By the time the Tutankhamun exhibition closes in San Francisco, it will have been seen by more than eight million people, almost all of whom had to apply for reserved tickets: the potential audience was probably twice as large again. Museum directors and their PR men have in the past decade become experts at what one critic nicely terms “the techniques of hype and hoopla,” the hard sell of cultural packages, from the Chinese show of 1973 to this year’s “Pompeii AD ’79”: not surprisingly, since the windfalls that such happenings generate can be immense, and the “Tut craze” is the biggest money-maker of the lot. The New Orleans Museum of Art, for instance, let it be known that “a minimum of $69.4 million was pumped into the New Orleans economy” in no more than four months, as a direct result of the Tutankhamun exhibition being on view there.1

In The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column for December 25, 1978, there was an interview with Tutankhamun himself (“We found the boy king in the pale pink sitting room of his suite, wearing a Turnbull and Asser djellabah and sipping Perrier”), in which he was asked if his spectacle had a theme, and replied with commendable bluntness: “Yes, it’s about gold, man. Heavy metal.” So it is, and in more ways than one. When Robert Hughes characterized the art world in these pages as “the last refuge for nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism” he was not indulging in idle hyperbole. The Egyptian government alone anticipates making about $7 million out of Tut’s peregrinations in the US and Canada, all earmarked (despite some rumors to the contrary) for revamping the display facilities of the Cairo Museum.

Yet Ahmed Abushadi, press counselor to the Egyptian Embassy, has described the sum as “peanuts,” and is on record2 as saying: “We didn’t bring the show here for the money, or we’d have demanded a fair share of the millions made by cities around the country on it.” It is interesting, too, that a large amount of the cash-flow comes from what has been labeled “Tutsploitation” or the “Tut glut”: Tut beer mugs, T-shirts, tote-bags, stationery, posters, paper dolls, whiskey decanters, and, at a slightly more pretentious level, the replicas of Egyptian artifacts marketed, as an exclusive monopoly, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These range from simple ankh pendants or crook-and-flail pins to a gold-surfaced copy of the exquisite statuette of the goddess Selket, going for $1,850, and unkindly described by Franz Schulze (above, note 1) as “neo-sleazo.” One can argue that museums are putting too much of their efforts into department store salesmanship, but the trend strikes me as comparatively harmless, having the advantage of bringing some attractive historical designs within reach of almost anyone who can appreciate them. No one is forced to buy the other items.

A far more intriguing question is just why a collection of grave goods from the tomb of a minor, and in his own day little esteemed, New Kingdom pharaoh (c. 1343-1325 BC: dates disputed) should have “managed to agitate almost the entire surface of American culture.” 3 Not all the hoopla, obviously, can be put down to clever promotion. You need an intrinsically magnetic commodity to market in the first place. Aside from the stunning artistic quality of the Tutankhamun material perhaps an even more potent factor is the prodigal use of what has always been the rare, royal, and ornamental metal par excellence, lustrous, indestructible, untarnishing, infinitely malleable and ductile, its smooth, soft, almost liquid yellow sheen a never-failing visual and tactile attraction.4

It is no accident, then, that the exhibition catalogue, Treasures of Tutankhamun (1976), the Met’s more elaborate survey, Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures (1976), and two publications sponsored by Newsweek, Treasures of the Egyptian Museum (1969) and The Gold of Tutankhamun (1978)—the latter one of the most sumptuous, well-researched, and exquisitely produced art books to have come my way in years—all blazon the young king’s famous gold-and-lapis mask over their dust jackets, or that they give pride of place, in full seductive color, to the other golden artifacts that cluttered his burial chamber in more-than-royal abundance: statuettes, shrine-panels, daggers, sandals, and, above all, coffin cases, one—the innermost of Tutankhamun’s three—weighing no less than 2,448 pounds of pure beaten 22-carat gold. Two of these volumes even have golden endpapers.

Their cumulative impact is undeniable. The contents of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae—gold masks and daggers there, too—look like provincial Edelkitsch by comparison. An art book such as Egyptian Treasures from the Collections of the Brooklyn Museum (1978), which has only one gold piece to offer—an exquisite fly necklace—and a limited range of other material, some of the highest quality, has, in a sense, been subsidized by the Tutankhamun treasure-trove. So has Robin Cook’s new novel Sphinx, complete with antiquities-smuggling, murder, a sexy female Harvard Egyptologist, and a putative Mummy’s Curse. Among more sensational finds, the Valley of the Kings has also given the world a barrel of romantic clichés, and Mr. Cook has just about scraped its bottom.


