Book Review: Egyptomania
A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy
by Ronald H. Fritze
Reaktion Books, 2016
The particular craze that’s the focus of veteran historian Ronald Fritze’s new book Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy is one of the oldest intellectual fads in the history of mankind: the fixation with ancient Egypt that’s been felt by the rest of the world for so long that it actually started when ancient Egypt wasn’t even ancient.
It’s an enormous subject, and Fritze works his way through it all with a thoroughness no other account has ever quite matched. He plonks his readers down right at the beginning with Manetho and his chronology of pharaohs, then he moves forward at a steady and scrupulously detailed pace through the marveling tall tales of Herodotus and his fellow ancient mythographers, the quasi-religious overtones imposed in medieval times with tales of Hermes Trismegistus, and the especially vigorous taking up of all things ancient Egypt, always inching closer and closer to the present day.
Some of this can be a bit on the droning side at times (“Egypt is located in the northeast corner of Africa …”), but there’s another element that seems curiously persistent throughout the book It shows up fairly early, when Fritze is discussing the paradoxical question of what should rightfully be Egyptomania’s native home:
Where do modern Egyptians stand in all this Egyptomania? They are generally not Egyptomaniacs. Ninety per cent of the Egyptian population is Muslim. Some of the more radical fundamentalists in the country would like nothing better than to destroy the pyramids and the Great Sphinx because they are pagan relics. Historically, most Egyptians have been too poor and struggling to survive to ponder the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
Fritze moves on with his story, bringing it down to the present era, particularly centering on Howard Carter’s famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 and the wave of renewed excitement it unleashed throughout the world. But even when he’s describing the exhibit that drew enormous crowds from 1972 to 1981, he comes back to that same discordant note:
The Tutankhamun exhibit of 1972 started the trend of major museums hosting blockbuster exhibits of famous artefacts. Museums owning the popular artefacts and museums exhibiting them have found the massive revenues generated by blockbuster exhibits to be very handy in paying for needed improvements and desired acquisitions for the museum’s collections. (The Cairo Museum used its share of the profits of the exhibits to pay for much-needed improvements.) For these reasons, it is highly likely that Tutankhamun’s grave goods will travel again sooner or later, unless thieves loot them or some mullah destroys them as unwanted reminders of a pagan past, however glorious that past might have been.
Egyptomania is very self-consciously a parade of wonders. Fritze’s narrative is dense with historical detail and frequently sparkles with wit. Anyone who has ever felt the touch of Egyptomania – and who, passing silently through the Cairo Museum or the Ancient Egypt wings of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, hasn’t felt the pull of that fascination? – will find plenty in these pages to feed their curiosity. But they’ll also find themselves periodically reminded that those museums are also attractive targets … and that they are too.