200 years of understanding ancient Egypt — I

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 8 Mar 2022

The last century saw people waking up to the possibility that ancient Egypt was a reservoir of a richer and deeper knowledge than most observers had previously thought, writes Tarek Osman

A hundred years ago, British Egyptologist Howard Carter unveiled the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Within days, its contents had become world famous. Egyptomania, in Britain, France, and the US was born. 

On the surface, the fascination seemed to be with this ancient civilisation’s richness, aesthetics, and refined artistry. On the deeper level, however, there was a mystery about what the drawings, the burial methods, and the symbols of it could mean. 

The discovery of the tomb seemed to be a treasure, literally and metaphorically, from which new understandings could emerge. 

But this was hardly the beginning of the interest in ancient Egypt. By 1922, this had already been going on for a century since Champollion’s deciphering of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in 1822. 

Perhaps the first of these new understandings was the identification of order. Since the mid-19th century, Egyptologists had recognised patterns in Egyptian hieroglyphics that transcended ways of recording names and numbers. Some observers – especially those with artistic backgrounds such as the British orientalist Edward Lane – spoke of ancient Egyptian patterns of telling stories. He thought that stories carry meaning not merely in a literary sense, but also in terms of thought. 

In this view, ancient Egypt had a worldview that went beyond simplistic myths about the origins of the universe and the existence of life. The idea was that inherent in the theology and science of ancient Egypt were deeply held convictions about the universe, humanity, and what connects them. 

The findings in Tutankhamun’s tomb directed observers to the same line of thinking. Behind the immense displays of gold and jewels, there were exact and exacting patterns according to which the site was structured, the burial was undertaken, and the artefacts were organised. 

The most fascinating of these patterns was numerical. At first, and a decade or two after the discovery of the tomb, the only people paying real attention were those interested in numerology. But as explorers with the help of mathematicians from France began to report on the bewildering measurements of several ancient Egyptian sites and how they corresponded to physical and astronomical measurements, the notion that there lay behind the sites, the tombs, and the arrangements of objects a pattern that indicated a thought-order began to gain ground. 

Some scholars started to invoke Pythagoras in their writings about ancient Egypt. The fact that this towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy and science had come to Egypt was known. But few before the 1930s and 1940s had linked Pythagoras’s mathematical understanding of the world (as much as they had been able to piece it together) to an earlier worldview. 

The primary idea was that mathematical concepts expressed in the material world influence if not govern the patterns we see in the observed universe from cosmology to sound (hence, Pythagoras’s contributions to the science of music). The fact that Pythagoras might have learnt some of these ideas in the period he spent in Egypt prompted many to associate his observations with the numerical patterns that Egyptologists were discovering in the remains of ancient Egypt. 

For many, this indicated tremendous prowess. And as the media began to gain power in the 1950s and 1960s, the wonders – including bewildering mathematical marvels at ancient Egyptian sites from the Great Pyramid to the Karnak Temple – began to raise wider interest. Public consciousness was waking up to the possibility that ancient Egypt was a reservoir of a richer and deeper knowledge than most observers, and scholars of Egyptology, had thought. 

For some, this knowledge transcended Egypt. In this view, it had been there before ancient Egypt became what it was and remained there after it ceased to be. In this school of thought, ancient Egypt was a continuation of an earlier civilisation whose remains had been lost, in the same way that ancient Greece was a continuation of ancient Egypt. In both cases – and others – that continuing knowledge took a shape that corresponded to the culture, temperament, and geography of the place and society it was in during that era. 

Many historians dismiss this view, primarily on the grounds that the evidence supporting it is largely anecdotal. Others entertain it because it explains how Egypt’s advanced civilisation appeared with a sophistication unrivalled in the world at the time without having a clear growth and development trajectory. 

Perhaps the latter are drawn to this view because it is quite Platonic. The idea that there exists a continuing body of knowledge – of truth – moving throughout human history from one location to another and being moulded in one culture after another echoes Plato’s view that higher ideas inform, inspire, illuminate, and guide humanity towards moral advancement. 

It was a view that also solved dilemmas in early Egyptological work. This put forward rather simplistic explanations of ancient Egypt’s view of the world, the universe, and the place of humanity in it that were hardly commensurate with the mathematical and engineering prowess that ancient Egypt’s architecture demonstrated. 

This led to new narratives that tried to see symbolism in many of the stories that early Egyptologists had translated from drawings and inscriptions on temples and sites all over Egypt.

Deciphering symbols is all about connecting dots, and as a result there started new narratives about ancient Egyptian mythology that connected observations at sites to mathematical facts revealed by studies of architecture and comments attributed to ancient Greek authors, most notably the historian Herodotus. 

These narratives indeed followed a Platonic view of the world. According to them, there were two bodies of knowledge in ancient Egypt. One was simple and aimed at the masses and explained life and existence and the role of humans in it in a binary way as a fight between good and evil. It presented temptations and tests to humans, seeing their responses and actions as being rewarded or punished in the afterlife. 

The other was a deeper body of knowledge. In this, no binaries existed, and instead it rested on a sophisticated conception of the unity that encompasses the universe. Humanity exists in this and through this, and it is a unity that evolves all of its constituents, universe and man combined. 

There was a bit of Goethe in this approach or at least of the characteristic thinking of this early 19th-century German writer. Such narratives could only be perceived through an active imagination, a mind that finds, if not creates, the image out of which a bigger fabric takes shape.

Interestingly, such ways of looking at ancient Egypt prospered and found major audiences far away from Egypt itself, particularly in Britain, France, and the US. There, many writers wanted to anchor their Platonic-Goethite narratives on ancient Egypt. In their writings, ancient Egypt became not merely a place in which this continuing knowledge had manifested and advanced that civilisation at a particular moment in time, but also the centre of that continuing knowledge. 

The next article in this series will explain the particular focus on Egypt.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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