The effect is all the more arresting when we reflect that Tutankhamun died young, and that by royal Egyptian standards his burial was (it seems safe to say) a cut-rate and makeshift affair: he had had little time to accumulate heavenly treasure. If his tomb yielded such wealth, what must have gone into those, say, of Chefren, or Amenhotep III, or Rameses II, the victor of Kadesh (1300 BC), the grandiose builder of Karnak and Abu Simbel?5 The depredations of tomb robbers, mostly ancient, who made an almost clean sweep of the royal burials at Thebes, ensure that such a question must remain forever rhetorical (though from tomb paintings and documents we can glimpse something of that lost splendor). There is a nice eschatological paradox here, since the more visibly magnificent preparations an Egyptian made to ensure his own ultimate survival, the more liable he was to have his mummy destroyed—and with it, his chance of life hereafter—by ruthless thieves in pursuit of fabulously rich pickings.

A convicted tomb robber was impaled through the anus; but the long catalogue of rifled burial chambers makes it clear that many felt the enormous rewards more than justified the risk (which was, in any case, much reduced by the systematic bribery and collusion of court officials). Indeed, it is by pure luck that Tutankhamun’s own tomb survived intact. At least two near-successful attempts were made to rifle it soon after the boy-king’s death: the thieves penetrated the antechamber but missed the inner sanctum. Then Rameses VI (d. 1134 BC), excavating his own tomb slightly above and to one side of Tutankhamun’s, blocked the entrance to the latter with rubble, leaving it hidden—and forgotten—for three millennia. The sheer antiquity of this funereal treasure-trove, the dazzling glimpse that its priceless wealth and artistry offered into a lost world of wholly alien power and privilege, and—by no means least—the archaeological drama associated with its recovery from the silent earth: all these factors combined to ensure a powerful, and continuing, public fascination, not only with the relatively minor figure of Tutankhamun, but with the whole enigmatic, yet extraordinarily well-documented, civilization to which he belonged.


Even a cursory acquaintance with the diffuse modern literature on ancient Egypt makes it clear that the so-called “Tut craze” is part of a far wider, and older, phenomenon than mere goldmania or archaeological romanticism, let alone a well-publicized traveling exhibition. Each, of course, has its place in the overall picture: it is symptomatic of that persistent process of exploitation that began with the tomb robbers of the Twentieth Dynasty and has continued almost to our own day, a colorful saga of amateur eccentrics, quirky obsessional scholars, and con men. Sometimes, indeed, we find all three qualities united in the same person—Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1822), the Italian strong man turned collector, is a case in point.6 It was Napoleon’s savants who opened the way for the first scientific Egyptologists, men like Champollion and Mariette, but at the same time they made ancient Egypt fashionable, with horrendous results. What has been well described as “a surge of nationalistic lust for the precious and exotic” (Fagan, p. 361) led to an orgy of looting, a series of treasure hunts thinly disguised as “scientific investigation,” and carried out under the aegis of gunboat diplomacy. Private purchase became a well-organized and corrupt racket, surreptitious excavations and smuggling abroad of important finds were a commonplace. Museums, too, carried on a brisk under-the-counter traffic in stolen antiquities, justifying themselves with the familiar argument that at least they were rescuing priceless material from oblivion.

The excavation of Tutankhamun’s burial in 1922 by Howard Carter becomes more comprehensible when viewed against this louche background: it is entirely appropriate that the latest, and liveliest, account of it—stressing the shady private maneuvers as well as the public success story—should be by none other than Thomas Hoving, ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum, begetter of the Tut exhibition, master publicist, and (as several reviewers have pointed out), an entrepreneur whose own personality strikingly resembles that of his scheming hero Carter (if “hero” is the right word here).

