By Jason Thompson
The American University in Cairo Press (2015) h/b 359pp £24.95 (ISBN 9789774165993)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Egyptology is: ‘The study of Egyptian antiquities, of the ancient Egyptian language and history.’ But the question is: when did this study start? What we refer to today as ‘Ancient Egypt’ lasted for nearly three thousand years, and the Egyptians themselves studied what their predecessors had done. The fourth son of Ramesses II, Khaemwaset, c.1260 BCE, has been called the ‘first Egyptologist’.
The idea that the Egyptians were extremely learned continued throughout Greek, Roman, Islamic, Renaissance and Enlightenment times, with many writers struggling to understand hieroglyphs. The mysterious figure of Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly a priest at the time of Moses, appears in the works of many authors.
Egyptology as we understand it today may be said to have started after the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon, when his savants travelled the country. They recorded in great detail many of the ancient sites in the magnificent volumes of Description de l’Egypte. Champollion, Auguste Marriet, Richard Lepsius, Amelia Edwards and Flinders Petrie, to name just a few, all played a part in the rediscovery and investigations of the amazing Ancient Egyptian civilisation.
The history of the development of Egyptology is a massive undertaking, and this is probably why it has not been attempted before. T. is to be applauded for rising to the challenge. This book is the first of three and covers the period from ‘antiquity’ up to 1881, the year of the death of Marriet. There are extensive notes (16 pages) and an even longer bibliography (30 pages). These give ample opportunity for readers to investigate further in any area of interest to them.
This book would be of interest to a general reader as well as somebody with an Egyptology background. T. gives due credit to all the people involved over the years in the development of Egyptology, but when necessary he does not omit criticism of peoples’ attitudes or actions. It contains some fascinating facts: for example, Pope Alexander VI thought that the Borgia family could be descended from the Egyptian god, Osiris, while Pope Paul III wanted Michelangelo to move the Vatican Obelisk because it was thought to contain the remains of St Peter.
I look forward to the publication of the two further volumes in the near future.
Olive Hogg—North East Ancient Egypt Society