BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Got a condo made of stone-a ...

I suppose that I should stop being surprised when books that I get via the “Early Reviewers” program aren't exactly what I had anticipated them to be when I clicked that “Request it!” link. After all, these are (usually) new books coming out, for which the publishers are looking to get some “early” buzz working. This means that I pretty much only have the paragraph or so of promo copy in the listing to make a decision on whether or not I'd be interested in reading/reviewing a particular title.

It's not that Bob Brier's Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs had a misleading blurb … but this “inventive and mesmerizing tour of how an ancient civilization endures in ours today” sounded like it was going to be more, well, serious than it ended up. Perhaps my confusion on that point was influenced by the famed Zahi Hawass providing an Introduction here. Hawass is well known for his toeing the “official Egyptological line” in all things (especially in contrast to any new age or alternative timeline views), but maybe his removal as Minister of Antiquities in the wake of the overthrow of Mubarak has left him at loose ends and he's become more amenable to expanding his repertoire.

What I was expecting was more along the line of cultural survivals of Egyptian elements, from architectural residuals (which there are several noted here), to “secret societies”' appropriation of the images and vocabulary, to perhaps even reflections on just how deeply the Christian mythos is intertwined with the figures of Isis, Horus, Osiris, and Set … but this doesn't delve into those fascinating topics, but concentrates largely on Egyptian stuff … from the acquisition of various monuments to the predictable explosion of Egyptian-themed kitch every time something comes up to thrust the (ancient) Egyptians into the Western cultural groupthink.

The author, Bob Brier, is noted to have “been amassing one of the largest collections of Egyptian memorabilia” for the past forty years, but his resume seems pretty thin on actual Egyptology, with degrees in Philosophy and Parapsychology (not that I'm the type to diss Psi research, but still), and he's been teaching at Long Island University since the early 70s. He has spent a long time studying mummification, and has even performed this arcane art on a cadaver in 1994 … but he seems to be more in the “enthusiastic amateur” mold (with a good travel budget) who has visited a lot of sites, than somebody who's done seasons with a spade from the archaeological side.

This goes a long way to explain why the book is full of tchotchkes, antique advertising, and assorted ephemera, and not with more substantial cultural concerns. Now, to be fair, the book does attempt to make a historical survey of the influence of Egypt in Western culture. From the Greeks, with Herodotus tracing “almost all aspects of Greek civilization back to the Egyptians”, and Alexander conquering Egypt and making it the jewel of his empire, and on through the fascination and integration that Rome brought to the subject (from the empire-wide popularizing of the Isis cult to the notorious extinguishing of the Ptolemaic dynasty by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony).

Nearly half the book is taken up with stories of how the assorted obelisks made their way from Egypt to Rome, Paris, London, and New York. Rome's came early, having been imported by Caligula in 37 c.e., and was a fixture of his (and Nero's) circus – which used to be right about where Vatican City sits. Aside for noting that in 391 c.e., (Christian) Emperor Theodosius I decreed that all Egyptian temples be closed (with the last hieroglyphic inscription being made in 394), the next part of this history comes in 1585 c.e., when the original version of St. Peter's Basilica was being re-built, and moved from its original site. After having that obelisk sitting in its front yard (as it were) for over 1,000 years, the Church decided it had to be moved to the new site, and this was accomplished by one Domenico Fontana in 1586, “considered one of the great engineering feats of the Renaissance”.

One of the most fascinating parts of Egyptomania is the material regarding Napoleon Bonaparte, very little of it particularly complimentary. In 1798 he opted out of an assignment to directly attack England, and instead convinced the revolutionary Directory to send him to Egypt (like his hero Alexander) to attack British interests there. To his credit, Napoleon brought a large contingent of academics and engineers, from whose researches we have the baseline scholarly knowledge of Egypt. The Egyptian campaign did not go particularly well, and Napoleon abandoned his army, returned to France, and minted medallions celebrating his triumph.

Situations in Egypt were somewhat chaotic, as the British, after chasing off the remnants of Napoleon's forces, pretty much just packed up and headed home. Egyptian rulers offered obelisks to a whole succession of British monarchs, to no result, and they eventually offered them to France ... since many French savants had been in Egypt, they jumped at the chance, and in 1836 the first of these arrived in Paris.

The Brits, of course, suddenly realized that they'd been missing out on this obelisk stuff, and a commercial venture was assembled to bring one to London. A submarine-like cylinder of a ship was built in 1877 to carry the obelisk, and it was to be towed through the Mediterranean and up Europe's Atlantic coast and on to England. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and in an October storm, a number of crew died trying to secure the ship, which was lost. Lost, but not sunk, and it was claimed as salvage a short time later, and “ransomed” through the courts. The obelisk finally was raised in London in September 1878 … sparking a massive wave of Victorian “Egyptomania” with nearly endless Egyptian-themed stuff and ads clearly made by the clueless for consumers with no more idea of what the “real” Egypt looked like!

American interests were already angling for an obelisk, and one was arranged for in 1878, but it took nearly three years to get it set up in Central Park, with the installation coming in February of 1881. At least the New York contingent had learned from the French and British, as the engineering had been well thought-through to not only get the obelisk across the ocean, but into the center of the city. Interestingly, the Masons had a lot to do with this one, and there were supposedly Masonic items found in the base in Egypt, and they were a significant part of the events connected to raising it – although the Grand Master very clearly noted that there were no Freemasons around that far back.

Of course, the biggest blasts of “Egyptomania” followed the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, leading to products, music, films, fashion, etc. This was echoed again when, in the 1970's the Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit went on tour, with more products, and music like Steve Martin's “King Tut”. The movies started in 1923 and haven't let up, with mummy-themed movie following mummy-themed movie for the past 90 years … these are also looked at here in detail.

Anyway, while Egyptomania wasn't the book that I'd sort of hoped it might be, there was certainly plenty of very interesting stuff the I'd never encountered previously to keep me engaged. I could have done with less of the “cultural kitsch”, but I guess that's what's in the author's collection, so there are a hundred or so illustrations ... handy, I suppose, if you had an itch to know what the cover art for the “Cleopatra Had A Jazz Band” sheet music looked like in the 20's. This has just been out a couple of months so it's likely findable out in the more pop-culture oriented brick-and-mortars, but the online big boys have it at a significant discount. The read provided lots of “I did not know that!” moments, but even more “Did I need to know that?” stuff in here – yet fans of Antique Road Show may love it.

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Tags: book review
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