Antiquity Imagined

Antiquity Imagined
The Remarkable Legacy of Egypt and the Ancient Near East
Robin Derricourt
I.B.Tauris  288pp  £24.95

After 19th-century scholarship had placed the origins of civilisation in the ‘fertile crescent’ from Iran to the Levant, it was tempting to look to these places for the origins of faith, race and mystical knowledge.

In this scholarly account, Robin Derricourt analyses the ways in which the civilisations of Egypt and the Near East have been creatively interpreted to support latter-day interests. He ponders the paradox that, as greater knowledge of ancient Egypt grew, so too did the stimulus to create alternative interpretations.  

The pioneer archaeologist William Flinders Petrie started his career in Egypt as a surveyor measuring the ratios of pyramids. He was influenced by Astronomer Royal, Charles Piazzi Smyth, an evangelical Christian who believed the measurements of the Great Pyramid encoded advanced knowledge of astronomy and prophesies of the future. Petrie’s accurate measurements showed this to be wishful thinking and he became one of the greatest field workers in Egyptology, developing rigorous, disciplined techniques.  

Despite Petrie’s contribution, delusions about the pyramids continued, as writers developed their own fanciful interpretations, of which the most staggeringly unbelievable is not that interplanetary aliens built the Great Pyramid, but that the stone tomb was in fact ‘a giant water pump for ancient Egypt’. 

Derricourt describes the preoccupations of sects such as the Theosophists and Rosicrucians, who believed themselves possessed of ancient wisdom.  Moving into mainstream culture, a chapter on mummies sees them animated to murderous status via the rediscovery of ancient magic; and crushed into a powder to be ingested for their reputed medicinal powers.

A theory popular in the late 20th century was that Egyptian culture was part of a pan-African black civilisation. This was attractive to African-Americans who seized on a black source for Egyptian and Greek knowledge. The notion served, in the words of one of its promoters, to ‘lessen European cultural arr-ogance’. As Derricourt explains, the theory came first and the evidence served it. Sometimes no substantive facts were required for a theory, such as the declaration that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were the progenitors of Great Britain and the US. 

The mystical adoration of all things ancient Egyptian proceeded towards an ‘Egyptocentrism’ that credited ancient Egypt with far more influence and widespread activity than can be substantiated, culminating in the supposed ‘hyperdiffusion’ of all world knowledge from Egypt to as far afield as China and India.  

This is a well argued, well written book; the Narratives of the Holy Land chapter is particularly notable for its scholastic elegance and insights. 

In the end, the moral is that in the popular imagination a strongly believed alternative easily takes precedence over measurable fact. It may strain credulity, but the largest mystery in the study of ancient Egypt is why people have continued to create fanciful pasts for a period and place that has been so well documented.

Jad Adams’ most recent book is Women and the Vote: A World History (Oxford, 2014).

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