“Egyptomania,” the lavish exhibit sponsored jointly by the Louvre, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, and held last year, had the benefit of an equally sumptuous catalog. This was the first show devoted to the modern fascination with ancient Egypt, and it was inevitably selective. It scrupulously included an early round of King Tut mania in the 1920s, but not its reprise fifty years later. It displayed Theda Bara’s Cleopatra, but not Elizabeth Taylor’s, and, perhaps deliberately, avoided mentioning all the blockbuster exhibits initiated by the second apotheosis of King Tut in the 1970s.1

Instead, this Egyptomania exhibition and its catalog seem to begin from the defensible premise that splashy shows and the popular response to them can be fun, even silly on occasion, and yet still impart something substantial. Indeed for those who missed the show, the catalog is one of the most stimulating books on the Egyptian legacy yet to appear. “Egyptomania” itself is not a new term; it was coined several generations ago in an attempt to capture the peculiar kind of magic the land of the pharaohs has continued to cast on the rest of the world—for the rest of the world does seem, virtually without exception, to be mad for Egypt. The immense, colorful catalog is as packed with treasures as Tut’s tomb, and like that tomb provides a hodgepodge of delights.

The catalog’s starting point of 1730 serves notice that its purview reaches back well before the Napoleonic era, to a time when most Europeans’ visual impressions of Egypt came not from Africa but from Rome, a city that had maintained close connections with Egypt long before an unfurled Alexandrian carpet deposited eighteen-year-old Cleopatra at the feet of Julius Caesar.2 In 31 BC, the naval forces of Cleopatra and Marc Antony turned tail off the peninsula of Actium in western Greece, and the kingdom of Egypt went to their adversary, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, soon to be titled “Augustus” by a decree of the Roman Senate.

The victory of Actium and the annexation of Egypt played into the Romans’ sensibilities on many levels. The naval battle signaled the end of a viciously long-drawn-out civil war as well as the spread of the Roman Empire; for some classes of society, like the well-to-do freedmen who had outfitted many of the victorious galleys, it was also a sign of their own emerging importance as participants in civic life. 3 And although Egypt itself was administered as if it were Augustus’ personal possession, many Romans felt their own personal tie to the Nile through the Egyptian cult of Isis, which had already enjoyed a solid foothold in Italy for a century, including the grand temple to Isis constructed in Rome.4

Civic salvation and personal salvation promised to come to Rome hand in hand out of Africa, and this may be why, in a burst of post-Actium patriotism, a Roman praetor named Caius Cestius decided, circa 12 BC, to be buried in a marble-veneer pyramid just outside the city’s Ostian Gate. By comparison with the pyramids of Giza, the pyramid of Cestius is a steepsided miniature, but this is the pyramid that would serve as a model for classically inspired artists like Mantegna, Raphael, Poussin, and Canova when they wanted to evoke Egyptian themes in their works.5

It was Augustus, too, who imported an Egyptian obelisk to serve as the gnomon for his gigantic outdoor sundial, the Horologium Augusti, thus starting a tradition that carried over into Mussolini’s day. Every Imperial race track of any consequence sported an Egyptian obelisk, but only one obelisk survived erect through the Middle Ages, a smooth-faced red granite needle imported by Caligula and subsequently planted in the Circus of Nero. Here, after the great fire of 64 AD, Nero decided to interrupt three days of chariot races with the spectacle of crucified Christians, Saint Peter allegedly among them. The obelisk stayed in place when the circus was razed to the ground in the fourth century AD to be replaced by Saint Peter’s basilica, saved by its mute witness to Peter’s martyrdom and its connection to the land that had nurtured the patriarchs Moses and Joseph (as well as by the daunting task of engineering presented by its removal). By the end of the Middle Ages, the bronze ball at its summit was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar.6

The Isis temple in Rome boasted Egyptian columns and innumerable sculptures, many of which were excavated from the ruined temple precinct throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Immense matching marble statues of Father Tiber and Father Nile, the latter much clambered upon by swarms of tiny cupids (they personify the cubits by which the Nile’s rise and fall were measured), now lounge indolently in the Louvre and the Vatican museums respectively.7 A bust of Isis from the same precinct, also in the Vatican, looks vaguely like a colossal, veiled Barbie, sprouting a lotus blossom from the crown of her head. Thirty feet above the block-long Roman side street called the Via della Gatta, one of the goddess’s marble cats, exactly life-size, scowls from a cornice, more or less as she did millennia ago. The Isis precinct also yielded up sleek Egyptian lions, later outfitted with tubing to spit water at strategic points in the Baroque Roman cityscape.


Not far outside Rome, the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138) built his haunting pleasure palace, in which he hoped to capture the memory of his young lover Antinous, who drowned himself in the Nile, allegedly to avert an evil omen from his sovereign. The brooding portraits of the youth, which were to be found everywhere Hadrian set foot, hint at a deeper malaise. Several poignantly awkward images of Antinous emerged from Tivoli before 1730; the barrel-chested Greek ephebe is uncomfortably swathed in pharaonic nemes (headdress) and chendjyt (kilt), his look of pouting self-absorption wholly at odds with the blank eternal stare of real Egyptian kings.

These are the visions of Egypt that Rome afforded, in the days when Cairo was literally a city out of the Arabian Nights—for, while set in the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid (AD 789–809), Scheherazade’s treasury of stories was actually composed several centuries later (under the Mamluk sultans who ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517) in the glorious new Islamic city that had grown up on the banks of the Nile—indeed, the author of the Arabian Nights could not resist a patriotic encomium of Cairo as the “Mother of the World.”

However, this “Mother of the World” and the country around it remained an unknown for most Europeans, especially after Egypt’s incorporation into the aggressively expanding Ottoman Empire in 1517. Because these same Ottomans also spent much of their time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries pounding away at the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria, European antiquarians found it safer to ponder ancient Egypt on the basis of the antiquities available in Rome, studying them in conjunction with written texts, including Arabic chronicles that may have come along with coffee from Cairo.

By taking 1730 as its starting point, the “Egyptomania” catalog begins within a spirit of Enlightenment antiquarianism that differs significantly from its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century precedents. By including the Egyptianizing designs of Giambattista Piranesi and excluding the voluminous illustrated works of the seventeenth-century divine Athanasius Kircher, it therefore begins with the European artist who first succeeded in capturing the essence of ancient Egyptian style; for all their fascination, Kircher’s plates adhere staunchly to the aesthetic of Baroque art.8 Despite the fact that Piranesi worked from a limited repertory of examples, he was able to absorb a definite sense of the Egyptians’ stark use of geometries and their polished attention to surface detail. When Piranesi used an Egyptian theme to fresco the interior of the English Café (Caffè degli Inglesi) in Rome sometime between 1765 and 1767, he introduced a conspicuous novelty, although an appropriate one in view of Ottoman Egypt’s central position in the coffee trade. The conceit met with less than universal appreciation: the Welsh painter Thomas Jones decried the coffeehouse in 1776 as

a filthy vaulted room, the walls of which were painted with sphinxes, Obelisks and Pyramids, from capricious designs of Piranesi, and fitter to adorn the inside of an Egyptian-Sepulchre than a room for social conversation.9

Piranesi’s designs for fireplaces in the Egyptian style likewise shuffle a standard repertory of elements: corbeled arches, Antinous caryatids, mummies, scarabs, lions, falcons, bulls, and atmospheric pseudo-hieroglyphs, all playing on a grand sense of scale within an intimate domestic setting where every fireplace has its little crackling blaze. Like many of the objects on display around them, Piranesi’s Egyptian fireplaces vacillate between the cleanly tectonic and the garish; the eighteenth-century European aesthetic is too much at odds with the ancient Egyptian to make their interaction easy. In 1922, King Tut’s tomb would burst upon a far more hospitable Art Deco world.

One of the catalog’s strengths is the evenhandedness with which it treats artworks that supply a virtual encyclopedia of questionable taste, among them a Wedgwood “Canopic urn” no longer destined to store the entrails of mummified pharaohs but to adorn an English mantel, wooden piano legs in the form of twin standing pharaohs, a ceramic veranda seat held aloft by a crouching Egyptian maiden (available in white or highlighted in a choice of colors), as well as an endless supply of crazy clocks and candelabras held aloft by Antinous, Isis, cupids, or Nubian maidens.10 Some objects, on the other hand, are quite beautiful, like the custom bookcases designed to hold individual sets of the massive Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte,11 the architectural drawings, much of the Art Deco jewelry, and some of the Egyptianizing furniture.


