A statue of Ramses II in the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is being constructed on the Giza Plateau

Hassan Mohamed/picture alliance/Getty Images

A statue of Ramses II in the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is being constructed on the Giza Plateau, August 2019

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo moved into its peach-colored, arcaded neoclassical building in 1902. Its collections include the five-thousand-year-old Palette of Narmer—one of the earliest examples of hieroglyphics, commemorating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt—a bust of the “heretic” pharaoh Akhenaton, and the golden treasures of the boy king Tutankhamun. Its façade is inscribed with the names of famous Egyptologists, all male, all European: six Frenchmen, five Britons, four Germans, three Italians, a Dutchman, a Dane, and a Swede. The building “was a triumphant and unselfconscious monument to the Western rediscovery of Egypt,” Toby Wilkinson writes in A World Beneath the Sands, and an expression of “Europe’s implicit claim to the civilization of ancient Egypt.”

The museum stands on one side of the epicenter of modern Cairo, a large square first known as Ismailia Square—after Khedive Ismail, the ruler who built it—and renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square after independence in 1952. On January 28, 2011, as the Arab Spring swept Egypt, protesters took over Tahrir Square, the police were overpowered and disappeared, the nearby headquarters of President Hosni Mubarak’s party were set on fire, and looters briefly broke into the museum, stealing and damaging some artifacts. As the army mobilized, volunteers formed a human chain around the building all night to protect it. It was an act that made its own claim about Egyptians’ ownership of their past and the kind of pride they might be able to take in being Egyptian.

The subtitle of Wilkinson’s book is “The Golden Age of Egyptology.” This he identifies as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the study of ancient Egypt acquired its scientific underpinnings and the most famous discoveries were made; it was also when countless antiquities were transferred from Egypt to private collections and European museums, and Egyptians themselves were largely excluded from the study of their past.

The aesthetic and architectural grandeur of ancient Egypt awed Westerners. The mystery of the culture was a thrilling intellectual puzzle, its splendor something that nations and rulers yearned to possess. Although lone emissaries, adventurers, treasure hunters, and travelers from Europe began writing about Egypt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is the Napoleonic expedition in 1799 that marks the beginning of Wilkinson’s golden age. Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, declared that “Egypt was a province of the Roman Republic; she must become a province of the French Republic”: French rule would lift Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire, out of tyranny and into prosperity, and modern France would adorn itself with pharaonic glory. Alongside their military, the French assembled an “army of experts”—printers, surveyors, engineers, architects, artists, mathematicians, astronomers, naturalists, surgeons, mechanics, and two archaeologists.

The French occupation of Egypt was short-lived, but its impact was enormous. It launched a craze for ancient Egypt that continues to this day, and produced the Description de l’Égypte, a monumental series of volumes accompanied by 974 celebrated plates documenting all the knowledge of ancient and modern Egypt collected by the expedition. The French incursion and the instability it created also led to the establishment of a new Egyptian dynasty in 1805. The country’s ruler, the Albanian commander Muhammad Ali, ended Mamluk rule, secured near independence from the Ottoman caliph, and embarked on modernizing the country in an attempt to catch up with the West. He created a standing army and a new bureaucracy, developed irrigation and transportation networks, and established a printing press and the country’s first modern factories. He also took control of almost all of Egypt’s agricultural land and introduced the widespread and lucrative cultivation of cotton, using a brutal system of forced peasant labor.

The development of Egyptology was driven to a great extent by national and personal rivalries, and particularly Franco-British competition. In the early nineteenth century the British and French consuls in Egypt—Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti—spent most of their time and energy competing to acquire antiquities (which they also traded privately, enriching themselves), until they finally reached a “gentleman’s agreement” to divvy up Egypt’s treasures. “The whole of ancient Thebes is the private property of the English and French consuls,” commented one disapproving British visitor, “and these buildings that have hitherto withstood the attacks of Barbarians, will not resist the speculation of civilized cupidity, virtuosi, and antiquarians.”

