Tales from Egyptology’s golden age

David Tresilian , Friday 12 Feb 2021

British author Toby Wilkinson presents a rogues gallery of early Egyptologists in his new book A World Beneath the Sands


The surviving sites and monuments of ancient Egypt have always been a source of fascination for European and other visitors to Egypt. They are physically more impressive than the remains of most of the other cultures that once flourished in the Middle East or around the Mediterranean – think of the Giza Pyramids – and they seem to occupy an intriguing space that is at one close to us and almost immeasurably distant.

Individuals from ancient Egypt sometimes emerge from the surrounding haze in remarkably sharp focus, and surviving depictions of figures like the pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamun seem to escape from the prevailing stylization of ancient Egyptian art. The Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra was a fascinating celebrity figure for many even in ancient times.

Whatever the reason, many Europeans have been convinced that the physical remains of ancient Egypt must hold secrets that are just waiting to be revealed, with the physical and other difficulties of unearthing them being perhaps part of the attraction. As British author Toby Wilkinson explains in his new book A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology, while there was always a powerful interest among Europeans in ancient Egypt, it was only from the early decades of the 19th century onwards that visiting the modern country became a viable proposition.

The mystique of ancient Egypt attracted at first a trickle, and later a flood, of European visitors to Egypt, some of them pursuing dreams of unlocking ancient secrets, some drawn by the fortunes to be made discovering and selling on antiquities, and some simply abandoning careers that had not taken off or had stalled elsewhere.

The deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by Frenchman Jean-François Champollion in the 1820s must have led to some disappointment when it was discovered that those intriguing rows of pictures on temple walls sometimes yielded little more than the names of the kings that had erected them. But that possibly only heightened the attraction, as the mysteries of ancient Egypt could be seen to be yielding up their secrets to scientific investigation.

As Wilkinson reveals, the general pattern was for the many European rogues and adventurers who had piled into Egypt in the early decades of the 19th century gradually to give way to others having more respectable motivations. Amateurs were replaced by professionals, and Egyptology as a field of study gradually established itself. Successive discoveries in the field and careful study back home established the outlines of ancient Egyptian history, at first chronology and then an ever-richer picture of politics and society.

By the final decades of the 19th century, and with the outlines of ancient Egyptian history established along with proper archaeological procedures in the field, there was little space left for the kind of adventurers who had thrived in the earlier period of heroic exploration, when every year seemed to bring some new discovery and even many of the largest monuments still lay undisturbed beneath the sand. Even so, there were still many tales to be told of these earlier adventurers, and even later 19th-century professionals could have a louche side.

Among the earliest of the adventurer type of Egyptologist was Giovanni Battista Belzoni, originally an Italian circus strongman, who wound up in Egypt by chance in 1815. He was taken on by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, living in Cairo under the name of sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdullah, and he eventually turned himself into an Egyptological entrepreneur. In 1821, Belzoni “opened an exhibition of some of his finds, together with a scale model of the tomb of Seti I,” recently discovered on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, “in the appropriate surroundings of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly” in London, Wilkinson writes. “It attracted 1,900 visitors on its first day and ran for a year.”

Some later visitors who had a more genuinely scholarly interest in ancient Egyptian remains were also not averse to taking shocking liberties. The Englishman Richard Vyse, for example, arriving in Egypt in 1835 on a mission to explore the Giza Pyramids, “was resolved to leave no stone unturned,” Wilkinson says, in his case by blasting them open with gunpowder. Despite such brutal methods, “Vyse’s work at the Pyramids was the most important undertaken in Giza during the 19th century, and the resulting publication remained a standard work well into the 20th,” he comments.

This part of Wilkinson’s book describes many important discoveries, as well as often melancholy descriptions of resulting damage and considerable losses. Egypt was being stripped of its ancient heritage even as early as the 1820s, with the government of then Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali being content to play off one individual or country against another in the general scramble for antiquities.

