Colossal Egyptian statues

Why are we so fascinated by ancient Egypt?

A flapper in the early 20th century wearing an Egyptian-inspired dress by French designer Paul Poiret.

Most Americans couldn’t name the current president of Egypt and many would be hard-pressed to name anything that’s happened in Egypt in the last 30 years—or maybe 3,000 years. (It’s Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, and plenty has happened.) But they know about mummies and pyramids and King Tut, and probably even hieroglyphs—an obsolete form of writing from a distant culture that hasn’t existed for more than 1,600 years.

This fascination has been around for a long time. In fact there’s a word for it: Egyptomania. It first infected the West when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, bringing 167 scholars with him, including the future director of the Louvre Museum. They returned to France with the first scientific understanding of ancient Egypt, if not the boatloads of antiquities they had intended to take with them. (Most of those went to the British Museum, in London, after the British Army kicked the French out of Egypt and seized the obelisks, statues, and other loot—including the Rosetta Stone—as spoils of war.)

Egyptomania crossed the Atlantic to the United States, which was just as beguiled by this rich and inscrutable empire re-emerging from the sand. (Think of the Washington Monument and the pyramid on the dollar bill.) It popped up again, in a big way, in the 1920s, when King Tut’s tomb was discovered—dripping with gold—and every flapper worth her gin was sporting a Cleopatra bob, a tunic, and amulet jewelry.

Sunken Cities

A view of “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” being installed at Mia.

The latest bout of Egyptomania might be happening right now, spurred by “Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” the exhibition opening November 4 at Mia. Filled with monumental statues, temple carvings, and exquisite jewelry that had been covered by the sea for a thousand years, the touring show of ancient Egypt underwater has been a hit everywhere it has appeared since opening in Europe in 2015.

Unwrapping the Unknown

“There’s something about the mystery of it all” that lures us back to ancient Egypt again and again, asserts Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, Mia’s curator of African art, who orchestrated the “Sunken Cities” exhibition here. “Things are hidden—in pyramids, in tombs, in sarcophagi. There are false doors. Even hieroglyphs require a code to understand them.” The mummy of King Tutankhamun, for instance, was buried in three coffins—nested inside each other—that were hidden inside a sarcophagus, inside a frame, inside four shrines. Nine coverings, for reasons we can only speculate about.

Another installation shot of “Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” featuring a 36-foot photo of a boat deliberately sunk during a Mysteries of Osiris ritual.

These mysteries are not just the result of lost understanding but were in some cases cultivated by the Egyptians themselves, which is even more intriguing—this was a culture steeped in secrets, in esoteric knowledge. The “Mysteries of Osiris,” a major focus of this show, was a ritual held every year when the floodwaters of the Nile River receded. It was led by priests who prepared figures of Osiris—a god of renewal and the underworld—in the secrecy of a temple. It’s not surprising that the Freemasons, a fraternal society that claimed many founders of the United States as members, heavily incorporate ancient Egyptian symbology in their own secret rituals.

Then there’s the ancient Egyptians’ “intense preoccupation with death,” Grootaers says. From mummification to carefully arranged tombs to the Book of the Dead (a collection of spells for guiding the deceased to the afterlife), the ancient Egyptians were as invested in the hereafter as the here and now. To examine their elaborate views on mortality is to reflect on our own.

Americans welcomed the distraction of a dazzling, distant culture when the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” arrived in the mid-1970s, in the wake of Watergate and inflation and an energy crisis. The exhibition featured some of the most spectacular objects found in Tut’s tomb, including his funeral mask and a large model boat meant to shuttle him to the afterworld. They were sent from Egypt in a goodwill gesture, arranged by Richard Nixon and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat to seal a new diplomatic understanding, just months before Nixon resigned.

Crowds for King Tut

A Washington Post photo of crowds waiting on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to see “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the National Gallery in 1977.

By the time the show opened, in November 1976, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Jimmy Carter had just been elected president and the United States was celebrating its bicentennial. More than 835,000 people came to see the show in D.C.—more than the population of the city itself, lining up around the three-block-long building for up to four hours. The museum sold $100,000 worth of souvenirs every week—and that’s in 1976 dollars. Meanwhile, television specials provided close-ups, so that anyone—anywhere—could become an armchair Egyptologist.

These days, it’s impossible to see or stage a show about ancient Egypt without thinking about colonization or appropriation or both. From Napoleon to Elizabeth Taylor to the Book of the Dead being characterized as the “Bible” of ancient Egypt (not even close), the modern history of the culture is erasure. Even the name of the country is an imposition. Early on, Egyptians referred to their kingdom as Kemet—the Black Land, a reference to the rich soil along the Nile—and later as Hwt-ka-Ptah. Egypt is a Greek term, as the Greeks found the local name hard to pronounce when they invaded Egypt in 332 BCE.

“Sunken Cities” is rooted in this Hellenistic era, when the ruling Greeks took over the religious rituals of Egypt and adopted its pharaonic traditions, down to the headdresses and colossal statues. They, too, were fascinated by ancient Egypt. And when they were replaced by the Romans, the obsession began anew. Obelisks and Egyptian-style architecture sprang up in Rome, even as Egypt itself slowly began to resemble the rest of the Roman Empire. Ancient Egypt would live on in the Western imagination, if nowhere else.

Top image: Mia visitors got a taste of “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” when colossal statues of an Egyptian pharaoh and queen were installed in the lobby ahead of the show.