Discovering Ancient Egypt

We are tending to think that the ancient Egypt is discovered by the Europeans, around the end of 18th century. However, what we call Ancient Egypt, is a civilisation of more than 3000 years. The discoveries, excavations, reconstruction were begin within this time. Thutmosis IV recorded on the famous Dream Stele, when, yet as prince got tired in hunting and had a rest under the shadow of the Sphinx, and seen a strange dream. After his coronation, since the dream became true, he freed off the Sphinx from under the sand, and erected the Stele between the forelegs. Also Rameses the Great is famous of his reconstruction of several memorials of the Old Kingdom (for his own greater reputation, too), e.g. the pyramid of Wenis in Saqqara. It is recorded there that reconstruction has led by the pharaoh’s son, prince Khachemwaset. By the extremities in history of Egypt there were memorials to restore all the time, and it is often happened that they had their man to do it. We have to respect even the ancient historians, too. We have to mention Herodotus (5th century BC.), Diodorus Sicullus (around 80 BC), Strabo (64 BC? – 24 AD?; he visited Egypt around 30 BC) and Plutarch (1st century AD). When Manetho did his work on the history of Egypt, the Old Kingdom and the Archaic Ages were as further in time than the Persian Rule from our time. Manetho was separated from Menes by a greater time gap, than we from Alexander the Great. The knowledge of old times was restored by the temples, traditions, oblation and propitiatory inscriptions and spoken tradition. But it involved living tradition, more or less standing monuments, readable inscriptions in a known language, steles of familiar symbols. Egypt had been lost when the Arabic influence and Turkish supervision took over. The Arabic travellers had seen her miracles through the mirror of superstitions, legends and strange fables. Egypt suffered under the oppression of the Ottoman Empire for more than six hundred years!

We know almost nobody who visited the shores of the Nile within the time of Middle Age and Renaissance. There was a publication in 1589 whose author named Anonimo Venetiano (Unnamed Venetian) went up to Thebes. In 1638, John Greaves English astronomer made accurate measuring on the pyramids and published his works under the title Pyramidographia. The news came faster from then, and Benoit de Maillet published detailed descriptions about Egypt in 1735, and even drew the cross section of the Great Pyramid. In 1766 a Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville made his famous map which was used by Napoleon’s expedition.

When Napoleon went to Egypt, he made the first great step for Europeans to regain her marvels. Napoleon showed great respect to ancient Egypt and the expectance of the wise, and his army had scientists, engineers, artists and cartographers to discover the secrets and culture of the Two Land. The “Scientific Squad” was led by Dominique Vivant Denon, and they returned with accurate measurements, catalogues, drawings one can trust in. All the results were published in twenty volumes of 'Description de l'Égypte', a book of more than two hundred authors. They work was perfect and convenient. Later, when the Egyptian writings were resolved, one could find even those hard to see parts of notation called determinatives, what helped to understand the text. They had only one point where they failed: to decipher the writing. But neither this took long time.

In 1799, when Napoleon’s war was about to end, at a village called Rosette located in the Delta, a French officer Bouchard found a stone of special interest. This contained a trilingual text which gave the clues to Jean-François Champollion to resolve hieroglyphics by 1822. This huge work involved his special gift of languages. He knew the coptic language very well, and some semitic languages, too. And he had stamina and motivation, could we say predestination, for this brave and outstanding job.

At that time the things sped up well. In 1813, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, and in 1815, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, "the Strong Man of Egypt" set his foot to Egypt’s land and started his work. Between 1816 and 1818 he made his name at several places: entered to the Cephren pyramid, to the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, found the tomb of Sethi I at the Valley of the Kings. Champollion visited to Egypt with one of his students, Ippolito Rosellini, to check their own work, then an other student of him, the Prussian Richard Lepsius sailed along the Nile all the way up to Meroe. And there was another brave man who signed the Great Book of Egyptology by that time: the Scot David Roberts who did even the winged sun we have at the top of our site, visited all the main sites of Egypt and drew them, with scientific accuracy.

1855 is another important year of Discovery of the Two Land: the Frenchman Auguste Mariette found the Archaeology Institute of Egypt (the name may be different) then played a major role of founding the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. He did important excavations at Saqqara discovering the Serapeum and other places of great importance, and found the famous diorite statue ‘Cephren with Horus’ at the Valley Temple of the Cephren pyramid. His apprentice was Gaston Maspero who later discovered the cachette in Deir el Bahri under adventurous circumstances worth for a crime movie. At that hiding place were rest the mummies of the most important pharaohs of the New Kingdom. William Flinders Petrie is famous of surfacing the great pre-dynastic cemetery of Nagada, and discovery of royal tombs of 1st dynasty.

Right in the first years of the twentieth century, Ernesto Schiaparelli, Maspero’s former apprentice who founded the Italian Mission of Archaeology, opened up some tombs in the Valley of the Queens, including the finest, tomb of Rameses II’s beloved wife Nefertari.

In 1922 Howard Carter fired up the world, when, after thirty years of systematic research he discovered the nearly intact tomb of the almost unknown pharaoh of less importance, Tutankhamun, full of treasures. Such a success need nearly twenty years to turn up again, but Pierre Montet had great luck in 1939: by the site of old Tanis, on the Eastern parts of the Delta, he discovered several intact royal and noble tombs of the 21st and 22nd dynasties. One of them, Psusennes', keeps up with Tutankhamun’s with its treasures and artistic qualities.

Certainly the discoveries didn’t end up yet, but the balance shifts from the treasures to the restoring, conservation, and presenting, too. Unfortunately, sometimes without success. There are cases when few years of public display made worse than thousands years forgotten under the sand. But this is another topic still to come.

(partly based on works of Alberto Siliotti and others)

Up one level Previous page Next page Back to the top