23 - 29 September 1999
Issue No. 448
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egyptomania's here to stayTarek Atia discovers an America obsessed with all things Egyptian
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Comment Focus Special Features Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Growing up in the United States, people always wanted to hear my story.
"Where are you from?" I was often asked. And once the word Egypt had been spoken, the awesome world conjured up by those five letters always seemed to carry the whole of human history and mystery within it.
Occasionally, the strength of its hold provided me with special privileges. As a wee fourth-grader, I was asked to become teacher for a day, and all my classmates paid close attention to my presentation on Egypt. During my first year at college, I became president of the student body thanks to a dramatic speech about being born by the banks of the Nile. While I was in high school, the whole country was dancing to a song called Walk Like an Egyptian. In elementary school, I waited three hours in line like everyone else to get into the museum where the gold treasure trove of a boy king named Tutankhamun were being displayed in the US for the first time. And whereas everyone else merely marvelled at what they saw, I possessed kinship with the beauty on display.
Bernie Solari was amazed that I was really from Egypt. He looked at me like I was an interesting specimen of bug, or perhaps a real dinosaur he'd run into after seeing a dinosaur exhibit at a museum. We were standing in the lobby of Richmond, Virginia's Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, where there was an "exhibit" of Ancient Egyptian plants called Pharaoh's Harvest. Solari, who was visiting the garden that day, said he used to build models of pyramids when he was a boy.
"Y'all have a great culture," Solari said, looking at my family in awe. He wondered if I'd noticed that Richmond was really going Egypt crazy this summer.
How couldn't I have noticed? The Virginia Fine Arts Museum is hosting an exhibition featuring 250 impressive pieces from 5,000 years of Egyptian sculpture and painting. The Planetarium is doing a show on Ancient Egyptian astronomy. The IMAX Theatre is showing a wide-screen film called Mysteries of Egypt. And an area university is plunged into a scholarly conference on "Egypt and Virginia". It was a town smitten with Egypt.
Later that same day, I spoke with Suzanne Hall, the public relations manager of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The Ancient Egypt show was the museum's biggest ever in its 63-year history. Hall said the museum had done an economic impact study on the revenue generated for the city in tourist dollars from the exhibit alone, and it had come out to $12 million. Such is the power and pull of Egypt. Nearly 200,000 $15 tickets for the exhibit had been sold so far. The gift shop, dubbed The Egyptian Marketplace, was doing a brisk business. Donations to the museum were on the rise. A museum-organised trip to Egypt was sold out. It was happy times in Richmond, thanks to the Ancient Egyptians.
From top to bottom: The ad for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibition; Pepi and her son; the canopic jars from the exhibit, soon to be used as kitchen canisters(photos courtesy of the Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, Germany); Luxor, Las Vegas, home of the Ra nightclub (postcard photo by William Carr); scenes from the Edgar Cayce Foundation in Virginia Beach: posters for the Egypt conference, and the foundation's imposing headquarters (photos: Tarek Atia); Minister of Culture Hosni admires an exhibit; The Original Y2K (BC) Bug, sold for a dollar at the Richmond gift shop; touring the galleries at the Met; crowds flock to the opening of the Met exhibition(photo: Don Pollard)
A week later, I was in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, attending a preview tour of the much-hyped exhibition, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids. This is the second of three major Egyptian exhibits taking place in the US this year. A show on the Amarna period opens in Boston in November.
It has been a year filled with images of Ancient Egypt. You can't turn on the TV without chancing upon a special about the "mysteries of the Pyramids" or the recent mummy find in Bahariya Oasis. Even the US Air Force is plugging Egypt in its recruitment ads as an exotic place you get to go to if you join up.
"The appeal of Egypt has sold everything from tobacco to cars, lent drama and exoticism to stories, films and popular holidays," according to a description of an Egyptomania exhibit organised by the Detroit Institute of Art.
Maggie Mayo, the curator of the Egypt exhibit in Richmond, explains the phenomenon with a simple paradox: "Even though they left so much, it's still a mystery, and that's why it's so interesting." There's nothing unusual about Westerners being so crazy about Egypt, adds Mayo, who is wearing Egyptian jewellery: pyramid earrings, oval necklace, serpent ring. "The Greeks and Romans were, too."
