Book Review: A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson

To people in the West, Egypt has always been a land of mystery, history and glimmering beauty. This has been true for much of the history of Europe, even to the ancient Romans. The pyramids were already over 2,000 years old when Julius Caesar first set eyes on them in the first century BC, and throughout history empires have tried to claim Egypt’s legacy as their own by stealing monuments and obelisks.

Almost two thousand years later, Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries were also fascinated by the mix of classical and biblical imagery in Egypt, leading to a craze of Egyptian exploration, tourism and treasure hunting which was inexorably linked to European, specifically French and British, colonialism.

In Wilkinson’s captivating, detailed history of the academic field of Egyptology we see how our fascination with ancient Egypt grew and get a glimpse of what it must have been like to make discoveries which shook our understanding of human history. All too often the early archeologists who explored Egypt looking for antiquities were more gloried treasure than serious scholars, but it’s hard to downplay the adventure and excitement of early nineteenth century Egyptian exploitation. As French Egyptologist Maspero put it: 

Many people imagine that archeology is an armchair science. I would like to see them dangling from a rope, with a 30-meter shaft beneath their feet, and an inscription to copy at the bottom of the soft; or on their belly in a narrow passage dug through the masonry of a pyramid, aware that one false move dislodging a stone could cause 100 tonnes of stone to fall on your back…

Maspero

The book focusses on a colourful cast of characters, like Giovanni Batista Belzoni, an Italian giant who became a leading figure in the early days of Egyptology and British consult to Egypt, Henry Salt and his rival Drovetti, who tore up the Egyptian countryside in their race for mummies and lost treasures. We also look at some of the leaders of Egypt itself, who at various times tried to protect Egypt’s heritage against the thieving Westerners, or used them as bargaining chips to play Western powers off each other.

Wilkinson, Lepsius and Mariette stand out: the three intrepid founders of Egyptology. Wilkinson published the first day to day history of Egyptology, Lepsius created the defining work of the era, and Mariette discovered the famous Serapeum, ‘the find of the century,’ plundering its treasures by night and shipping them back to Paris against the wishes of the Egyptian government. Ironically, Mariett then became a champion of Egypt keeping its own treasures, opening the first Egyptian museum.

Too often the dark underbelly of racism and colonialism that permeated the discoveries is forgotten in our collective consciousness of Egypt. The removal of so many of Egypt’s treasures is an uncomfortable aspect of the early days of archeology, and an issue that still has yet to be resolved, with many of Egypt’s treasures still sat in the national museums of Britain, France and Germany.

But it’s such a alluring topic, it’s hard not to be drawn into the atmosphere and adventure of it all. The thought of being the first person into those temples for almost three thousand years is almost incomprehensible, as Wilkinson’s description of one of Mariette’s discoveries shows:

Mariette subsequently discovered an earlier, intact burial made in the reign of Ramessess II and overseen by his son, the High Priest of Ptah, Khaemwaset. In the thin layer of sand which covered the floor around the sarcophagus, the footprints of the ancient Egyptian workmen were still visible; and around the doorway were the fingerprints of the priest who had sealed the chamber more than three thousand years before.

The most interesting chapters perhaps focus on the sadly forgotten women of Egyptology: Lucie Duff Gordon and Amelia Edwards. Duff Gordon championed the plight of Egypt’s poor underclass at a time when most ruling Europeans couldn’t care less. Edwards spoke up against the destruction of ancient Egyptian monuments, providing an invaluable service to history. 

Another remarkable story is that of Ernst Budge, a British museum worker who went head to head against the British colonial and Egyptian authorities to steal Egyptian artefacts and sneak them back to London, at one point digging a tunnels under his storehouse to a nearby hotel while distracting the Egyptian police stationed outside so his team could sneak out antiquities. 

The history of Egyptology takes a darker turn as the British occupy and colonise Egypt, as part of a tense agreement with the French. But ironically this begins a golden age of Egyptology, coinciding with the establishment of Egyptian Exploration Fund by Edwards and eventually leading to the one of the greatest discoveries of all time: Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Wilkinson’s book is highly engaging, and a entertaining, while meticulously detailed read for those interested in the golden age of Egyptology, and a bygone age of British history. Highly recommended!

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