“In the quarter century following the Napoleonic Expedition, the Young Memnon [a statue found at Thebes] and the sarcophagus of Seti I had been shipped to London, the Philae obelisk to Kingston Lacey [in England], and the Dendera zodiac to Paris,” Wilkinson writes. “Great quantities of smaller objects had been ruthlessly collected, then sold at a tidy profit, by European consuls and adventurers.”

“Many of the antiquities that remained in Egypt fared even worse. At Aswan, the pillared chapel on the island of Elephantine was dismantled in 1822 to build barracks and warehouses; other monuments were demolished to feed lime kilns… [and] between 1810 and 1828, 13 whole temples were lost,” he comments.


Professionalisation: The second half of the 19th century saw renewed competition between European collectors for a share of Egypt’s antiquities, often with the support of their respective governments, as well as a new awareness both of the need for conservation and for proper methods of excavation and research.

An important step was the arrival of German Egyptologists in the shape of a Prussian-government funded expedition led by Karl Richard Lepsius in 1842 that Wilkinson describes as “the greatest and best-prepared scientific expedition to Egypt that had ever been attempted.” Competition between France and Britain for Egyptological finds to place in the British Museum in London or the Louvre in Paris had been a feature of earlier decades, and now Prussia was entering the fight in order to build collections in the Berlin museums.

Modern Egypt, meanwhile, was also becoming better known, notably as a result of the British Arabist Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, published in London in 1836, and Cairo and Alexandria were becoming burgeoning tourist destinations. “What had been a relatively small community [of resident Europeans] of around 3,000 in 1836 had grown to a sizeable population of 50,000 by the end of the 1840s,” Wilkinson comments. “Cairo’s tourist infrastructure was undergoing something of a transformation” to accommodate the flux of visitors, with the Hotel d’Orient being one of the first in a long line of hotels that culminated in the famous Shepherd’s on Opera Square later in the century.

Lepsius, however, was not interested in Egypt as a leisure destination, and he made major contributions to Egyptology’s growing professionalisation. Later in the century, British Egyptologists Flanders Petrie and Ernest Budge made similar contributions, with Petrie in particular establishing modern excavation standards in the field.

The Frenchman Auguste Mariette was appointed the director of the Antiquities Service after the government of the khedive Said decided that more should be done to protect the country’s ancient heritage. While British and German Egyptologists might grumble at the French monopoly over heritage appointments, they also benefitted from arrangements that allowed foreign expeditions to keep half of any finds while lodging the rest at the Egyptian Museum under its director the Frenchman Gaston Maspero.

In an echo of the Prussian entry into Egyptology half a century before, in the final decades of the 19th century American Egyptologists started to arrive in Egypt, sometimes with the intention of stocking US museums with ancient Egyptian antiquities. In addition to new competitors for what by then was a shrinking pie, the Americans also brought money with them. Funding for European excavations had been a problem for years, with British Egyptologists in particular having to rely on scarce private funds.  

Rockefeller funding allowed US teams to begin excavating in Egypt, for example under the auspices of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute and its Chicago House in Luxor that still exists today. But private individuals could still be granted excavation rights if they were willing to meet the costs themselves. British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon, one of the last of the big private funders, thus acquired the right to excavate in the Valley of the Kings in his search for the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wilkinson has a sure touch when describing such developments, but he is on shakier ground when he describes what successive Egyptian governments made of all this largely foreign Egyptological activity, restricting his comments to a few generalisations.

There are some howlers, such as his claim that the newspaper Al-Ahram was set up by Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century, contradicted later on when he says it was established by the khedive Ismail as a government publication. None of this is true. He quotes from Egyptian “sheikh Abdel Rahman el-Djebarty” when describing the French Expedition to Egypt in 1799 and then from “professor at Al-Azhar Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti,” apparently without noticing that these two figures are in fact the same. There are also other examples.

But these do not spoil the matter of Wilkinson’s book, which is the history of European Egyptology in Egypt. He writes throughout with verve and fluency, managing to make what could have been a rather dry subject continuously interesting, and he draws attention to primary documents including the writings of the Egyptologists of the period, humanising their authors and probably making readers want to look up these materials themselves.


Toby Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology, New York: Norton, 2020, pp509

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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