Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Doctor's diagnosis : Egyptomania

Which definition is most applicable to you?
  1. Mania : an excessively interest, enthusiasm, or longing; a craze
  2. Egyptomania : the fascination with ancient Egypt
  3. Egyptology : the study of ancient Egyptian history, language, literature, religion, and art
As far as we know today, the oldest hieroglyphs, the writing system of
the ancient Egyptians, date from more than 5200 years ago (3200 BCE).


Egyptomania existed in Antiquity
Actually you are wrong if you think that Egyptomania is a modern phenomenon.  The Romans were Egyptomaniacs, at least a part of them. When their legions came home back from Egypt after long field marches and a voyage on a hot Mediterranean, they shipped most of Egypt's obelisks to Rome. Emperor Constantius II decorated the Circus Maximus with an obelisk. Wealthy Romans ordered the production of obelisks as replicas of the originals. These were manufactured in Egypt and even in Rome. It is known that the Romans held Egyptian costume parties: always a fun thing to do. Some of their villas were decorated with mosaics of Nile sceneries. Caius Cestius, a Roman magistrate even let built his own tomb in the shape of a pyramid. He incorporated his pyramid into the city walls of Rome close to the Porta Ostiensis.
Action Ordinaire, 1899, Bruxelles
Société Belge-Egyptienne de L'Ezbékieh
Printed by Lithog. du "Messager de Bruxelles"


Rediscovered by the Renaissance after nearly 1000 years
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, European interest in ancient Egypt almost disappeared for nearly a 1000 years. During the Crusades a few returned from Jerusalem with stories that spoke of Egypt and its monuments. Except for the attempts by medieval Muslim egyptologists, there was  no one anymore that could read the old hieroglyphs.

The Renaissance with renewed interest for Antiquity brought ancient Egypt back under the attention. In this period the first western travellers wrote about their voyage in Egypt. Here and there motives of lotus flowers, papyrus, sfinxes, scarabs and pyramids became decorative elements in various art disciplines. Even Pope Alexander VII commissioned the exceptionally gifted Bernini, sculptur and architect, to design an obelisk. Adventurers, not only coming from Europe, went on a treasure hunt after reading medieval manuscripts written by Arabs.
1 Share of 4 Egyptian Pounds, 1951
Credit Agricole D'Egypte

Napoleon sends a military and scientific expedition into Egypt
Under the pretext of protecting the French interests in Egypt, Napoleon sent his Armée D'Orient (Army of the Orient) on expedition to Egypt in 1798. A direct attack on Great Britain was beyond his possibilities, but by occupying Egypt he would try to establish French hegemony in the Orient and bar Great Britain's commerce route to India. Already in 1801 the Armée needed to withdraw. Napoleon's adventure in Egypte was a military fiasco and a human catastrophe with 15,000 French troops killed in action and another 15,000 by disease.

Bonaparte devant le Sphinx, 1867-1868
(Bonaparte before the Sphinx)
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

However the Egyptian campaign would mark the beginning for modern Egyptology and in its wake Egyptomania as well.  Opponents saw it as propaganda, the fact is that Napoleon sent, along with his troops, not less than 167 "savants" : mathematicians, astronomers, engineers, botanists, geographers, chemists, doctors, archaeologists, writers and artists.

Experts believe that the Pyramid of Cheops was built
in approximately 20 years around 2500 BC.
The pyramid consists of more than 2 million blocks put into place
at an average of more than 12 blocks per hour, day and night.
Remark: check the resemblance with this photo.


Napoleon's scientific team in Egypt had many tasks :
  • mapping out roads for the army
  • investigating the possibilities for a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea
  • building mills for food supply
  • describing as much as possible the ancient monuments of Egypt
  • observing and drawing flora and fauna

5 Shares of 4 Pounds Sterling, 1908, Cairo
Banque Egyptienne de Commerce
Printed by B. Arnaud

Two publications ignite modern Egyptomania
Vivant Denon, who had joined Napoleon's expedition to Egypt as an archaelogist and an artist , published in 1802 his sketches of Egyptian monuments and art objects in his Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte (Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt). Denon would later become the first director of the Louvre museum. The monumental Description de l'Egypte (Description of Egypt) was a series of volumes published between 1809 and 1829.  It is the extensive compilation of the field reports, sketches and descriptions made by the members of Napoleon's scientific team during the expedition in Egypt.

When the Sphinx of Giza was rediscovered by Napoleon's
troops, it was largely buried up in sand. In 1817 its chest was
uncovered by Giovanni Battista Caviglia. It would take
another 119 years before Émile Baraize would excavate
the sphinx in 1936 completely.

Both works, illustrated with great engravings of the country and its ancient buildings and art objects, were a succes. The public was enthusiastic. In the next 100 years, each next major archaeological discovery or public event further stoke up the Egyptomania:
  • 1822 Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs 23 years after its discovery by Napoleon troops
  • 1836 Louis Philippe placed the Ramses II obelisk from the Luxor temple, a gift from Muhammad Ali of Egypt, in the center of Place de la Concorde
  • 1869 The Suez Canal, "the Highway to India", was opened.
  • 1878 Erection of the Tuthmosis III obelisk in London
  • 1881 Another Tuthmosis III obelisk was set up in New York
  • 1922 Howard Carter  discovered Tutankhamun's tomb

25 Shares of 1 Pounds Sterling, 1908, London
The New Egyptian Company

Egyptian Revival movement
Not only the public was enthusiast. Also artists and architects, fascinated by the descriptions and numerous engravings in the publications mentioned above found inspiration in Egyptian motives and imagery for their creations. Although most of them would never see a sphinx or a pyramid in their life.

View on the pyramids, seen from Cairo
Architectural examples :
  • Egyptian Bridge, St.-Petersburg
  • Fountain of the Fellah, Paris
  • Highgate Cemetery, London
  • Washington Monument (an obelisk)
  • Egyptian Court at the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in London
  • Egyptian temple in the Antwerp Zoo
  • amongst many more also several Masonic temple buildings

Examples in painting :

1 Ordinary Share of 250 Francs, 1906, Cairo
The Cairo Electric Railway and Heliopolis Oases Company
Printed by Bradbury Wilkinson

In the 19th century expensive furniture, clocks, lamps, dinnerware and jewelry designed with lotus flowers, scarabs and sphinxes quickly found buyers. Egypt became popular in literature, in opera, in the theater and at the movies. These days Egyptomania is collective and masses of kitchy objects can be spotted on almost every flee market : a pharao figurine, a sphinx bookend, a used pyramid board game.

Egyptomania in scripophily
As you can see in this post, many Egyptian stock and bond certificates issued by Egyptian, French or English companies. These stunning papers are often printed by Arnaud, Chaix, Bradbury Wilkinson, Waterlow, Ventura, Della Rocca and Publications Egyptiennes. Their designs make you easily start dreaming and muzing. Unexplainable. And that's the secret of Egyptomania: it permits anyone to find affinity with another world of ideals. 

Shares of $1, Colorado Springs, 1901
The Prin-Seti Gold Mining Company
Sold at Boone Auction 47, Oct 2011, for 1200 Euro

Therefore it is no surprise, that Egyptomania found also its way in American culture and scripophily as well. Some American shares and bonds are very explicitly designed with pharaonic elements. A nice example is the share certificate of the Prin-Seti Gold Mining Company.  On other certificates, the presence of ancient Egypt is more subtle, as can be seen on the details on some American railroad stocks and bonds.

Sphinxes on US railroad certificates
from left to right :
Rio Grande Junction Railway Co., see Cox RIO-357-S-50
Indiana and Lake Michigan Railway Co., see Cox IND-337-S-30
Duluth Huron and Denver Railroad Co., see Cox DUL-103-B-50

Do I suffer from Egyptomania ?
Ok, ok, ok, ok. Yes, I admit it. But just a little. Really not much. Occasionally. Not continuously, if you know what I mean.  As an 8-years old kid I read comic books like Spike and Suzy (Dutch: Suske en Wiske), The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix. Together with my heroes in these stories I experienced many wonderful adventures in Egypt. (Sigh) I wonder if I will ever make it to Egypt.
  

I wrap up this posting with some final words about mummies:
What did the baby pyramid say to the other pyramid?
How's your mummy?
F.L.

References
  • Wikipedia's Obelisks in Rome
  • In search of forgotten Egypte (Dutch : Op zoek naar het vergeten Egypte) , Jean Vercoutter, ISBN 90 02 18033 0
  • From Delacroix to Kandinsky - Oriëntalism in Europe, Editions Hazan - Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, ISBN 978 2 7541 0520 0
  • Wikipedia's Revival Art

Related links

2 comments:

  1. Franky, do you know the book about Egypt Bonds and Shares of Mr. Crouchley. If not tell it me and I will send you one! George

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi George, thank you for the tip. Yes, I know the book. Originally issued in 1936. I have a reprinted version from 1977 published by Arno Press.
    F.L.

    ReplyDelete