"The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography."
-- Oscar Wilde
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Egyptomania, by Bob Brier
Many know Bob Brier(television’s Mr.
Mummy) through his many televisions appearances, as well as through such
best-selling books as The Murder of Tutankhamen, The Daily Life of the Ancient
Egyptians and The Secret of the Great Pyramid.
We were lucky enough to do an extensive interview with Bob that will run soon in these pages,
but, for now, let’s look at his latest book, Egyptomania.
If we at The
Jade Sphinx have a taste for all
things Egyptian, we are the merest pikers compared to Bob Brier (born 1943). He has coined the word Egyptomania to cover
everything from a passion for exquisite antiquities to a taste for
Egyptotrash. In his book Egyptomania, he
charts a course of the West’s love of all things Egyptian starting with the
Roman invasion all the way through to the Napoleonic wars that brought scores
of artists and scholars to the region, and the bursts of King Tut craziness
that erupted with the discovery of his tomb and through the revival of interest
in the 1970s.
It is all much of a
muchness to Brier, whose enthusiasm is boundless and indiscriminate. More important, he manages to bring a remarkable
variety of things to life, from shipboard explosions during the English attack
on French forces during the Battle of the Nile, to the sometimes bizarre juxtaposition
of various ancient cultures on cigarette boxes in the 1920s. (Some of these images, despite their inherent
silliness, are wonderfully evocative Art
Deco and Art
Nouveau compositions.) Brier has written a book that is completely
accessible to all ages, and can be read with satisfaction by adults or
presented to younger readers who are cultivating their own interest in Ancient
Brier wonders aloud
why Ancient Egypt has such a grip on our imaginations, and not, say, Ancient
Mayans or the Babylonians. He believes that
it is an odd mixture of the familiar and the exotic: while believing in jackal-headed
gods and the actual physical resurrection of the body, the Egyptians also had a
surprising modernity in medical research, statesmanship and religious
philosophy. They are different… but not enough
to be completely alien.
Equally important, an
enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt has a wonderful zest and, well… zaniness that
makes King Tut breakfast cereal possible, along with scholarly research on hieroglyphs.
Brier’s book makes
many interesting side-trips, among them the various engineering feats that made
the transportation of Egyptian obelisks possible to Rome, London and New
York. The stories of these three voyages
are book-worthy in themselves, and Brier does a terrific job of maintaining a
zippy narrative while keeping track of all the moving parts.
Also delicious is
Brier’s argument that the start of Egyptomania was during the Ancient
World. The Romans were enthralled by the
hieroglyphics they could not read; while Alexander the Great (who nearly conquered
all of the known world), wanted to become an immortal pharaoh. He also relates how Emperor Hadrian built
Antinopolis as a memorial to his lover, the beautiful Antinous. We have never fully recovered.
As we grew up on Boris
Chaney, Jr. and Christopher
Lee emerging from behind
Egyptian pillars to put the whammy on various reincarnated loves, Brier’s
Egyptomania was catnip to us. We highly
recommend his book to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.