Egyptophile paintings seem to occupy every point along the are between Great Art and kitsch, although many are now gaining a degree of acceptance denied them earlier by the Modernist ethos. The sentimental domesticity (and contented cats) of The Gods and their Makers (Edwin Lang, 1878) or In the Time of the Pharaohs (Georges Antoine Rochegrosse, 1887) are free to captivate us when they so clearly echo a mood that was palpable as well in the more private moments of ancient Egyptian art; so reverend a personage as Prince Thutmose V (Pharaoh Akhenaten’s elder brother) had a sarcophagus made for his cat, “Puss” (Tamyt). Ancient Greek historians like Herodotus and Diodorus of Sicily amused their readers by detailing the Egyptians’ fondness for their pets; the same delights are accorded modern readers by the recent short book Amazing Facts about Ancient Egypt, many of whose facts have been culled from the very same Greek sources.12

The scanty extent and diaphanous texture of ancient Egyptian garments worked their magic on the imaginations of artists constrained by the sartorial mores of more frigid climes, as in Joseph-Laurent-Daniel Bouvier’s almost photorealist Young Egyptian of 1869, Charles Sprague Pearce’s Caravaggesque The Death of the First Born, or Hans Makart’s voluptuous Hunt on the Nile, a symphony of predatory sexuality—nubile bodies, breaking spears, writhing animals in the grip of love and death—fully recreating the spirit in which Ramses the Great once traveled that same river, rowed by fifty girls clad only in nets. In a more chastened vein, Bible stories like those of Joseph and the Flight into Egypt retained their popularity two centuries after Nicholas Poussin had used Egypt to such pointed symbolic effect in his own Biblical paintings.13 The huge remains of ancient Egyptian architecture led to the painting of cast-of-thousands reconstructions of evocative ruins, many of them directly inspired by the spectacular engraved plates of the Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte.

Because Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was so instrumental in bringing the real Egypt (rather than its Roman transplant) to the attention of nineteenth-century Europe, the catalog must also deal with the affinity between absolutism and Egyptomania; the section “Absolutism and Enlightenment” does so dispassionately. In its time, pharaonic Egypt has also inspired such disparate despots as King Solomon, Alexander the Great, and Pope Urban VIII, who reigned between 1623 and 1644. And this inspiration worked not only on the military front but also on the intellect. Napoleon’s abortive military conquest of the Nile paled before the undeniable permanence of the Description de l’Egypte eventually produced by the corps of engineers, architects, and scholars who followed him down the Nile in 1798 and continued to work without stint after their leader slipped home to Paris a year later.14 Just as Imperial Rome had hoped to absorb Egyptian enlightenment along with Egyptian territory, so, in their turn, popes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries revered Egypt as the cradle of theology; Urban VIII, an early supporter of Athanasius Kircher, could style himself on occasion as a kind of neo-Egyptian Sun King. 15

The pharaonic version of enlightened despotism emerged most strikingly in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties of the New Kingdom (1570 to 1200 BC), when Egyptian war chariots, bristling with sharpshooting bowmen, raced across the plains of Armageddon and Kadesh, there to clash with Assyrians, Hittites, Philistines, and anyone else who cared to join in: Shardana mercenaries from Sardinia, Tursha (Etruscans?) from Italy, ne’arim from the Levant.16 Kings like Ramses the Great, who reigned between 1292 and 1225 BC, were genuine warlords, who rode into combat and lived to commemorate their deeds on colossal temple gates back home. At the same time, Egyptian priests cultivated an international reputation for extreme piety and hidden wisdom.

Through the trade routes consolidated by this complex society, products like faience or Nubian gold can be traced through Egypt to the rest of the ancient Mediterranean world with some facility. The cosmopolitan course of Egyptian wisdom may be harder to document, but it may have been an export as valuable as movable goods. Sometime after the end of the Bronze Age, Homer’s Odyssey (composed perhaps around 700 BC and narrating events that may have taken place around 1200 BC) tells how the hero Menelaus struggled to learn his future as his ship sat becalmed off the island of Pharos: “there, in the heavy wash of the open sea, in front of Egypt.”