Hoving reveals, inter alia, that Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon privately, and illegally, “cased” the inner chamber before bringing in any official representatives of the Egyptian Antiquities Service; that they were, to say the least, high-handed in their disposal of artifacts (what may be described as “The Affair of the Lotus Head in the Fortnum and Mason Wine Case” is instructive here); and that they had, for some time, been involved in the clandestine sale of Egyptian antiquities to American museums. The minor inaccuracies scattered through Hoving’s text are irksome, but do not invalidate his main point: that such behavior was commonplace rather than anomalous. In obeying, all too literally, the Biblical injunction to spoil the Egyptians, Carter and Carnarvon were simply doing what all their predecessors had taken for granted; indeed, they were far more scrupulous than most. It is sad, but perhaps not surprising, that Carter, a maverick who never learned the art of compromise, was denied in his lifetime the academic recognition he so richly deserved; another minor scandal to add to the rest.7


Archaeological curiosity, then, laced with a dash of romance and scandal, and floated on the Tut revival, may partly—but by no means entirely—account for the current Egyptological craze, and consequent publishing boom. Publishers Weekly recently estimated a total of almost fifty Tut-related titles in print, and—to judge from a personal sampling—I would guess the overall tally to be far larger, much of it, significantly, in paperback. You can find titles (often reprints of works fifty and more years old) on Egyptian temples, archaeology, medicine, civilization, history, daily life, art, chronology, hieroglyphics (and language generally), literature, religion, and magic; a lot of this material is both arcane and technical, including facsimile reproductions that look marvelous and cost the earth. Who buys these books, and why?

At one level the attraction is obvious enough. Both the culture itself and the men who rediscovered it constitute a powerful natural draw for those numerous amateurs who like their past perspectives dramatic and larger than life. The process of rediscovery contains its own special lure. Not all Victorian Egyptologists were mere rapacious treasure hunters, and the development of scientific archaeology on the Nile, in the hands of great pioneers such as Flinders Petrie of University College, London, and J.H. Breasted of the Oriental Institute at Chicago, is in itself as fascinating and romantic a saga as one could hope to find. Today, moreover, refinements of technique are available that would have been beyond even Petrie’s wildest dreams, of which he had quite a few.

Scholars are even ready to bombard the pyramids with cosmic ray muons in search of hidden chambers and galleries: and there can be few more brilliant examples of scientific skills implementing archaeological retrieval than the use of the computer to reconstitute Akhenaton’s totally demolished and dispersed temple to Amun-Re at Karnak by matching up almost 40,000 recycled building blocks (and, incidentally, the reliefs carved on them). In a less spectacular, but no less effective, use of multidisciplinary scientific techniques, contemporary Egyptologists are expanding our hitherto sketchy knowledge of predynastic Egypt into the paleolithic period, far beyond the Badarian and Merimden cultures of 5000-4000 BC.8 Hence the attraction of books such as T.G.H. James’s The Archaeology of Ancient Egypt (London, 1972), an excellent piece of haute vulgarisation done by a first-class scholar for the general public, and primarily concerned, again, with the physical recovery of Egypt’s past.

For anyone like myself, brought up in the classical tradition, where before 750 BC the literary pickings are nil, and even the archaeological evidence (despite showpieces such as Mycenae, Pylos, Cnossos, and Troy) tends to be sporadic, the sheer mass and variety of Egyptian material available from the third and second millennia almost defy belief. It reaches back to the dynasties of the Archaic or Thinite Period (c. 3100-2778 BC). Scholars may debate whether Narmer and Menes (the traditional uniter of Upper and Lower Egypt, the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty) were one and the same man; but we have Narmer’s personal cosmetic palette, and much besides, including ivory gaming sets, inlaid ebony boxes, alabaster vases, copper tools, and some surprisingly realistic portraiture, too soon hereafter to be fixed and stylized.9

Perhaps more important, from the Fifth Dynasty onward, c. 2400 BC, we have a considerable literary record for the Old Kingdom: funerary prayers, autobiographical testaments, royal decrees, the famous “pyramid texts,” other theological and didactic poems.10 When we move on into the Middle and New Kingdoms, the evidence multiplies to a staggering degree. Frescoes, basreliefs, statues, furniture, exquisite objets d’art, elaborate games and toys are reinforced by a wealth of military records, hymns, harpers’ songs, school texts, love lyrics, and prose tales somewhat akin to those in the Arabian Nights.11 Nothing, it’s true, even approaches the creative or intellectual achievements of Greek literature, and the prevailing tone—bureaucratic where not theological—in fact suggests a Near Eastern tradition much closer to the world of the Old Testament or the Hittite and Eblaite archives. But the age of this material alone makes it noteworthy: almost all of it predates the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece (c. 1150 BC).


Thus one most seductive aspect of Egyptian civilization is the vivid and uniquely bountiful manner in which it opens up for our bemused inspection a world as far removed in time from, say, the Rome of Augustus as Augustus’s Rome is from contemporary New York. The sheer hoary antiquity of Egypt was already impressing tourists in Herodotus’ day, when Pharaonic culture was virtually a spent force. The initial appeal, of course, is that unexpected sense of kinship one feels across the centuries with these cheerful, energetic, erotic people, whose religion never got in the way of their leisure, and indeed seems in many ways designed to enhance it. The beer-swilling artisans, the persnickety letter-writers, the elegant ladies, the ambitious bureaucrats and dedicated hunters—all come across (we delude ourselves) as the sort of people we know and whom we could have met.

That there is something factitious about such an attitude Diderot saw during the brouhaha over the first discoveries at Herculaneum. He commented, ironically, on the astonishment generated in an antiquarian, M. Fougeroux, by the fact that these first-century Italians actually used cooking pots and table utensils, just like modern man. (“Que ne s’étonnait-il aussi qu’ils eussent une bouche et un derrière?” he inquired waspishly.) In any case, it very soon becomes apparent that with Egypt the differences far outweigh the similarities; that this was an exotic (not to say freakish) culture, which demands a real effort of the imagination on our part to comprehend: heavily conditioned by its surroundings, rooted in particularities, indifferent to abstractions or theories about the outside world, suspicious of change, an early Shangri-La dedicated, with unswerving hedonism, to the preservation of the status quo up to, and above all beyond, the grave, at whatever cost.

To begin with, the country’s geography and ecology were, and remain, unique.12 From Aswan to the Delta, Egypt’s existence is whole predicted on the Nile and its annual inundation. South of Memphis the country is simply one long narrow oasis, never more than twelve miles wide, between burning desert wastes: an enclave in every sense. Rain is rare, and in Upper Egypt almost unheard-of. The sun beats down daily out of a cloudless sky: Akhenaton’s attempt to create a kind of solar monotheism was logical enough. Control of the Nile—essential for human survival—demanded, and got, centralized, efficient, conservative government. A natural symbiosis grew up between Upper and Lower Egypt, between the red laid of the desert and the rich black soil of the Delta. The predictability of the Nile flood produced a stable agricultural pattern, together with a relatively advanced, but nontheoretical, technology. The existence of the desert meant that Egypt evolved, at least to begin with, in virtual isolation.

The ever-visible, sharply drawn contrast between that narrow, luxuriant, fertile strip and the barren sun-scorched landscape encroaching on it must have given these Nile-dwellers a proto-Manichaean cast of mind. Life must have seemed an oasis, full of brightness, beauty, music, coolness, good food and drink, love, the teeming bird-life of the marshes, color, sensation. Death would be the negation of all this, the parching desert, bare rock, the mirage at noon. We might have expected this to produce a kind of Horatian carpe diem philosophy rather than the complex Egyptian attempt to beat death at its own game: and indeed the trend existed. The famous harper’s song from the Middle Kingdom tomb of King Intef advised men to eat and drink their fill, to make love, to “follow your heart and your happiness,” since death is the irreversible end for all men: you can’t take your good things with you, make the most of them while you’re still here.13 This skepticism regarding both the reality of the afterlife and the effectiveness (for those who hoped to achieve it) of tomb-building—a skepticism shared, we may assume, by generations of tomb robbers if by no one else—came in for some sharp criticism from more orthodox later poets: not surprisingly, since it ran counter to the whole observable pattern of Egyptian belief.

There are two options for the dedicated hedonist. He can accept this life as a one-shot, and squeeze it for all it’s worth, or he can predicate an afterlife that continues, indeed possibly improves, this world’s pleasures, and do all he can to ensure that he makes the transition with as little change to his enjoyable mundane existence as possible. The ancient Egyptians chose, with remarkable thoroughness, the second approach. As has often been pointed out, they weren’t so much possessed by death as obsessed with life, and determined to prolong it, or a semblance of it, in any way open to them. Hence, inter alia, the mummification of corpses: the body must be preserved as nearly as possible as it was before death.

