Advent Calendar - the fascination for ancient Egypt

Posted December 20th, 2007 by Andrea Vianello

Modern fascination for ancient Egypt remains high. In spite of some disappointment for the absence of the funerary mask (video below: slow motion video of the mask taken in the Cairo museum by Morganiser) in the current Tutankhamun’s exhibition in London, king Tut is a familiar name and still draws the crowds.

Finding the tomb of Tutankhamun has been one of the greatest archaeological discoveries. The discovery itself was fuelled by the same fascination for ancient Egypt that we share. The footage of the discovery has inspired generations of archaeologists, and perhaps even of treasure hunters and looters (video below includes archival footage published by SailingTheNile).

Christmas is coming, and ancient Egypt is also the first place that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus visit together. They were fleeing from King Herod, who feared that Jesus would replace him as king. God chose Egypt as safe place according to Matthew (2). According to the Gospels, King Herod ordered all male children aged two or less to be slaughtered. And as for divine punishment, today archaeologists are hunting down king Herod’s sarcophagus (video below is a report by infolivetvenglish), though no discovery has convinced everybody yet.

Ancient Egypt is mentioned several times in the Bible, and this means that unlike many other civilisations, humanity has never lost memory of its past. Nobody has “discovered” the pyramids. Roman praetor and tribune of the plebs Caius Cestius got his tomb shaped like a mini-pyramid already in 12 BC (image below is nocturnal view by mastino70, published in Flickr under Creative Commons licence).

Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Rome

Without direct access to Egypt, Christians have believed for centuries that the pyramids were the granaries of Egypt mentioned in the Bible, and continued to dream about them. The pyramids appear as granaries in the 13th century mosaics of St Mark’s in Venice (I doubt many modern tourists have recognised them; see image below).


Today we know a bit more on the pyramids, but there are still many unanswered questions and new theories are proposed very often. Some of the most fantastic ideas eventually fuel our dreams, with new releases of movies and games on ancient Egypt demonstrating its popularity. Because Egypt has taken a firm place in our dreams and so much is known, in some way ancient Egypt continues to exist; it is an Eternal Egypt. Egypt was popular also among the Greeks, who travelled, reported and also conquered Egypt. Herodotus’ Histories have been dissected attempting to understand the relationship between the Greeks and the others, the Barbarians, and obviously the case of Egypt is quite particular. Herodotus is fully aware of the long Egyptian tradition, and although he maintains the Greek superiority, Egypt appears more as an equal, and again it can be said that some fascination for that land can be detected.

The contemporary fascination for Egypt has very old roots, so old indeed that the ancient Egyptians themselves were fully conscious of the antiquity of their culture, and through the words of Herodotus it is clear that by preserving memory of their ancient past, the later Egyptians started Egyptology. The key reason for this is that no other civilisation has preserved a similar written record of itself and survived for so long. Whilst archaeologists have discovered even more ancient antiquities, and there are monuments elsewhere in the world that might rival the Egyptian pyramids, we lack their words, and even more, the words of all the subsequent cultures that came in contact with them. Egypt is probably the first civilisation to have mastered (if not invented) writing. For instance, when Herodotus writes, the Greeks still preferred oral tradition. And I am not referring to the actual technique of writing, but to the idea of fixing words, to preserve consciously a memory of their reality and of their dreams. And they shared those ideas and dreams, so much that we can find references to Egypt in unexpected places. This is the power of writing (coupled with a great monumental activity). In other words, their culture passed from generation to generation, influenced other cultures, and now it has left its imprint in many of the modern cultures, sometimes evident, and sometimes hidden. And now, somehow, we find many references to Egypt familiar, recurring, intriguing and fascinating.

I conclude a videos from a tourist perspective, a small feast of Egyptian antiquities to spend some time before visiting some Egyptian antiquities in some museum, go to the latest exhibition on Egypt, or even journeying through Egypt on the path of countless explorers.

Video above: Cairo Museum, by carpclubspain.