Meanwhile, in Europe, scholars were engaged in a different kind of contest. In 1799 French soldiers repairing a medieval fortress near the Mediterranean coast discovered a slab of black granite embedded in its walls. The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be known, was taken by the British in 1802 as spoils of war and shipped to the British Museum. It bore the same two-thousand-year-old proclamation in three scripts—hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic (an ancient Egyptian script), and Greek. For centuries it was believed to be impossible to read hieroglyphics; scholars thought they referred to esoteric religious concepts, lost forever, rather than specific terms or sounds. The Rosetta Stone was the key to disproving this.


A British polymath, Thomas Young, made significant contributions to deciphering the inscriptions, but it was a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who made history by doing so. Both men were prodigious intellects and extremely gifted linguists, but their temperaments and attitudes could not have been more different. Young was a cautious and reserved physician from a well-to-do Quaker family. Champollion was brash, romantic, outspoken, anticlerical, and antimonarchist. Obsessed with Egypt since his teenage years, he was the first to publicly declare his conclusion that hieroglyphics were a fully hybrid writing system, “at once figurative, symbolic, and phonetic.”*

On the morning he finally felt sure that his system for reading hieroglyphics was accurate, the thirty-one-year-old Champollion ran to his older brother’s office, flung a sheaf of papers on his desk, exclaimed “Je tiens mon affaire!” (I’ve done it!), and fainted from exhaustion and emotion. Champollion continued to develop and refine his understanding of the Egyptian script; when he later traveled to Egypt, he was able to read inscriptions that had been undecipherable for thousands of years.

Wilkinson captures well the excitement of such breakthroughs. He describes men entering for the first time temples and tombs in which “the footprints of the ancient Egyptian workmen were still visible; and around the doorway were the fingerprints of the priest who had sealed the chamber more than three thousand years before.” Wilkinson writes with admiration of the early Egyptologists and their discoveries, but he doesn’t gloss over their shortcomings.

Some were unscrupulous adventurers, some dedicated and brilliant scholars, some both; some were penniless autodidacts and some millionaires who sponsored digs after catching the Egypt bug on vacation. Theodore Davis, an American businessman who sponsored many excavations, sailed the Nile in a private boat that had a grand piano, a crystal chandelier, and piped hot and cold water. But most Egyptologists did their work in discomfort and danger. They faced diseases such as plague, dysentery, and cholera; their camps were overrun with rats and fleas; they endured extreme heat and sandstorms. They had to squeeze into narrow tunnels and chambers, hot as ovens, in which the air was nearly unbreathable; they risked falls and collapses, and toiled to move giant sand drifts that quickly returned to erase a season’s work. Of course, their Egyptian workmen suffered everything they did to a greater degree, working for a pittance and no chance of recognition. Overall, the Egyptologists come across as an intense, impressive, often disagreeable bunch: intrepid and eccentric, stubborn and domineering, xenophobic and self-serving.

Among these difficult men, the Englishman Flinders Petrie stands out. He had been a sickly child who developed a passionate interest in minerals and fossils and then in measuring and surveying ancient monuments. In the 1880s, with no Arabic, no training in Egyptology, and very little money, he sailed to Alexandria. He lived in a disused tomb in Giza while surveying the pyramids and collecting small, discarded items that had not previously been thought important. Wilkinson lauds his focus on “objects of everyday life” as a major development in the field of Egyptology. Yet he also makes clear that Petrie was often impossible. He achieved, as one Egyptologist wrote, “maximum results for minimum expenditure”—in other words, he was a terrible cheapskate whose belief in living frugally approached a mania. His digs were infamous for their discomfort, lacking basic food and even sanitation. His contemporaries found him “deliberately slovenly and dirty.” He fell out with almost everyone he collaborated with, not surprising given his belief that, as T.E. Lawrence put it, “He only is right in all things.”

Amid so much male ego, it is a relief to come across the intriguing and affecting Lucie Duff Gordon. Born into an intellectual, progressive family in 1821, Duff Gordon married an impoverished Scottish baronet and knew Tennyson, Dickens, and Thackeray. She came to Egypt in 1862, hoping the climate would help her recover from tuberculosis, and fell for the place. She commended Egyptians for their “tolerant spirit,” noted that “the much talked-of dirt is simply utter poverty,” and declared that “the dirtiest lane of Cairo is far sweeter than the best street of Paris…. I am in love with the Arab ways.” Duff Gordon spent much of her time in a ramshackle house built by archaeologists on the roof of the Luxor Temple. She was one of the few Europeans to note the devastating effects of forced labor (which was used to build the Suez Canal and on archaeological digs), writing that “the poor fellaheen are marched off in gangs like convicts, and their families starve.” She was prescient in warning of popular resentment against the khedive’s profligacy and the country’s growing subservience to Western powers. Her Letters from Egypt (1865) made her famous; she died there aged forty-eight, far from her husband and children, too ill to make the trip back to England.


Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Duff Gordon not only paid more attention to living Egyptians than to dead ones, she actually regarded them with sympathy. In the view of most foreigners, the Egyptian people were unworthy of their heritage. Amelia Edwards, who wrote A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1877), a hugely popular account of her travels in Egypt, founded the Egypt Exploration Fund, and endowed the first chair of Egyptology in Britain, had this to say about Egyptians: “A more unprepossessing population I would never wish to see—the men half stealthy, half insolent; the women bold and fierce; the children filthy, sickly, stunted, and stolid.”

Egyptologists told themselves, more or less sincerely, that they were rescuing Egyptian antiquities from local neglect and ignorance. “Antiquity is a garden that belongs by natural right to those who cultivate and harvest its fruits,” argued one French diplomat.

It is true that Egypt’s nineteenth-century rulers did not put much value on the ancient past. Muhammad Ali often used ruins as quarries or to feed lime kilns—between 1810 and 1828, Wilkinson writes, thirteen whole temples were lost. Ali granted foreign expeditions permission to plunder sites and gave antiquities away as gifts. When his son Said created the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858, he instructed Auguste Mariette, its first head, “You will tell the governors of all the provinces that I forbid them to touch one single antique stone; you will imprison any peasant who sets foot inside a temple.”

But foreign expeditions continued to be welcomed because they paid their own way; they were required to split their finds with the Egyptian authorities but often kept the best for themselves. Not only did they remove statues, obelisks, and entire portions of temples (they would have taken even more, but costs and logistics stood in their way), they sometimes wreaked even worse havoc. Richard William Howard Vyse explored the pyramids and the Sphinx in the 1830s by repeatedly blasting them with charges of gunpowder. Jacques de Morgan, the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service from 1892 to 1897, protected the temple of Kom Ombo from flooding by reinforcing the riverbank with pulverized blocks of stone that turned out to be from the temple’s floor.

Throughout Wilkinson’s book, Egyptologists bemoan the destructive effects of smuggling, the neglect and ignorance of Egyptians, the misbehavior of other Egyptologists, and the damage done by industrialization and mass tourism. (“No-one can now pretend to have seen the world who has not made one of a party of pleasure up the Nile,” noted a British periodical in 1824.) Everyone else was always to blame for the threat antiquities faced. As Wilkinson notes, Karl Richard Lepsius, an eminent Prussian Egyptologist, took ten camels’ worth of loot away from the Giza plateau but complained with no irony about the quarrying of monuments by local villagers.

Auguste Mariette started out his career digging illegally at night for a year in search of the Saqqara Serapeum, an ancient temple full of massive stone sarcophagi in which sacred Apis bulls had been buried over centuries. When he found it, he smuggled many of his finds out in grain sacks. In the late 1880s Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge collected countless antiquities for the British Museum and unapologetically used any means necessary to get them out of the country—on one occasion, when his storeroom was surrounded by guards from the Antiquities Service, he sent them a hearty meal and dug an underground tunnel to transport his finds to the nearby Luxor Hotel.

There were, to be sure, those who criticized what was happening. Arthur Weigall, who served as an antiquities inspector in Egypt in the early twentieth century, wrote that

the craze for recklessly dragging away monuments from Egypt to be exhibited in western museums for the satisfaction of the untravelled man is the most pernicious bit of folly to be found in the whole broad realm of Egyptological misbehaviour.

But for decades, most Egyptologists dismissed the idea of constructing a museum in Egypt as “Utopian.” When Mariette became Egypt’s first antiquities director in 1858 and the head of the newly established national museum a year later, his former colleagues at the Louvre accused him of “betrayal.” Later, when another antiquities director, Gaston Maspero, for the first time allowed excavations to be sponsored by wealthy Egyptians, Wilkinson tells us, his decision was met by “howls of disapproval.” To the end, most Egyptologists opposed a national museum under Egyptian control, even enlisting John D. Rockefeller to propose funding a new museum in 1925 on the condition that foreign Egyptologists remain in control of it for the next thirty-three years (the Egyptian government declined).