The contrast between the pathetic physical remains of Tutankhamun (the embalmers botched their job) and that magnificent funeral mask, one of the very finest surviving portraits from antiquity, or indeed from any period, is instructive: the true immortality, as some writers were aware even at the time, is that conferred by art. Yet from the age of the pyramid builders on, a seemingly limitless amount of time, money, and skill was expended on the business of projecting this world’s investments into the next: mummification became more elaborate, coffin-texts multiplied, complex ritual was reinforced by posthumous offerings. To an outsider all this must have looked very odd. The afterworld itself was endowed with all the functions of this life, work and sex included. Most of the gods seemed to be animals or birds: Ptolemaic Greeks had a derisive saying, “Like an Egyptian temple, magnificent to look at, and inside a priest singing a hymn to a cat or a crocodile.” Egyptian myths contradicted each other at every turn, and no one cared to rationalize or reconcile them: it was all enough to drive a logical Greek mind to drink.

The Greeks in fact reveal two reactions to Egypt: derision and awe. These have more in common than is generally supposed, being both based upon profound ignorance. There was the potent mystery of the unknown, an awareness of dim and alien antiquity that suggested super-human wisdom, the colossal scale of Karnak or Memphis or the pyramids. There was also that astonishing theocratic conservatism which so appealed to moral authoritarians like Plato, and is most apparent in the visual arts: not only were painting and sculpture (and music, it would appear) wholly subsumed to a didactic-religious function, but for centuries their formal conventions remained fixed and immutable, with a firm ban on innovation of any sort.14 Such absolutism has by no means lost its appeal in some quarters even today: one more element of attraction to add to the rest.

Early Greek mercenaries, on the other hand, made a conscious effort not to be impressed. (No accident, I feel, that those Greeks who succumbed to the lure of Mysterious Egypt always had some pretensions to intellect, whereas the common man remained immune, if not actively contemptuous.) They cut graffiti on the legs of Rameses II’s giant statues at Abu Simbel (“written by Archon son of Amoibichos, and Hatchet son of Nobody”). To the strange outsize creatures and gigantic monuments they saw they gave names designed to scale such conceits down to size. The very word “pyramid” is Greek for a small bun of that shape. An “obelisk” was a kitchen skewer or spit, a “crocodile” a garden lizard. Ostriches they called strouthoi, i.e., “sparrows.” The theriomorphic cults of cat, ibis, or baboon were still attracting derisive comment in Juvenal’s day.

But in earlier times a great deal of this reductionist nomenclature was, I suspect, mere whistling in the dark to keep up one’s courage. For Herodotus, as for many later Greek writers, Egypt remained a place of marvels and magic, and a fertile source of fictional anecdote (e.g., visits supposedly made there, in search of arcane wisdom, by such figures as Solon, Thales, or Pythagoras). Behind the great temples, the sphinxes and pylons and elaborate religious ritual, lay (they were convinced) the immemorial wisdom, and more than human powers, of the mysterious East, expressed in hieroglyphs as potently symbolic, to a Greek eye, as they were incomprehensible. The quasi-occult myth thus generated has proved singularly resistant to progress or knowledge. Since Champollion’s day, after all, scholars have been deciphering the hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts with increasing assurance and accuracy.

Today we have a fair notion, based on extensive literary and iconographic evidence, of what these people knew as well as what they believed; and about the former, at least, there is nothing arcane at all. Their medical records show the same mixture of common sense and sympathetic magic as we find in the Greek tradition a thousand years later. Their mathematical knowledge, far from being ahead of its time, was both primitive and pragmatic—though, as such, adequate to the construction of a pyramid with accurate measurements. They were indifferent astronomers, far inferior in this respect to the Babylonians. They reveal themselves as masters of no lost transcendental philosophy; since they were unacquainted with the zodiacal system even their reputation as astrologers has been overblown. The mystical-sounding Book of the Dead reads in places more like a Baedeker to the underworld than anything else, and its eschatological symbolism, though complex, is amenable to patient analysis.15 No great hidden truths there—and some remarkably silly spells.


Yet over a century of increasing scholarly light in dark places has completely failed to destroy the myth of Egyptian hermetic wisdom. A remarkable succession of occultists, numerologists, Pythagoreans, and the like (satirized memorably by Samuel Butler in Hudibras, and known to Egyptologists, unkindly, as “Pyramidiots”) continues to promote any number of arcane theories, most prominent among them being the notion that the Great Pyramid of Giza was a kind of “gigantic prophecy in stone, built by a group of ancient adepts in magic.”16 What is more, these fantasies command a large and apparently insatiable market. Another profitable element in the current Egyptological boom at once falls into place.

Whatever scientific critics may say—and most of it is pretty scathing—about such professional bagmen of fantasy as Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken,17 there can be no doubt that these popular purveyors of pseudo-science—“paradoxers,” as Carl Sagan calls them—have touched a responsive nerve in the public psyche, and can therefore (like anyone else in that rewarding position) ignore their detractors while laughing all the way to the bank. The putatively transcendental qualities of the Great Pyramid are also big business: one reason, perhaps, why paperbacks on Egyptology tend to wind up in bookstores among titles dealing with such topics as I Ching numerology, Zen, Vedanta, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, or works like Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum. A half-educated age that questions all established beliefs will inevitably create its own crop of synthetic absolutes and instant folk-dogma. These are then sold to the unwary, packaged in a pseudoscientific format that apes the external trappings of scholarship.

It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, and genuine Egyptologists probably have this trend to thank for the republication of many classic works that would otherwise be unobtainable—or, at best, prohibitively expensive. Who would have thought to find Budge’s exemplary interlinear edition and translation of The Book of the Dead—or, even less probably, his invaluable, but highly technical, Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary—available in paperback?18 It would be overoptimistic to deduce from such phenomena a renaissance in formal Egyptological studies. The real give-away is the absence from the paperback lists of Sir Alan Gardiner’s monumental Egyptian Grammar: indispensable for all serious students, it offers nothing to the pseudo-scientific cultists. No; the market for the glossy reprints, it seems clear, lies with the would-be adepts who hope to tap ancient Egypt for anything from hyperkinetic energy to prophetic wisdom: for anything, in fact, rather than the fascinating culture that the scholars have actually unraveled.

The entertaining notion of the Great Pyramid as a predictive code-matrix in stone, to be cracked by enterprising numerologists, got a boost in the nineteenth century from Piazzi Smyth, the then Astronomer Royal for Scotland, whose work on the subject—a masterpiece of misconceived mathematical ingenuity—was, ironically enough, responsible for Petrie’s first youthful investigations at Giza. Brilliant scientists can have the kind of dotty obsessions found in Sir Isaac Newton’s astrological notebooks. The trouble is that their reputations sometimes induce unwary readers to take the nonsense on trust. Mystical mathematics, as Pythagoras and Sir Thomas Browne knew, can be horribly attractive: in such cases reason has no effect. It took Petrie very little time to check, and refute, Smyth’s theories; but as he said afterward, “It is useless to state the real truth of the matter, as it has no effect on those who are subject to this sort of hallucination.” I suspect that there are more of the latter around than one thinks (it would be interesting to inspect the sales figures of those publishers who specially cater to them), and that their hunger for such esoterica constitutes a major factor in the recurrent Tut craze.

Certainly the trade for the converted remains as brisk as ever. The Great Pyramid is still being touted as a “blueprint for human destiny” (the Egyptians, of all people, cared nothing for human destiny apart from their own), while Egyptian culture emerges as (what else?) the heir to Atlantis, another splendid catch-all for dotty speculation; and the notion, unaccountably popular with serious Egyptologists, that the pyramids were simply what their builders claimed them to be, i.e., monumental sepulchres for great pharaohs, is stigmatized by John Anthony West as “crankier than all the fantasizing of the pyramidologists and the UFO freaks.”19 (Here we detect a characteristically modern obtuseness: it’s assumed without question that to channel vast amounts of energy, capital, and ingenuity into such superstitious flummery as tomb-building is the mark of a “primitive” or “barbarian” mentality irreconcilable with the Egyptians’ supposed superior wisdom.) The collateral notion of the pyramids, or pyramidal objects generally, as a source of mysterious energy is also flourishing. Special pyramidally shaped tents are very popular: their inherent forces can be harnessed, one gathers from the literature, to do anything from dehydrate meat to sharpen razor blades (provided the latter are laid along a north-south axis). One adept even claims that half an hour or so in a pyramid converted his cat to vegetarianism.20