Pyramids and mummies may be two of the biggest buzz-words in the world today, but the American love affair with Egypt goes far deeper than that. Many Americans from different backgrounds say their earliest link to Egypt was the Bible, and the stories they were told as children. Furthermore, the designs of everything from jewellery to architecture in the US are rooted in Egyptian style. As Bruce Trigger writes in Egyptology, Ancient Egypt and the American Imagination, the US government frequently used Ancient Egyptian architectural archetypes in promoting new technologies like waterworks and railways, thus giving them an "aura of reliability". The pyramid, of course, is on the back of the dollar bill, and on a hundred television commercials and company logos. There's no two ways about it: people go nuts over Egypt. A few hundred years ago it used to be just scraggly adventurers and the idle rich, but now four-year-olds from Nebraska are trading mummy data over the Internet.
"If you want to be sure you're going to get good crowds, put Egypt on there. It appeals to African-Americans, schoolchildren, and beauty-lovers of all ages," says Mayo. She gets up and searches around the wall-to-wall shelves of her office, which are packed with exhibit catalogues from across the country. "Rhode Island, '98-'99, Gifts of the Nile... Cleveland, '92, Egypt's Dazzling Sun... Brooklyn, '88, Cleopatra's Egypt... Cincinnati, '97, Women of Ancient Egypt."
It is precisely the women of Ancient Egypt who lend us yet another clue to the West's fascination with our civilisation. Hatshepsut and Cleopatra were powerful leaders; they are symbols to many in the US of the ultimate equality between men and women in a civilised society.
"Frankly, looking at how sophisticated Egypt was makes me realise that we're not as civilized as we think we are," reflected Suzanne Hall. We were sitting at the Oasis, the café that had been opened up just for the Egypt exhibit. Referring to a statue of Pepi and her son, Hall said: "You see people touching each other in the art. There's an affection, there's a fondness for each other that transcends the thousands of years that these objects have been in tombs, and reaches out and touches us today."
A recent article in the Washington Post argued that Ancient Egypt represented a "culture, much of which looks surprisingly familiar to modern eyes, [and] seems far less alien than that of, say, Colonial America."
In fact, both the Richmond and New York exhibits feature examples of attempts to place the Pharaohs in the context of modern day terms, and to emphasise, even if subconsciously, certain similarities between ancient Egypt and modern America. The terms used to describe the exhibits make them seem uncannily up-to-date: a statue of Princess Redjief (the earliest three-dimensional figure of any member of the royal family) at the Met wears a "tight fitting linen sheath" with a "plunging neckline". Both exhibits feature numerous pieces of jewellery, palettes for crushing cosmetics, and pieces from board games. The organisers may be trying to say that both Ancient Egypt and the US today are societies marked by complete confidence, sure of their global hegemony, societies asserting their technological and cultural wealth, with its emphasis on image and style.
But a society's efflorescence also comes at a price.
Listening to the audio tape that accompanies the Richmond exhibit, and which features a snippet from a poem by an Ancient Egyptian man, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a description of modern-day America: "To whom can I speak today? Brothers are evil and the friends of the day unlovable. Gentleness has perished, and the violent man has come down on everyone..."
If the Pharaohs wanted immortality, that's what they're getting now. But not on their own terms, perhaps: replicas of canopic jars are selling well at the museum shops -- people plan to use them as kitchen canisters, according to the museum brochure. Not only are the sacred contents of tombs being brazenly displayed, they are being sold as pasta containers.
"Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god," reads an ad for a nightclub at Luxor, Las Vegas, the casino that features replicas of the Pyramids and the Nile, "walked the heavens by day and raged in the underworld by night. Obviously, he could throw a mean party. In modern day Las Vegas, his legacy continues at the hottest spot on the strip, Ra, the nightclub at Luxor."
When Howard Carter opened up King Tut's tomb in 1922, many of his crew suffered the consequences. The day after the Metropolitan Museum's Egypt exhibit opened, a major hurricane hit the US. Kosovo, Timor, earthquakes and hurricanes: could Egyptomania be behind them all?
EGYPTOMANIA FOR THE EGYPTIANS? The US loves Egypt -- Ancient Egypt, at least.
It's at the museum gift shops that it truly becomes clear how many people are making money off the brand. Besides the traditional T-shirts and statues, there are scarab and mummy tins, oils and perfumes (sweet almond, lotus, cinnamon leaf, cedar), Egyptian soapstone, natural clay bath bars, scarab-shaped note-pads, a board game called Tut Tut, and books galore: The Message of the Sphinx, The Secrets of the Sphinx, The Eyes of the Sphinx, From Atlantis to the Sphinx, to name just a few.