Wilkinson concludes his story with the world-famous discovery of the Tutankhamun treasure in 1922—a gripping tale of guesswork and perseverance on the part of the English Egyptologist Howard Carter. The discovery also marked a turning point: the finds, to the Westerners’ consternation, were taken to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

A World Beneath the Sands is admirably clear, comprehensive, and engaging. But in one respect it does not deliver what it promises. Wilkinson writes in his introduction that “the story of Egyptology is…also the story of Egyptian self-determination.” Yet in his entire account, there are only a handful of tantalizing quotes from Egyptians. They figure largely as anonymous diggers; families whose homes, built on top of ancient sites, were razed; or smugglers and dealers deplored by Western observers (when they were not engaging their services).

Wilkinson’s book makes clear the degree to which the West’s “rediscovery” of ancient Egypt parallels its colonization of modern Egypt. But it says very little about how Egyptians have related to a heritage whose meaning and value have been so overwhelmingly determined by outsiders who also declared Egyptians backward, undeserving of their past, and in need of Western tutelage. I would read an entire book about Ahmed Kamal, who worked for decades as an assistant curator at the Egyptian Museum, translated Egyptology books into Arabic, and supervised the first local digs. In the 1880s Kamal tried unsuccessfully to establish a local Egyptology school, which closed, for lack of support, after three years and one graduating class. It was reinstated in 1923, the year of his death.

When I lived in Cairo, my apartment was around the corner from a stunning neopharaonic mausoleum, built to hold the remains of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, who at the end of World War I called on the British to grant Egypt its independence (they refused). It is just one of many examples of a neopharaonic revival in Egyptian arts and aesthetics in the 1920s and 1930s, and of the way ancient Egypt became a reference for modern Egyptian nationalism. As the Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha notes, “All through the first half of the twentieth century…ancient Egypt is central to the nationalist renaissance being prophesied or planned.” It is taken as “proof that there is more to Egypt than its current sorry state.”

Rakha says this in Barra and Zaman, a remarkable essay on the 1969 film The Mummy (also known as The Night of Counting Days) by the director Shadi Abdel Salam. The film and the essay present a fascinating counterpoint to Wilkinson’s book, preoccupied as they are with how Egypt’s past has come to figure in its modern identity.

The Mummy is a haunting film, a masterpiece of Egyptian cinema famous for its beautiful compositions. It is based on a true story: in the late nineteenth century, the Hurabat clan, a tribe that lived near the Theban necropolis, discovered a cache of nearly fifty royal mummies. Priests had secretly reburied them there after their tombs were ransacked by robbers sometime around 1000 BC. The tribe used this cache as a “mummified bank account,” selling their treasure to dealers a bit at a time, but some of the artifacts caught the attention of the authorities, who traveled up the river to discover their provenance.

Abdel Salam’s movie opens with the death of Sheikh Selim, the head of the Hurabat tribe and the father of the protagonist, Wanys. Wanys and his brother are let in on the tribe’s secret—the cache of hidden mummies—and react with consternation. Meanwhile, a steamboat has arrived from Cairo carrying a young Egyptologist intent on finding the secret source of the antiquities being sold on the market (he is based on Ahmed Kamal).

The story thus dramatizes, in acutely human terms, the question of who the past belongs to: to the tribe that depends on it for its livelihood or the foreigners and foreign-educated Egyptians (the effendis in their bright red fezzes and white suits) who claim it in the name of science and the nation. A lost soul unsure what to do, troubled by his inheritance, badgered and threatened by his relatives, Wanys wanders through the beautiful ghostly sets. At one point, after learning that foreigners can read the hieroglyphic inscriptions that are part of his childhood landscape, he says, “My pain is the whole life I’ve lived. A pain I can’t understand.” What seems to make him suffer is the fact that the outsiders know and care for his ancestors more deeply than he does.

And yet in Abdel Salam’s vision, this crisis presents the chance of a new beginning. The movie opens and closes with quotations from the Book the Dead, an ancient Egyptian guide to the afterlife: “You who go, you will return. You who sleep, you will rise…. Rise, for you will not perish. You have been called by your name. You have been resurrected.” For Abdel Salam, laying claim to the pharaonic past was a way of “affirming that those millennia that stretch behind me have not yet completely slipped my grasp, that leaning on them I can still get up.” If Egypt could overcome its “cultural and historical amnesia,” it could move forward with confidence, creating a new national culture that would express “the meaning and life of being Egyptian.”

Why is such a project of revival necessary in the first place? Because, Rakha says, by the time The Mummy was made, “the sense that Egypt is in decline…had been pervasive for centuries.” If the film particularly speaks to Rakha, it is because of the way it raises the enduring question of Egypt’s modern identity—an identity defined by nostalgia and insecurity, the sense that things were better before and are superior somewhere else. “When you say barra—‘abroad’ in Egyptian Arabic—the implication is automatically of somewhere better,” writes Rakha. “Likewise zaman (‘in the past’).” In fact, he argues, the awareness of barra and zaman—in the form of a European education and a nostalgia for Egypt’s past—are the “preconditions for any twentieth- to twenty-first-century discourse on Egyptian identity.”

The Mummy is set in 1881. Khedive Ismail, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, had bankrupted the country through the construction of the Suez Canal and many other extravagances. The French and British had taken control of the country’s finances and governance, provoking the first nationalist revolt, the Urabi uprising. The following year Britain invaded Egypt, which it ruled for the next sixty years. The film was written and produced just before and after 1967, when Israel routed a combined attack by Arab armies, occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai, and shattered the vision of strength and independence that the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser had held out to an enthusiastic generation. Abdel Salam’s film is connected to two moments of aborted hope and disarray—moments in which Egyptians tried to make sense of who they were. From them Rakha inevitably circles around to the greatest recent disillusionment in Egypt, the failure of the Arab Spring there.

This is the weakest portion of an otherwise sharp analysis. Like a great number of Egyptians, in 2013 Rakha supported the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who had been narrowly elected after Mubarak’s fall from power. Despite the relentless repression that has followed—against secular as well as Islamist figures—he still argues that this was not only necessary but the best that could be hoped for, and that the military takeover was not a coup. Since “the only viable alternative to military patriarchy was political Islam,” a disaster to be avoided at all costs, in Egypt “‘democratic transformation’ was not sustainable.”

The protest movement failed, in Rakha’s view, because it was barra-oriented, focused on popular Western ideas rather than local reality. He suggests that Arab Spring activists acted “more to be called heroes abroad than to achieve anything tangible or coherent at home,” and repeats the conspiracy theory that the Arab Spring itself may have been “a constructive-chaos ploy” supported by Qatar and the Obama administration, a chance for “the web…to implement a global Islamist agenda.” This argument is frankly hard to take seriously: it elides the spontaneous nature of the 2011 protests; the wide-ranging, sincere, and long-gestating demands of its many participants; the incredible risks and losses activists in Egypt have faced for the last decade, with little international support; and the involvement of others—the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the Egyptian army and intelligence services—in a coordinated counterrevolution that copied the tactics and language of the original protests while aiming at their reversal.

In his fixation on outside forces and the opinion of outside observers, it is Rakha who comes across as hopelessly barra-oriented—which he more or less admits. Yet on the larger question of Egypt’s identity crisis and postcolonial bindon the unease of feeling oneself the object of outside scrutiny, on the regret for a different history—he is well worth reading:

It is not as if you can forget that, rather than growing out of it or being organically grafted onto it, modernity was suddenly imposed on your history, overtaking your sense of self in demeaning ways. In all kinds of political and economic contexts, what is more, modernity itself continues to remind you: that your place in it is tentative and suspect; that it is a gift from some superior other who can rescind it at any time; that in its scheme of things your heritage—what tradition might live inside you—is at best a set of museum exhibits; and that it has already rendered the identity you value irrelevant, dead—that you are civilization’s changeling.

I thought of this as I watched the final scene of The Mummy: as the steamboat departs with the mummies, the local women look on from the shores, black silhouettes against the dunes, and Wanys—fatherless and an outcast from his clan—stumbles alone into the distance, clutching his chest in sorrow.

