The love affair between Western Europe and ancient Egypt can be traced to Napoleon’s invasion of Alexandria in 1798. I had always thought of the French mission to Egypt as an “expedition.” In truth it was a military maneuver aimed at weakening British control of the Mediterranean Sea and cutting them off from their Indian colonies. If Napoleon’s forces had only contained soldiers, we may never have become so enchanted with the ancients. He also brought engineers, scientists, and cultural historians to document and describe what they found. By July 21, 1798, the French troops reached the Great Pyramids and drove the Egyptian military into Syria.
Their time in Egypt was short, but France left far from empty-handed. The savants in Napoleon’s employ conducted meticulous surveys of animals, plants, topography, local industry, and trades. Their exploration led them to discover ancient and forgotten burial grounds. This included the famous temples at Luxor, Philae, and the Valley of the Kings. Scientists measured and recorded (not to mention looted) for posterity. Even with only a year to collect data and objects, the savants gathered enough materias to publish a 23-volume reference book called Description de l’Egypte between 1809 and 1828.
The British Intervene
Within a year, the British retaliated by systematically destroying Napoleon’s ships in The Battle of the Nile. The local population revolted against their new French overseers. Though they ultimately quashed the Cairo revolt, people all over Egypt took up arms against “the stubborn infidels and unbridled rascals.” Also, the Ottomans in Constantinople got wind of France’s defeat at sea. They took the opportunity to strike another blow. The Ottoman forces made it withing 10 miles of the Syrian border before Napoleon attacked. His forces were eventually repelled on February 5, 1799, but returned for a brief time four months. Eventually, Napolean left Egypt to save face.
The Rosetta Stone
The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone is one of the most notable archaeological discovery in history. And it occurred only a month before the French retreat. Like so many of the objects they collected, it fell into British hands and never reached France. It contained the same passage in three different languages, unlocking our ability to translate ancient texts. This stone is now on display in the British Museum.
Egyptomania Grips the Country
Britain would eventually occupy and control Egypt starting in 1882, but Egyptomania gripped the general public long before. Many sources point to a special event in 1821 as the real spark that ignited the British public’s imagination at large. At a theater near Piccadilly, a mummy unwrapping was held for the general public. A few years later, Jane Webb wrote The Mummy, A Tale of 22nd Century, which is not only the first mummy story in Western literature, but also one of the first science fiction stories penned by a woman. Several notable authors embraced the trend and the genre exploded (see list of books below).
Even before the British occupation, they were on friendly terms with the Ottoman occupiers and exported many incredible pieces of Egyptian artwork. To Western eyes, these treasures had been “abandoned” and needed a big brother type “custodian” to take care of them because it was obviously beyond the local population to do so. The British Museum is one of the best places in the entire world to view Egyptian artefacts as a result.
The mania for all things Egyptian went beyond museums. While walking around London, I spotted plenty of evidence of it still scattered around town. I noticed a very high concentration while strolling along the Queen’s Walk (near Blackfriars Bridge), which follows the Thames. Right next to the river you can feast your eyes on obelisk flanked by lordly lions. And if you need to rest your feet you can avail yourself of the benches that line the walk and are supported by cast iron camels.
19th and early 20th Century Books and Short Stories
- The Mummy, A Tale of 22nd Century, novel, Jane Webb, 1827
- “Some Words with a Mummy,” short satirical story, Edgar Allen Poe, 1845
- “The Mummy’s Foot,” short story, Theophile Gautier, 1863
- “Lost in a Pyramid: The Mummy’s Curse,” short horror story, Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), 1869
- “The Ring of Thoth,” short story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), 1890
- “Lot 249,” short story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), 1892
- The Beetle, novel, Richard Marsh, 1897
- The Jewel of the Seven Stars, novel, Bram Stoker, 1903
- Smith and the Pharaohs, novella, H. Rider Haggard, 1913
- “Under the Pyramids,” (aka “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”) short story featuring Harry Houdini as the protagonist, H. P. Lovecraft, 1924
- The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, novel, Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot), 1924
- The Vengeance of Nitrocris, novel, Thomas Lanier (aka Tennessee Williams), 1928
Steampunk and Other Contemporary Books (1975-2014)
- Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters
- Kythan Guardians series by Trisha Wolfe
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (Les Aventures extraodrinaires d’Adele Blanc-Sec), comic book, written and illustrated by Jacques Tardi, 1976
- Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Homemade Truly Egyptian Mummy, novel, Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), 1981
- The Anubis Gates, novel, Tim Powers, 1983
- Bubba-ho-tep, novella, Joe R. Lansdale, 1994
- Seven Stars, novella inspired by Conan Doyle’s Jewel of the Seven Stars, Kim Newman, 2000
- The Osiris Ritual, Newbury and Hobbes #4, George Mann, 2009
- As Timeless as Stone (2010) and As Timeless as Magic (2012), novels, Maeve Alpin
- Changless, Timeless, Parasol Protectorate, Gail Carriger
- “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” (1972), movies (technically Dieselpunk set in the 1920s)
- “The Mummy Returns,” movie, 2001. The sequel to 1999’s “The Mummy” starring Brendan Fraser. Though both films would technically be best called Dieselpunk, “The Mummy Returns” features a super cool dirigible that is very Steampunk.
- “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec,” movie, 2010