Cairo rebuilt in Parisian fashion and his family dressed to match. The opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 was his triumph, but the lavish ceremonies masked the fact that Egypt, strapped for cash, had been forced to give up land and navigation rights in return for European loans to finish the work. Foreign-led modernisation projects for the railway and the army were expensive. In the 1870s, Ismail sold his canal shares to Britain to try to stave off other creditors. Britain and France took over Egypt’s finances and had the Ottoman sultan remove Ismail from power in favour of his son Tewfik.
Resistance was immediate, fuelled by repeated humiliations, from the tax-free privileges enjoyed by foreigners to European interference in national affairs. Colonel Ahmed Urabi spearheaded an uprising against Tewfik’s puppet state, centring on issues of Egyptian identity, self-determination and rights under khedival rule. At the Bulaq Museum, Mariette squashed a German colleague’s efforts to educate Egyptian students about their past. The students were effendiya, a middle class already fluent in European languages and manners, but Mariette did not think them capable or worthy of the training. Donald Malcolm Reid’s analysis of his exclusionary tactics seems ‘unfair’ to Wilkinson, but the stalled career of the Egyptologist Ahmed Kamal – who scraped a living as a German teacher for many years – speaks to squandered potential and frustrated lives. Justice was slow and symbolic: in the 1950s, a bust of Kamal was added to Mariette’s grandiose burial monument, which now stands outside the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo.
After Mariette died in 1881, and was buried with state honours, another Frenchman took his place: the polished and pragmatic Gaston Maspero. Maspero’s first months in office brought a spectacular find. In a clifftop tomb at Deir el-Bahri, near the Valley of the Kings, two dozen royal mummies of the New Kingdom – including Ramses the Great – had been reburied for safety in antiquity. A local family, the Abdel Rassuls, found the tomb and sold royal jewellery and papyri to the Luxor dealers frequented by Western tourists and Egyptologists. Maspero had the provincial governor – a Urabi supporter, as it happens – bring in one of the Abdel Rassuls for questioning, but the authorities failed to beat a confession out of him. When another family member turned informer, Maspero’s men (including, at last, Kamal as a trusted employee of the museum) swept in to empty the tomb in just two days.
According to Maspero, as the government steamer carried the kings downstream to Cairo, local women lined the riverbanks in mourning. Egyptians were allowed access to their past only if they remained part of it, and Egyptian voices, when they appear in The World beneath the Sands, are usually heard at second or third hand through Western writers. Someone Wilkinson often quotes is Lucie Duff Gordon, a health tourist who lived at Luxor in the 1860s. Her solicitude for her adopted country reaches us through the usual Orientalising lens of faithful ‘native’ servants and peasants who look like paintings in the ancient tombs. She wrote to her family in England that an Egyptian of her acquaintance was praying for European rule, but Duff Gordon did not live to see her unnamed interlocutor get his alleged wish.
That moment came in 1882, none too soon for another Englishwoman who had fallen under Egypt’s exotic spell. Amelia Edwards (Wilkinson calls her ‘Amy’) was already a successful writer when her travel memoir, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, appeared in 1877. Financially independent and well connected, Edwards set up the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) in March 1882, to sponsor British-led archaeology in Egypt. A few months later, the British fleet bombarded Alexandria after anti-European riots in the city. A land invasion followed, securing the canal and slaughtering Urabi’s troops; he was put on trial and exiled to Ceylon. The British government, led by William Gladstone, faced the problem of what to do with its new possession, which was still an Ottoman territory. The solution was ‘rule by stealth’, under the heavy hand of Evelyn Baring, later earl of Cromer, whose 24-year period in charge remains a byword for cruelty in Egypt. What’s more, he was a Classics man, and had no interest in pharaonic antiquity.
In London, however, members of the EEF and the Society for the Preservation of the Monuments of Ancient Egypt (headed by the artist Edward Poynter) pressed Cromer to take control of the Antiquities Service from the French. Pragmatism and compromise won out. Maspero welcomed British and other foreign excavators, and offered a generous division of whatever artefacts they found. Amelia Edwards’s protégé, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, leveraged this into a worldwide system of subscriber-based support, with the result that artefacts from Petrie’s excavations can today be found in 26 countries across five continents. A museum, school or individual gave a sum of money towards a season of work, and received a corresponding quantity, and quality, of antiquities in return.
Petrie had first gone to Egypt to survey Khufu’s pyramid at Giza, inspired by the astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth, who believed that the pyramid would prove to have a perimeter of 36,524 ‘pyramid inches’ (a pyramid inch was 1/25th of a ‘sacred cubit’, a supposed ancient unit of measurement invented by Isaac Newton). Smyth’s pyramid inch fell short, but Petrie liked the life that fieldwork offered. He played up to its hardships through his long career, to the torment of younger men who trained with him: Howard Carter had to build his own brick living quarters, and T.E. Lawrence never forgot the rats. Combining local expertise and labour with his own (he counted on a man named Ali Gabri to help run his early digs), Petrie dominated archaeology in Egypt for almost forty years, shaping what it meant to excavate, record and interpret the material traces of the past. Edwards supported him even after he left the fund to strike out on his own. She left money and her collection of antiquities to University College London, which made Petrie the first holder of the Edwards Chair in Egyptology.