The ever truthful Old Man of the Sea ranges in these parts.
This is the Egyptian, immortal Proteus, and he knows
all the depths of the sea…
If somehow you could lie in am- bush and catch hold of him,
he could tell you the way to go, the stages of your journey,
and tell you how to make your way home on the sea where the fish swarm.17

By the time of the Trojan War, Egypt had been in existence for nearly two thousand years. Professional raiders like Homer’s Achaeans often served the pharaoh as mercenaries when they were not simply pillaging the Mediterranean coasts to make ends meet. Helen of Troy, according to some accounts, actually sat out the Trojan War in luxury alongside the Nile, while the armies of the Iliad fought over her mirage on the faraway coast of Asia Minor.18

But booty is not what concerns Menelaus during his Egyptian stay; his attention is riveted instead on religion, for he knows that he has been becalmed because he has enraged one of the gods. The Old Man tells him:

It is not your destiny now to see your own people and come back
to your strong-founded house and to the land of your fathers,
until you have gone back once again to the water of Egypt,
the sky-fallen river, and there have accomplished holy hecatombs
in honor of all the immortal gods who hold wide heaven.
Then the gods will grant you that journey that you so long for.19

Much against his will, Menelaus backtracks, makes his hundredfold sacrifices, and contributes to Egypt’s ancient reputation as an unusually pious land. That reputation for piety was still vivid in the fifth century BC, when another Greek visitor, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, put in at the trading post of Naucratis in the Nile Delta. There he swapped tales with Egyptian priests who seem to have been moonlighting as tour guides. From his Histories, we can glean a good idea both of the stories he heard from his Egyptian hosts and of what he may have told them in return. He seems to have been especially fascinated by their peculiar religious rites, like their devotion to the sacred bull, Apis, a living animal treated with all the privileges of divine royalty.20 As for his stories about Egyptian history and customs, some may have been true; others are better taken in the spirit of narrative delight we happily accord the Odyssey. In Herodotus’ invariably amusing account, the Egyptians remain as slippery, as protean, as the Old Man of the Sea, but it is clear that they themselves have had a large hand in contriving this sage elusiveness.

Some of Egypt’s self-contained peculiarity was simply a matter of survival. The Nile had always stood vulnerable to attack from the Delta in the north and from Nubia in the south, while the nation strung along its banks threatened periodically to split into two or more fragments. The cliffcarved colossi of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel were intended, quite practically, to scare off potential invaders from Nubia, on the theory that their size and their fine finish would serve as harbingers of the pharaoh’s military sophistication. Where the flat and vulnerable Delta finally narrows to a single stream, the pyramids have acted as a similar deterrent, and had done so for a millennium before Ramses ever came to his throne. Yet perhaps the most eloquent symbol of Egypt’s self-willed image of evident power and elusive wisdom is that peculiar creature who crouches watchfully before the pyramids of Giza, part lion, part pharaoh, and part architecture: the Sphinx.

These two sides of Egypt, the imperial power and the repository of wisdom, emerge distinctly in the “Egyptomania” show’s large section dedicated to “Egypt at the Opera.” Mozart’s Magic Flute, with its stunning stage designs by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, presents the Enlightenment sequel to the kind of Egyptian lore that had been promoted with great fervor by European thinkers from Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century to Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth. They called it prisca theologia, and it involved searching out what they considered the first valid glimmerings of absolute religious truth, planted by God among the ancients in order to prepare the world for the eventual coming of the Messiah. Among these well-prepared ancients, the Egyptians held pride of place. They were believed to have couched hidden truths in their as yet unreadable hieroglyphs, as well as in a series of texts preserved in Greek whose putative author was identified as the Egyptian god Thoth, the inventor of laws and letters and associated by the Greeks with their own god Hermes. The writings of “Thrice Great Hermes,” or Hermes Trismegistus, concerned astrology and magic, yet their theological content seemed curiously compatible with basic tenets of Christianity. Scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries might debate whether Hermes Trismegistus wrote before or after Moses, but they agreed without dissent that his writings foreshadowed Christian revelation as unerringly as the Hebrew Bible. When, in 1463, Cosimo de’ Medici charged Marsilio Ficino to drop the work of translating Plato and turn instead to translating a manuscript of Hermes Trismegistus, both believed that they were undertaking a task of the utmost significance. 21

Attractive myths die hard. In 1614, the classicist Isaac Casaubon first suggested what is now accepted as fact: that the writings of Hermes Trismegistus were composed roughly between AD 100 and 300, and that their seemingly prescient insights into Christian doctrine reflected nothing more than that cosmopolitan mysticism practiced throughout the Roman Empire.22 Casaubon’s Protestantism made his debunking conclusions especially odious in Rome itself, where the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher continued to practice the virtually unperturbed pursuit of prisca theologia until his death in 1682. The Egyptian sagacity of Mozart’s Sarastro in The Magic Flute and that opera’s overtones of Masonic initiation show that the myth of prisca theologia was still alive in some form a century later.23

By contrast, Verdi’s Aida marks the contact point between the contemporary Egypt of the nineteenth century and an increasingly influential European presence in that country in the aftermath of Napoleon’s exploits. As a cultural artifact, Aida is remarkable because it was commissioned by the Ottoman Khedive Ismail Pasha for the opening of a Cairene theater dedicated to a particular European art form, and because its story line was conceived by the French archaeologist who had become Egypt’s first Director of Antiquities, Auguste Mariette. Verdi himself strove to accommodate his music to this meeting of cultures by studying non-European traditions and incorporating their motifs into his score.

The “Egyptomania” exhibit traces Aida’s evolution through sketches for sets and costumes; a pointedly political interpretation of the opera may also be found now in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism.24 Said’s sustained polemic against nineteenth-century European imperialism leads to a good deal of special pleading in the case of Aida, notably a reluctance to recognize the Egyptian New Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire as comparably ruthless imperialist powers, as well as a Procrustean insistence on setting Mariette and Verdi—as well as their imaginations—strictly within the narrow period of the waning nineteenth century.25

Yet in significant measure Aida is not about the nineteenth century at all; it is about being on the receiving end of the Pharaoh’s flail, a sensation to which ancient Egyptian art attests with vivid insistence. Indeed, Egypt’s visual language was born almost fully formed, as we can see from the famous slate palette (now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo) commemorating Narmer, the first pharaoh to unite the kingdoms of the upper and lower Nile, around 3000 BC26 (see page 46). It was a language of force, expressed through military might and the preternatural calm of divine authority, and it was a language focused from the beginning on the person of the king.

With muscular legs and purposeful stride, Narmer, the Founding Father, smites his tiny enemies with a stone-headed mace as he melds diverse tribes of Nile dwellers into a unified kingdom. (Anwar el-Sadat, five millennia later, would call his opponents “dwarves” with the same kind of pharaonic hauteur.) Rows of slaughtered foes, each with his severed head neatly tucked between his legs, lie ready for the body count; although later monarchs like Ramses the Great would prefer to collect less bulky trophies, like hands and penises, the price of opposition to the pharaoh has never varied much. Hardly an artwork dares to show an Egyptian losing a fight. Every pharaoh has been a striding smiter, flanked on occasion by massed bowmen or charioteers, each of them, too, invariably victorious.27

Equally striking about Narmer’s pose are its unnatural twists, the conventions that have led generations of children and more than one comedian to try to “walk like an Egyptian”: legs and hips in profile, frontal torso (with no torque at the waist), profile head, all harmonized together in a gracefully mannered pose. Slim and ageless, his physique would set the standard for nearly all his successors, including many representations of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, whose portraits, when the occasion seemed to call for it, took on the false beard and male body of the pharaonic ideal.

What Narmer’s conquest provided for Egypt was the large-scale political ability that transformed villages into cities, campaigns into institutions, and the reputation for power into the reputation for wisdom. Aida, as a recent Chicago Lyric Opera production suggested, depicts the price of that wisdom in a closely observed contrast between earnest youth and conniving adults. Grown-up cynicism gives horrific force to the institutional authority of religion and state (a theme dear to Verdi, the veteran anti-clericalist), but it operates with equally horrific force in the wily double-think of Amonasro, the opera’s most interesting personality. Aida and Radames can be seen as innocents briefly let loose in the Bronze Age; caught, like Romeo and Juliet, Manzoni’s Renzo and Lucia, or Bernstein’s Tony and Maria; in the toils of a complicated world.

To a certain extent, the imperious petulance of Verdi’s Amneris recalls another young Egyptian woman, herself caught between reasons of state and personal passion, but endowed, unlike Amneris, with a phenomenal ability to adapt: Cleopatra, the figure to whom Egyptomania devotes its final section. In incarnations ranging from contemporary coin portraits to a still photograph of Theda Bara in full splendor, Cleopatra has maintained her seductive charms. Of the last queen of Egypt, Plutarch reported:

For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse…had something stimulating about it.28

Both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, famously attractive men, succumbed to the pleasure of that stimulating presence. Skinny, driven Octavian, who met Cleopatra only after having routed her at Actium, managed to keep his distance. After her confrontation with this cold-blooded Roman conqueror in the year 31 BC, she put an asp to her arm and committed suicide, although artists have always shunned this last bit of historical detail in favor of pressing the asp to the Queen’s fair bosom.

