Egyptomania! Why the World Went Mummy-mental and King Tut-Crazy

With the current King Tut exhibition on show in Toronto at the moment (check out our preview here) the city has been gripped by Egyptomania. Everybody’s talking about the Boy King, and the buzz permeates the whole city.

But what is Egyptomania, and how did it start?

Simply put Egyptomania is a fascination with ancient Egypt – its culture, artefacts, architecture, religion and language.

The term tends to refer to activities that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, but a careful look at history will reveal that the phenomenon dates from earlier times.

Mummy Parties

The first Egyptomaniacs were gung-ho mummimaniacs, and would have been found at mummy un-wrappings, held in

Mummies were unrolled (unwrapped) at frivolous social events in front of invited audiences. Most of these unwrappings had little scientific value

Mummies were unrolled (unwrapped) at frivolous social events in front of invited audiences. Most of these unwrappings had little scientific value,Western Europe as early as the 16th century. These unscientific events saw invited guests crowd into a house and unwrap a mummy to see what they would find.

Mummies were unrolled (unwrapped) at frivolous social events in front of invited audiences. Most of these unwrappings had little scientific value, said Rosalie David her 2008 book, Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science.

Not exactly a good start between Ancient Egypt and the west!

Egypt also had an impact on culture during this period. William Shakespeares work Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes the romance that helped bring about the Roman occupation of Egypt. Mummimania was also fuelled by the odd belief in Europe that mummies held medicinal powers (they’d obviously never come across the curse of the pharoah). King Francois I of France (reigned 1515-1547) travelled with a bag of crushed mummy powder to ward off illness.

But Egyptomania really got a shot in the arm at the end of the 18th century again not necessarily for thegood.

At this time the Ottoman Empire, the controller of Egypt, was in decline. The sick man of Europe was losing its ability to control its vast territory.

This paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte to invadeEgypt at the end of the 18th century. Although he held onto the country for only three years, this was long enough for a French team of scholars to explore the country, make drawings of what they found, and discover the all-important Rosetta Stone.

Their work was published in a series of volumes called Description de l’gypte between 1809 and 1822. Through stunningdrawings and detailed information they brought home the wonders of Ancient Egypt to the audiences of Europe.

The next 100 years would be filled with European and American Egyptian activity.

The Egyptian language was deciphered, allowing for great advances in study. Museums across the western world from London UK to Vancouver Canada had an insatiable demand for Egyptian Antiquities.

Some artefacts were brought out through careful scientific excavation – done by people such as Flinders Petrie.Others were brought out of Egypt by amateurs like Giovanni Belzoni. Many antiquities were stolen and in one notable case in the 1830s Howard Vyse (a British colonal) and John Perring, explored the Great Pyramids using dynamite. Not the most sensitive technique!

Its difficult to say why Egypt caught the imagination of Europe and America so suddenly. There seemed to be a number of events that happened at the same time that allowed Egyptomania to flourish.

  • The decline of the Ottoman Empire made Egypt ripe for entry by westerners.
  • The enlightenment provided a climate which fostered a desire for knowledge of ancient cultures.
  • Improvements in sailing technology during the Renaissance made it easier to get to Egypt and bring artefacts out.

Blame the Curse of King Tut

The discovery of King Tuts tomb by Howard Carter added fuel to the Egyptomania fire. Newspapers carried front-page stories about the discovery. Speculation that a curse of King Tut (watch our video on how to avoid the curse in this enlightening video featuring Dr Zahi Hawass) had felled members of the team added a layer of paranormal intrigue. The press went ballistic over the story of the curse, which gripped newspaper-readers throughout the western world.

‘Tutting’ a form of dance based (very loosely) on Egyptian art, took off in the 1970s, with comedian Steve Martin performing his own rendition on Saturday Night Live. In that same decade Tuts treasures toured North America, setting attendance records and etching the boy king firmly into popular culture.

Toronto Dance Crew “For the Funk of It” Tut at an AGO press conference in September.

King Tuts treasures are now on the road again in North America, attracting enormous crowds, and prompting the need for a new word – Tutmania. The funds the exhibitions are earning will help the Egyptians preserve and study archaeological sites in Egypt. Nearly 200 reporters turned upat themedia preview for the Toronto show, and local papers are filled with stories about the boy king.

Tut has also become something of a symbol for modern-day Egypt. Dr. Zahi Hawass said recently, shortly after a visit to Egypt by US President Barack Obama, that:

“There are two important ambassadors that will help relations between Egypt and the U.S.: One is King Tut, and the other is President Barack Obama.”

Egyptology is now a honed science. The days of using dynamite to excavate the Great Pyramids are long over. Excavations in Egypt are scientific, closely monitored, events. Objects no longer leave the country unless the Egyptian government approves ending the plundering that was endemic in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The publics interest in Egyptology has not waned. Egyptian language, history and archaeology are taught at universities around the world. A recent three day Egyptian symposium, in Toronto, attracted scholars from as far afield as Australia, Uruguay and Spain.

Hundreds of years after the start of crude Renaissance mummy un-wrappings, by Europeans with a thirst for knowledge, Egyptomania in the western world is alive and well.