A mural in Tahrir Square commemorating Egyptians murdered by the police

Ursula Lindsey

A mural in Tahrir Square commemorating Egyptians murdered by the police, 2012

What is ancient Egypt to Egyptians today?

It is a source of metaphors about power and death. Every Egyptian president has been called a pharaoh, considered an idol or a tyrant. In 2012 street artists covered the walls of the American University in Cairo, on the other side of Tahrir Square from the museum, with murals commemorating young Egyptians murdered by the police. One was a funeral scene done in the ancient Egyptian style, with women raising their long-fingered hands in good-bye, promising remembrance.

It is a stream of foreign tourists, a livelihood for many.

It is Zahi Hawass, the ubiquitous head of antiquities under Hosni Mubarak, who did more than perhaps anyone else to Egyptianize the field, as much by the strength of his personal brand as by the efforts he claimed to make to train and promote local Egyptologists. An exuberant showman in an Indiana Jones hat, Hawass embodied a combative, entrepreneurial, nationalistic, and self-aggrandizing strain of Egyptology. At the height of his fame, before the Arab Spring, he had a reality TV show, Chasing Mummies, on the Discovery Channel, a $200,000-a-year deal with National Geographic, endless book deals, and his own line of clothing. He turned the antiquities sector into his own personal fiefdom: every archaeological team or media organization that wanted access to digs and sites needed to curry his favor; he made sure to feature prominently in all coverage of new discoveries; and he was infamously dictatorial and short-tempered with his staff. After 2011, he was accused of corruption and blamed for standing by Mubarak during the protests. (He has since been rehabilitated and is back to directing digs today.)

It is an ongoing argument with the West. Egypt continues to request the return of the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, and the British Museum and the New Museum in Berlin continue to refuse.

It is a chance for self-assertion. A long-planned Grand Egyptian Museum is scheduled to open this year on the Giza Plateau. The regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi loves megaprojects, and this will reportedly be the biggest archaeological museum in the world, part of a larger reengineering of the entire plateau meant to turn it into a much more efficient touristic attraction. In early April, twenty-two mummies were transferred to another grand new project, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, from the old Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, in a highly choreographed “Pharaohs’ Golden Parade” that featured a light show, music, and hundreds of extras dressed in ancient Egyptian costume. A TV special showed footage of President Sisi striding down the corridors of the new museum to receive the mummies, each of which was transported in a gilded vehicle decorated with pharaonic motifs.

Meanwhile, Tahrir Square has become one of the most heavily policed spaces in the country. Demonstrations there are inconceivable today, and Egyptians weren’t allowed to even watch the parade from the streets; barriers were set up to block the view of low-income neighborhoods along the way of the procession, and police told would-be spectators to go home and watch it on TV.

And Egyptology is still a passionate pursuit, long after its supposed golden age drew to a close. The Egyptian sands continue to yield a seemingly inexhaustible supply of discoveries, which are documented for a worldwide audience that remains much more entranced with ancient than modern Egypt.

One of the latest examples is the Netflix documentary Secrets of the Saqqara Tombs, which chronicles the discovery of the richly decorated tomb of an ancient Egyptian official. Egyptology has often involved showmanship, and the documentary adheres to many standard tropes: the site is, of course, “one of a kind,” and the dig is presented as a detective story, replete with cliffhangers and carefully staged discoveries. But by emphasizing that this is an all-Egyptian excavation (including several women), it makes a gentle point that today’s Egyptology is a more locally led, collaborative endeavor. The team of seasonal diggers are part of the cast—still underpaid, one suspects, but no longer invisible.

And there is something moving in the casual way the local Egyptologists read inscriptions on the statuettes they find. I particularly liked an early scene in which an antiquities inspector picks up his boss on a motorcycle (“late again,” the boss grumbles) and describes their daily commute, from crowded streets to desert plateau, as a trip from “the world of the living to the world of the dead.” That Egyptologist later tells an interviewer, “We are the people who can best give voice to our ancestors. Because they are our ancestors. We are a step closer to them than foreigners.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the museum to which the mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were transferred.

This Issue

May 13, 2021