A History of World Egyptology

The Rosetta Stone that proved key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, discovered by a French military engineer in 1799 (now in the British Museum), and the gold mask of Tutankhamun, discovered by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922 (now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum), are generally considered the world’s most-famous objects from ancient Egypt. They also suggest the enduring international nature of Egyptology. This began with the Anglo-French rivalry over the decipherment between Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion in 1814-1823 and the French-Italian collaboration between Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini in their pioneering 1828-1829 expedition to Egypt, which applied the decipherment to tombs and monuments.

A History of World Egyptology, edited by three notable Egyptologists, does justice to Tutankhamun, yet allots curiously little space to the Rosetta Stone, in its nearly 600 densely detailed, large-format pages. Its substantial discussion of Egyptology at the British Museum barely mentions this prime object. Not only is there no illustration of the Stone, but no entry for ‘Rosetta Stone’ appears in the index, nor is there any reference to three leading Rosetta Stone books – by Egyptologists Carol Andrews, Richard Parkinson, and John Ray – in the massive bibliography.

That said, the book has many strengths. First, it is a truly global survey of the development of Egyptology, beginning with Champollion’s appointment as a professor of the subject, in Paris in 1831, and ending in 1976, the date of the first International Congress of Egyptologists in Cairo. Scholars from 18 countries contribute 19 chapters on Egyptology in Egypt, France, the British Isles, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Nordic countries, Prussia and Germany, the Empire of Austria-Hungary and the Republic of Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, Italy, Spain, the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australasia, plus a final chapter on ancient Egypt in the cinema. No previous history has achieved such a geographical spread.

Second, much of it combines scholarship with readability. For example, in their ‘Prehistory of Egyptology’ chapter, the editors describe the European Renaissance fascination with ancient Egypt. ‘Several Eastern and Western authors mention mummy in their medical and apothecarial works; Francis Bacon was a firm believer in the use of mummy as medicine, stating that “mummy hath great force in staunching blood”. King Francis I of France allegedly never went anywhere without a packet of mummy mixed with pulverised rhubarb in case he was attacked or injured’. And on the modern Egyptian political reaction to Egyptology, the ‘Egypt’ chapter notes that the nationalism of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser paradoxically undermined burgeoning Egyptian pride in their ancient civilisation, aroused by the worldwide enthusiasm for Tutankhamun in the 1920s. ‘For a time, the country’s very name was done away with, in favour of the “United Arab Republic”, adopted for the short-lived union between Syria and Egypt (1958-1961), but retained after the two countries parted company. The stress was thus on being an Arab, not on being Egyptian, and the pharaohs suffered somewhat as a result. This only changed in 1970 after Nasser’s death, when pharaonic nationalism once again reasserted itself.’

It is also a valuable biographical reference work – a ‘must’ for specialist libraries. Key Egyptologists, such as Giovanni Belzoni, Carter, Champollion, Carl Richard Lepsius, and Flinders Petrie, are discussed in detail, as expected. But so are far less familiar figures, many of them from countries less known for Egyptology. Indeed, many country chapters end with a detailed list of Egyptological positions in that country from 1831-1976, along with the names and dates of those who have held each position.

But I cannot avoid concluding on another critical note, given the book’s price. The illustrations – all in black and white – are not numerous, nor finely reproduced, nor particularly well chosen. Moreover, the front cover – an 1887 German orientalist painting of the excavation of the Sphinx – is perplexingly repeated on the back cover. Surely the publisher could have afforded a different, recent, back-cover image of Egyptology?

Andrew Robinson, author of Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion.

A History of World Egyptology, Andrew Bednarski, Aidan Dodson, and Salima Ikram (eds), Cambridge University Press, £135, ISBN 978-1107062832.
Review by Andrew Robinson, author of Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion.