I have always been a collector. When I was a kid growing up in the East Bronx, I collected acorns. I’d gather them in the fall, sort by size and color and organize them in small compartments I made in a shoebox for the purpose. The collection stayed intact for a week or so until the worms came out and my mother threw the box away. Later it was baseball cards. I wasn’t really interested in baseball or the players on the cards. It was order that interested me – a numbered set waiting to be completed.
When I became an Egyptologist, I started collecting Egyptomania, anything relating ancient Egypt – comic books, movie posters, bars of Cleopatra soap, even a Barbie on the Nile doll. At some point, I realized I wasn’t the only one who thought this was neat stuff. When friends came over the house they were fascinated by our Egypto-trash. They weren’t just being polite. They asked questions, wanted to know the history of each piece, where I found the Victorian thermometer in the shape of an obelisk, or the Singer Sewing Machine with Egyptian decorations. The musically inclined were drawn to the hundreds of 1920s pieces of sheet music with their art deco covers and titles such as Old King Tut was a Wise Old Nut or Cleopatra Had a Jazz Band. Old King Tut was written when Tutankhamen’s tomb was first discovered in 1922. The excavators hadn’t gotten to the burial chamber yet to discover that Tut was a boy king, so he appears on the sheet music as an old man with a cigar!
Egypt excites people in ways no other country can. Ask any museum curator what the two biggest attractions are – Egypt and dinosaurs. Why the fascination? I have been trying to answer that question for 30 years. Part of it is escapism. Egypt is a land far, far away and long, long ago. It’s exotic. The hieroglyphs seem indecipherable, the pyramids appear unbuildable, and the art is unsurpassable, and it’s all thousands of years old. Egypt is a Metropass to a mysterious ancient civilization. This is escapism, but it is not the whole story of why people are drawn to ancient Egypt.
What about all those little kids begging to be taken to the Egyptian section of the museum? What does Egypt have that Greece doesn’t? One thing is mummies. Mummies gives us chance to confront death in a non-threatening way. When else can a child –or adult– stare at a dead body? Even better — usually a dead body is a sign that someone has lost – been hit by a car, died of cancer, or simply aged. With a mummy we not looking at a loser, we have a winner, someone who is 3,000 years old and isn‘t dust, who isn’t just a pile of bones in a coffin. We are looking at a recognizable human being who was walking and talking just like us, but 30 centuries ago. Perhaps when we look at a mummy there is a bit of envy. It’s almost as if he succeeded, he beat the Grim Reaper. In a way, he is immortal, and we all would like a piece of that. So we’re hooked; for whatever reason, we buy into ancient Egypt, learn the hieroglyphs, read the books, visit the museum collections, and look at the art. The next step is going to mummy movies, buying sheets and pillowcases with pharaohs and lotus flowers on them, watching the same “How They Built the Pyramids” documentary on TLC four times. Before know it, you are buying obelisk salt and pepper shakers and searching for Egyptian themed chachkas where ever you go. At this stage there is no turning back, you have the disease, Egyptomania.
Bob Brier, author of Egyptomania (Palgrave Macmillan).
You can buy Egyptomania on Hive right here