But for modern Egyptians, there's something far more interesting going on. Constantly being placed before a distorted mirror can be both comforting and a little eerie. Much that is Egyptian is being used without our participation. Whether we like it or not, cartoons and movies in the West have sealed the idea that Ancient Egypt is all about the gory mystery of mummies: intestines and hearts stored in jars, bodies wrapped for all eternity.
Hollywood, of course, has long made its mark on the psyche and the pocketbook of Americans via movies set in Egypt such as The Mummy, Cleopatra and, these days, The Prince of Egypt and a remake of The Mummy. But it's hard to get away from Ancient Egypt in the US these days. You pour yourself some cereal and find there's an ancient Egyptian mummy game on the back of the box. When I discovered, purely by chance, that the marshmallows I was snacking on were actually invented by the ancient Egyptians (at least that's what it said on the back of the package), it opened my eyes to how often the magic of Egypt was being invoked in the US in some way or another.
Gaballa Ali Gaballa, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) secretary-general, describes the people who make money off of Egypt as "smart". There are those who fill their suitcases, and occasionally a shipping container or two, with the alabaster statues, ankhs, papyrus, and wooden boxes that make their way to souvenir shops and malls in Europe and the US. For its part, the SCA seems to be shifting to an active global lending policy, catering to the demand for exhibit pieces from Egypt, with all the fringe benefits attached.
But should Egyptians increase their participation in the glorification of Ancient Egypt even at the expense of its distortion, and a constant neglect of the modern society Egypt has become?
In Cairo, the Pharaonic heritage is not always on people's minds, not in the mysterious "fascinated Western" style at least. It's taken for granted that everything from brain surgery to writing, cloning to bowling, was first invented by the ancient Egyptians.
Egyptians may be keenly aware of the glory of their civilisation, and refer to Egypt as Umm Al-Dunia, the mother of the world; but we have yet to discover the manifold ways of "investing in" our heritage, as Gaballa puts it.
Maybe finding the proper approach to that investment is the real key to creating a balance between old and new.
EVERYONE CAN BE A PHARAOH: The spirit of Ancient Egypt touches different people in different ways. In Virginia Beach, about 100 miles east of Richmond, a man named Edgar Cayce, who claimed to have been an Egyptian priest 10,000 years ago, set up his Association for Research and Enlightenment in 1929. Today, it has over 35,000 members and runs on a multi-million-dollar annual budget.
Cayce, who died in 1945, is considered a visionary by some, since much of what he taught later formed the core of the New Age movement, the popular religion/fad that claims wisdom from Ancient Egypt as one of its major tenets. Cayce was said to have healing powers: by going into a trance, he connected to a source of wisdom which allowed him to answer any question. He gave out advice on health, diet and history, among other things, and his 14,000 sayings and prophecies are compiled and studied on a daily basis at the Foundation's Headquarters in Virginia Beach.
I was scheduled to speak to the former director, John van Auken, himself the author of a book called Ancient Egyptian Mysticism and its Relevance Today. Auken, like Cayce, believes there is a yet-to-be-discovered Hall of Records under or near the Sphinx, which may hold essential clues for mankind's future. As we waited, my wife and I took a tour of the complex's meditation centre with its serene view of the ocean, the Japanese garden with its gurgling stream, and the book shop with its Anubis mouse pad.
One of the receptionists took an interest in our 10-month-old son. She asked where we were from. When we said "Egypt" she didn't look surprised. "You know, I was just thinking he looked like a pharaoh," she said calmly.
Van Auken told me how his interest in Egypt began. "I had a few dreams, and a couple of -- shall we call them mystical experiences -- that had an Egyptian theme to them, so I started reading books about Egypt. It seems like somewhere within me I had an intuitive sense. I really got caught up in it... I started traveling regularly to Egypt... giving tours... some years I did four tours a year. I was over there two months of every year. Now I try to just do one tour a year, so I don't wear myself out."
Van Auken, who lectures across the country, often speaks of the similarities between Ancient Egypt and modern America. These days, with doctors possessing the means to bring people "back from the dead", van Auken cites the descriptions people give of what they see when they have near-death experiences, as being "very similar to the Egyptian borderland, the netherland, that sort of wandering place where the soul is trying to find its way. Almost all of them recall a moment where they saw their life being judged before them. In Ancient Egypt your heart had to be weighed to see whether you were worthy or not."
Van Auken believes that "Americans and Europeans cannot get enough of Egypt, and every time there's something new discovered, or some new concept revealed, such as the Orion mystery, everything goes crazy again."