So it goes: every generation gets the nonsense it needs and deserves. One merit this material certainly possesses is that of drawing attention to the persistence, irrational optimism, and almost infinite elasticity of human belief. The otherwise sensible authors of Egypt Observed (above, note 12) still cherish the old chimera of a “mummy’s curse” operating out of Tutankhamun’s tomb, even though its prime disturber, Howard Carter, lived on until 1939.


The culture of Egypt was extraordinary enough in sober fact: to credit the Egyptians, in addition, with being the guardians, if not the inventors, of all sorts of hermetic wisdom, arcane science, and prophetic skill merely detracts from what they did do. It is also misleading, since it implies a gift for conceptualizing which was the one thing, notoriously, that the Egyptians lacked, and which constitutes their most fundamental distinction from natural generalizers like the Greeks. Jon Manchip White21 puts the case admirably:

The Egyptians were devotees of the concrete object: they did not traffic in speculations or abstractions. They were not metaphysicians but practical men. Just as they failed to appreciate the fundamental principles underlying their building, engineering, mathematics, astronomy, or medicine, so they failed to interest themselves in the principles and possibilities of hieroglyphic writing. It would hardly be going too far to say that the ancient Egyptian dreaded theorizing and abstract thinking. He felt at home only with what he could experience with his five senses. Even his attitude to so nebulous an experience as death or survival after death was practical and positive. It is therefore not surprising that the Egyptian language contains no words of a truly abstract nature.

It is easy to forget that Egypt’s omnipresent bureaucracy got on very well without a coinage: that surviving Egyptian literature contains nothing identifiable, in our terms, as philosophy, hermetic or otherwise. The proliferation of irreconcilable Egyptian myths (which bothered no one in Egypt) strongly suggests the pre-Hesiodic localism of Greece before rationalizing intellectuals got at it. The quarrelling of the Egyptian gods (e.g., over the struggle between Horus and Set) makes Homer’s Olympus look a model of genteel decorum by comparison. Horus at one point decapitates his mother Isis in a fit of pique, a fact eventually noticed by Ra: “Who is this headless woman?” he inquires. Even Ares and Aphrodite manage a little better than that. No wonder that Akhenaton’s aberrant excursion (as his successors saw it) into monotheism and realistic art provoked so violent a reaction: both are symptoms of a nascent capacity, and inclination, for independent intellectual thought.

The natural focus of Egyptian civilization (as the Akhenaton case forcibly reminds us) was not intellectual but theological, indeed theocentric. The power inherent in the god-king achieved its peak of faith during the Old Kingdom (2778-2300 BC), a faith that built pyramids not only as a memorial of great rulers, but as a “palace of eternity” for the occupant. A spell on the wall of one Fifth Dynasty pyramid declares: “A staircase to heaven is laid for Pharaoh, that he may ascend to heaven thereby”—an interesting gloss on Zoser’s early Step Pyramid. The diorite statue of Chefren (Fourth Dynasty, c. 2580 BC) from Giza reveals this consciousness of absolute divine power in all its unquestioning majesty.

Originally, it was believed, only Pharaoh made the crucial transition to a life hereafter. However, as time went on, and the aristocracy multiplied, and something resembling a middle class of craftsmen and scribes and other officials developed, eligibility for eternal life soon became general. Pharaoh’s own position, though as autocratic and theophanic as ever, grew increasingly politicized by a series of historical conflicts, including periods of anarchy and foreign rule, such as that of the “shepherd kings,” the Hyksos (c. 1730 to c. 1580 BC). Yet despite such inroads of temporal interest, throughout Egyptian history almost all the surviving monuments and writings—the pyramids, the huge temples, the tomb paintings, the jewelry, the literature, whether imaginative or didactic—were designed for one single, dominant, all-obsessional purpose: to ensure that the dead continued to enjoy, in a paradise as like their previous existence as possible, all the amenities and pleasures of this world.