In the three centuries of European art that come under consideration in the catalog, Cleopatra’s garb changes from the frankly contemporary Venetian courtesan’s attire of Giambattista Tiepolo to the neo-Classical robes of Jacques-Louis David, passing after Napoleon’s expedition to an exotic combination of ancient Egypt and nineteenth-century Oriental, the kind of etiolated sensuality Flaubert describes on his own decadent Grand Tour of the Nile:

The water of the Nile is quite yellow; it carries a good deal of soil. One might think of it as being weary of all the countries it has crossed, weary of endlessly murmuring the same monotonous complaint that it has traveled too far…. What has it seen? Like the ocean, this river sends our thoughts back almost incalculable distances; then there is the eternal dream of Cleopatra, and the great memory of the sun, the golden sun of the Pharaohs. As evening fell, the sky turned all red to the right, all pink to the left. The pyramids of Sakkara stood out sharp and gray against the vermilion back-drop of that horizon. An incandescence glowed in all that part of the sky, drenching it with a golden light.29

In a style as lapidary as Flaubert’s is overblown, the Alexandrian Greek poet C.P. Cavafy (1863–1933) mused not on Cleopatra, but on her ill-fated son by Julius Caesar, Kaisarion, slain by Octavian in 31 BC.

Because we know
so little about you from history,
I could fashion you more freely in my mind.
I made you good-looking and sensitive.
My art gives your face
a dreamy, an appealing beauty.
And so completely did I imagine you
that last night,
as my lamp went out—I let it go on purpose—it seemed you came into my room,
it seemed you stood in front of me, looking just as you would have
in conquered Alexandria,
pale and weary, ideal in your grief,
still hoping they might take pity on you,
those scum who whispered: “Too many Caesars.”30

High culture in ancient Egypt came, in every period, at a terrific human price. So, however, did its lack, whether in the intermediate periods of violent chaos or simply in the monotonous routines of village life. Egypt forces a long view of human nature.

If only symbolically, the modern world became reacquainted with that long view through an uncharacteristically modest artifact: a small chunk of basalt, the Rosetta Stone, which was spirited away to London under the nose of Napoleon in 1801. If most of the visitors who cluster around it at the British Museum cannot read its sententious decrees, still, they understand its meaning all the same: through its three parallel texts, hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, the ancient Egyptians began to speak intelligibly to modern readers, nudged along by the young French linguist Jean-François Champollion.31 Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, love poems, novels, the funerary litanies of the Book of the Dead, and acres of bureaucratic inscriptions have suddenly been brought back to life, along with the curious records, many of them violently defaced, of the heretic pharaoh named Akhenaten, whose wife Nefertiti and half brother King Tut have since become characters whose fame may outstrip even that of Cleopatra. It is almost impossible to imagine an Egypt without Queen Nefertiti and King Tut, yet both the famous limestone bust of the former and the opulent tomb equipment of the latter were only discovered in the early decades of the present century. Now the simulated Sphinx of Giza who stands guard on the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas bears the features of the obscure Bronze Age boy-king Tutankhamen rather than those of the mature Old Kingdom pyramid-builder Chephren, whose weather-beaten countenance and massive tomb are illustrious enough, but perhaps too impersonally huge, or too rooted to their site, to have sparked Las Vegas imaginations with quite the same intimacy as a dead boy’s funeral mask, especially a mask made in solid gold.

Yet almost two hundred years before Champollion’s exploit with the Rosetta Stone, Athanasius Kircher set out his own decipherment of ancient Egyptian in a series of ambitious books, all of them asserting (correctly) that vestiges of the ancient language of the pharaohs survived in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, Egypt’s native Christian sect.32 Kircher backed his claims with a panoply of quotations from ancient authorities in ten languages, all of which he meticulously cited in their original scripts as well as translating them into his rather elegant Latin.

The gulf between Athanasius Kircher’s discursive antiquarianism and Champollion’s Enlightenment precision is immense, and the gulf between Kircher and ourselves greater still. It is remarkable, therefore, how similar the hold of Egypt has often been on the imaginations of the great Jesuit thinker and his late-twentieth-century fellow travelers, all the more remarkable because the evidence on which he and we base our ideas of Egypt is itself so utterly different. As one example: Kircher, who calculated the creation of the universe from 4050 BC, could point to a Bronze Age pharaoh, Sethos, who initiated monotheistic worship between the years 1366–1336 BC. According to one of the most respected modern Egyptologists, the late Cyril Aldred, the chronology for the reign of the monotheistic Akhenaten comes uncannily close to this: 1358–1340 BC.33 The mystery of Egypt continues to loom larger than any of us.

This Issue

August 10, 1995