The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Obelisk and the Englishman
The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes
Dorothy U. Seyler  
Prometheus Books  304pp  £17

The obelisk is that which now graces the south lawn of Kingston Lacy, a magnificent National Trust property in Dorset. The Englishman is the Nubian explorer William John Bankes (1786-1855) who, having admired the obelisk on the island of Philae on the first of his two journeys up the Nile, eventually secured its transportation to the family seat. He erected it at just the right distance for maximum effect from the house, although his father regretted the ruin of ‘my spacious lawn’. 

William John Bankes was a man of complexities. An enthusiastic traveller and connoisseur of Spanish art, he displayed endless good humour but insufficient purpose. Despite being a meticulous surveyor, skilled artist and accurate copyist, he proved too lazy to write up his discoveries (including the important obelisk inscriptions and his greatest find, the Abydos King List).

Returning home in 1820, Bankes was fêted in London drawing rooms and the theatre parties of his friend the Duke of Wellington. His quick repartee, drawn from a prodigious memory, told of daring escapes from armed bandits across the River Jordan and bites from a snake charmer’s supposedly poisonous reptile. 

Yet in 1841 he was referred to as a person of ‘a wicked lewd filthy and unnatural mind and disposition’. The Queen vs. Bankes indictment was the result of his arrest for what was then a hanging offence: a charge of indecent exposure involving a guardsman. Largely thanks to Wellington’s testimony, Bankes had already been acquitted of a sodomy charge following an earlier encounter with another guardsman. This time he stood no chance. Forced to put his beloved estate in the hands of trustees, the dogged adventurer slunk into permanent exile in Continental Europe.

Dorothy Seyler’s repeated use of ‘perhaps’, ‘might have’ and ‘quite possible’ in relation to her protagonist’s homosexual encounters quickly begins to irritate. Also, much is made of a speculative relationship with Lord Byron, his lifelong Cambridge friend.

This is a book written by an American presumably for an American market, where ‘few have heard of Westminster but everyone of Byron’. Moreover, despite her credentials as a professor emerita of English, the author engages in jarring transitions from past to present tense, compounded by numerous proofing errors. The bonuses are her sound Egyptology, extensive bibliography, and informative illustrations.

Ultimately, Seyler captures her ‘Father of all mischiefs’ as he penetrates behind closed doors: the forbidden Cairo mosques (wearing Arab dress and carrying a viola) and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem (hiding his face in a handkerchief and feigning toothache). The presence today at Kingston Lacy of one of four works ‘borrowed’ from the off-limits library at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai demonstrates that the indefatigable William John Bankes left nothing unexplored. 

Rosalind Janssen is Lecturer in Education at the UCL Institute of Education, having previously been a Curator of the Petrie Museum and subsequently a Lecturer in Egyptology at the Institute of Archaeology. 

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