Despite a blurb from the professor of Egyptology at Harvard and an introduction by the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, this isn’t a scholarly book. Readers seeking a serious history of the West’s infatuation with “the land of the pharaohs,” let alone with Egyptian Orientalism, will need to look elsewhere.
In all but name, “Egyptomania” could be a work of young-adult nonfiction: It is slightly gushy, colloquial in tone and superficial. The book shines in two areas: its colorful illustrations of Egypt-themed tchotchkes and its detailed accounts of the various engineering techniques used to transport obelisks to Rome, Paris, London and New York. Several pages near the end also point the reader toward fine, if neglected, films such as “The Egyptian” and “Valley of the Kings.”
On the whole, though, Bob Brier — senior research fellow at Long Island University, Post — seems more interested in the mechanics of moving huge and heavy pieces of stone than in interpreting those monuments or other, less imposing artifacts. According to the dust jacket, Brier has been involved with several documentaries about ancient Egypt, and it is just possible that this book’s simplified prose — complemented by the visually stunning reproductions of Nile River travel posters, King Tut advertisements, cigar boxes decorated with alligators or desert scenes, and sheet music about Cleopatra — might work as the script for a television special.
Near the end of “Egyptomania,” Brier wonders why we are so fascinated with Egypt and not with the somewhat similar Mesoamerican cultures: “Why do we clamor for all things Egyptian, but not Mayan?” He answers that the ancient Egyptians resembled us, that we can identify with their concerns. This seems pretty feeble. The real reason, of course, is that Egypt has been the land of magic and mystery, of deep wisdom, since the time of Herodotus. It haunts the Western imagination.
Yet there is nothing in “Egyptomania” about either the glamour associated with the ancient Library of Alexandria or the sultry exoticism of Lawrence Durrell’s modern “Alexandria Quartet.” Neither does Brier discuss the Renaissance discovery of the “Egyptian” writings of Hermes Trismegistus, the very fount of hermetic wisdom for astrologers and alchemists. In the early 18th century, Antoine Galland’s French translation of “The Arabian Nights” further reinforced the image of Egypt as the land of sorcerers. In the 19th century, London’s Egyptian Hall hosted major art exhibitions, but it is now remembered chiefly as the atmospheric venue for the Maskelyne family’s illusions and magic shows. By the 20th century, pulpy works such as “Under the Pyramids,” ghost-written by H.P. Lovecraft for Harry Houdini, further portrayed Egypt as the locus of ancient mystery and occult power. Even some contemporary novels — ranging from Elizabeth Peters’s light-hearted Amelia Peabody mysteries (such as “The Last Camel Died at Noon”) to John Crowley’s magisterial “Aegypt” sequence — show that Egypt has remained — at least until recent political upheavals altered our perceptions — a dream realm of romantic, if sometimes deadly, allure.
But none of these things is discussed in “Egyptomania.” Instead, Brier devotes page after page to the difficulties of transporting an obelisk across land and sea. He does this in four separate chapters, as various systems were adopted at differing times for different conditions and different obelisks. Each time, one admires the ingenuity and persistence required, one even thrills to the difficulties overcome, but this is the stuff of engineering history, not Egyptomania.
Though Brier provides an account of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and of the multivolume “Description de l’Égypte” that was later commissioned, there is surprisingly little in these pages about the actual Sphinx or the pyramids. One searches in vain, too, for maps or timelines. Brier does spend many pages on mummies, including Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, the King Tut advertising and jewelry frenzy that followed, and films such as Boris Karloff’s 1932 chiller, “The Mummy.” Yet while he does summarize Théophile Gautier’s 1857 novel, “The Romance of a Mummy,” he fails even to mention Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249”or “The Ring of Thoth,” both of which pioneered the idea of mummified corpses returning to vindictive life. Brier also describes, with implied approval, the grotesque manhandling of an ancient statue by the controversial former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, before the very eyes of a horrified Egyptian Museum staff.
I expected to love this book because its subject has long fascinated me, and I really hoped to learn more about “our three thousand year obsession with the land of the pharaohs.” I certainly wasn’t looking for a dense, controversial tome such as Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” But I had, perhaps foolishly, imagined a book similar to one of Marina Warner’s mythographic studies, such as “Phantasmagoria,” or to Robert Irwin’s informative and entertaining “The Arabian Nights: A Companion” or even to Barbara Mertz’s popular history, “Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs.” Instead, “Egyptomania,” like a really poor archaeologist, simply doesn’t dig very deeply into anything, apart from the difficulties of moving those obelisks. But its lurid and kitschy illustrations are great.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs
By Bob Brier
Palgrave Macmillan. 223 pp. $27