Petrie changed archaeology with his Victorian eye for manufacturing techniques and craft, lending significance to objects that had been overlooked, like pottery and textiles. He had a Victorian racism as well, which Wilkinson glides over. Not only did he attribute prehistory in Egypt to a ‘new race’ arriving from the north to invigorate the sluggish south, but he also continued the habit of feeding mummies to the endless appetites of racial science. His wife, Hilda, was content to sleep with eighty skulls around the bed, all destined for London, where their measurements would be added to the imperial archive of presumed white superiority. Petrie’s closest friend and colleague at UCL was Francis Galton, the ‘father’ of eugenics.
His rascally contemporary Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge went from Cambridge to the British Museum, where he rose to be keeper of Egyptian antiquities. Budge’s background was as murky as his methods for acquiring antiquities. Without a father who could be publicly identified, Budge used his mother’s surname. Wilkinson notes, as others have, the unusual interest that Gladstone took in his education. To keep the British Museum’s collection cutting edge, Budge made several trips to Egypt, described in a memoir published in 1920 near the end of his career. Budge was a man of ‘red-blooded confidence’, Wilkinson says, quoting a description of the Giza pyramids as ‘a pair of twin breasts against the red light of the western sun’. He wrote in tabloid headlines, and there is much duping of the French, the ‘natives’ and even Cromer to get antiquities to England, ‘a place of safety where they could be properly conserved and studied’. Officials tried to enforce Egyptian law, but Budge felt himself above it. He smuggled sheets of papyrus between glass photographic plates, dug tunnels to avoid the Antiquities Service’s guards, and bragged of bribing customs and police officials. In this way the British Museum increased its Egyptian holdings, acquiring such star pieces as the Papyrus of Ani. Wilkinson acknowledges that Budge’s reputation among his peers was ‘decidedly mixed’ but offers no judgment, unless you count the book’s dedication, ‘with deepest gratitude’, to Budge’s memory. Budge endowed two funds for Egyptology, one at Cambridge and one at Oxford.
If Champollion’s deciphering of hieroglyphs in 1822 marked the beginning of Egyptology’s golden age, 1922 brought its end. That February, Britain broke off talks with Egyptian representatives trying to secure the country’s independence. It imposed a halfway house: Egypt could oversee its own domestic affairs (with British advisers in every ministry), but foreign relations, the Suez Canal and the Sudan stayed firmly in the empire’s hands.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter set up the final act. Carter and Lord Carnarvon assumed that a proportion of the treasure would be theirs, to share with colleagues at the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had not occurred to them that Egyptians might think otherwise. The director of the Antiquities Service – still a Frenchman, Pierre Lacau – considered the tomb of such significance that, under the terms of the excavation permit, the finds should stay in Egypt, though the final decision took several years (contra Wilkinson). In 1930, the Egyptian government paid Carnarvon’s widow £36,000 to recompense her for the excavation costs, buying its national treasure free and clear.
During the first two winters of work at Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter, Lacau and the Egyptian government clashed over access and control. Before his death in 1923, Carnarvon had sold exclusive rights to the Times, angering rival papers and the Egyptian press. Carter, meanwhile, welcomed minor royalty, European socialites and British officials to the tomb, but bristled at Egyptian visitors sent by the ministry. He looked to the British high commissioner for help, but Lord Allenby – of Megiddo, for his service in the First World War – could not intervene in the delicate relationship between Egypt and its erstwhile master. Wilkinson misrepresents what happened next: in February 1924, the Antiquities Service withdrew permission for Carter to work at the tomb, but only after he had downed tools and declared himself on strike. Egypt’s new prime minister, the returned exile Sa’ad Zaghloul, turned Carter’s claim to be a man of science against him: what kind of scientist locked a tomb that was not his?
After Britain forced Zaghloul from power (payback for the assassination of General Stack in Cairo in November 1924), cooler heads let Carter return to work. But foreign archaeologists sensed a change, and some institutions shifted their focus from excavating to recording tombs and temples. Petrie headed for the more sympathetic ground of British Mandate Palestine, whose architect, Arthur Balfour, had once used Egyptology to justify British dominance in Egypt: ‘We know the civilisation of Egypt better than we know the civilisation of any other country; we know it further back; we know it more intimately,’ he told the House of Commons in 1910. It was an intimacy Egypt would reject. The final curtain fell in July 1952, when revolution put an end to the French command of antiquities and closed all British military bases outside the Canal Zone. Gamal Abdel Nasser had the vast Qasr el-Nil barracks, opposite the Egyptian Museum, razed to the ground, and Midan Ismailiya became Tahrir (‘Liberation’) Square.