It is entirely typical of the Egyptians that, having once opened up a potential afterlife to anyone who could afford the necessary preparations—mummification, elaborate ritual, coffin-texts,22 and so on—they seem to have applied only the most perfunctory moral sanctions to the actual business of admission. True, there was what the Greeks called a psychostasia, at which the dead man’s soul or heart was weighed against the feather of truth, maat, with a hybrid monster known as the Devourer ready to put away anyone who failed the test: but there is no evidence to suggest that in fact anyone did fail it, or that hellfire was feared in the Nile Valley. A written profession of innocence was an adequate substitute for the thing itself: bureaucracy triumphed even in death. No other culture—except perhaps our own23—seems to have manifested so intense, persistent, and sensuous an addiction to the simple fact of being alive. The most common Egyptian prayer for the departed is “bread, beer, and prosperity.”

How many people got the pleasure? If we visualize ancient Egyptian society (appropriately enough) as a pyramid, how far down did the privileges extend? Further, certainly, as time went on: after the revolutionary upheavals of the First Intermediate Period (2300-2065 BC) the peasantry got at least an embryonic bill of rights, while the easygoing Egyptian temperament shielded workers from the grosser forms of exploitation. The myth of pyramid workers driven on under the lash, reinforced in recent times by Goldwyn and De Mille, has no evidence to support it: during the months of inundation peasants were only too glad of public employment. It remains true, nevertheless, that then, as in later ages, Egypt was essentially a monolithic two-class society, with the aristocracy, the priesthood, the court bureaucracy, and some skilled functionaries forming a de facto elite, and the fellahin a toiling invisible majority, about whose lives and feelings we know very little.

The afterlife was a privilege that came expensive, a club with an enormous entrance fee. In one of his most haunting poems Louis MacNeice made Charon the ferryman say: “If you want to die you will have to pay for it.” No elaborate burial awaited the peasant, but a shallow pit in the hot sand—and, thus, natural mummification at no cost. Perhaps this was how the practice originated. The little ushabti figures in the graves of the rich, “answerers” who substituted for the dead man when he was called upon to do menial work in the hereafter, are socially eloquent: we know the faceless underlings who gave such a notion currency. For the ambitious a certain upward mobility was possible. Be a scribe, boys are advised again and again. You will not be like a hired ox. You are in front of others. Apparatchiks are familiar not only in Egypt: any strong bureaucracy offers them rich soil in which to flourish.

Perhaps what fascinates most today about Egyptian civilization is, paradoxically, its static self-assurance. To an age of transient governments and crumbling creeds it presents the spectacle of vast energy, faith, and virtually limitless resources harnessed, for almost three millennia, to a unique, unswerving vision of immortality and the good life. Further, what Eliot called the “strong brown god” outlasts creeds and dynasties. Nothing can change the rhythms of the life-giving Nile, though ingenuity continues, as always, to exploit and conserve its gifts. The great pharaohs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, who believed that bigger was better, and embodied that belief in memorable achievements, would surely have approved the building of the Aswan High Dam (however cogently experts argued it was irrational, as they did). Islamic Egypt is Egypt still: Nasser’s funeral has a place beside Tutankhamun’s, and we sense the continuum between them. When the last cache of pharaohs’ mummies was shipped downriver to Cairo by the archaeologists, the banks of the Nile were lined with wailing women, and men fired off their rifles in salute.

By emphasizing this sense of continuity, recent well-illustrated general surveys of Egypt24 serve a useful purpose. Photographs of mosques, minarets, potters’ kilns, souks, feluccas, desert tanks, and the crowded polyglot streets of Cairo and Alexandria are interleaved with those of grave goods, temples, and hieroglyphs. Sometimes a modern picture, e.g., threshing spice crops, will gloss an ancient one—it is Egyptian tomb-paintings, characteristically, that give us our fullest record of ancient daily life—stressing the changeless quality of Nilotic culture. “To subsist in bones,” sniffed Sir Thomas Browne, “and to be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration,” thus brushing aside the monolithic faith that could—and did—move mountains, and boasted a longer run for its money than Christianity has yet notched up. Here, surely, is the key to the current—and perennial—obsession with Egypt of the pharaohs. Nothing, in the last resort, not even gold, is more insidious than unshakable belief.

This Issue

October 11, 1979