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 Egypt.

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 Karloff, Lon 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.

No comments: