A hundred years ago, Howard Carter unveiled the tomb of Tutankhamun. Within days, its contents became world famous. Egyptomania, in Britain, France, and the US, was born.
At the surface, the fascination seemed to be with the ancient civilisation’s richness, aesthetics, and refined artistry. At its depth, however, there was the mystery of what the drawings, the burial methods, and the symbols-full artefacts mean.
The discovery seemed a treasure (actually and metaphorically) from which new understandings could emerge.
But this was hardly the beginning. By 1922 the attempts to understand Ancient Egypt were already going on for a century, since Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in 1822.
Perhaps the first of these new understandings was order. Egyptologists had, since the mid nineteenth century, recognised several patterns in Egyptian hieroglyphics. These transcended ways of recording names and numbers. Some observers – especially with artistic backgrounds such as Edward Lane – spoke of Ancient Egyptian patterns of telling stories. Stories indicate narrative, not merely in a literary sense, but in terms of thought. In this view Ancient Egypt had a worldview that had gone beyond simplistic myths about the origin of the universe and the existence of life. The idea here was that inherent in the theology and science of Ancient Egypt there were deeply held convictions about the universe, humans, and what connect them.
The findings in Tutankhamun’s tomb directed to the same line of thinking. Behind the immense displays of gold and jewels, there were clearly exact and exacting patterns according to which the site was structured, the burial was undertaken, and the artefacts were organised.
The most fascinating of these patterns were numerical. At the beginning – a decade or two after the discovery – only those interested in numerology were paying attention. But as some explorers, with the help of mathematicians especially from France, began to report on the bewildering and often shocking measurements of several ancient Egyptian sites and how they correspond to physical and astronomical measurements, the notion that there lay behind the sites, the tombs, and the arrangements of objects, a pattern that indicated a thought-order, began to gain ground.
Some scholars started to invoke Pythagoras in their writings about Ancient Egypt. That this towering figure in Greek philosophy and science had come to Egypt was known. But few before the 1930s and 1940s had linked his mathematical understanding of the world (as much as we are able to piece it together) to an earlier worldview. The primary idea here was that mathematical concepts, expressed in the material world, influence if not govern the patterns we see in the observed universe, from cosmology to sound (hence, Pythagoras’s contributions to the science of music). And that Pythagoras might had learnt some (if not a lot) of these ideas in the period he had spent in Egypt, prompted many to associate his observations with the numerical patterns that Egyptologists were then discovering in the remains of Ancient Egypt.
For many, this indicated tremendous engineering prowess. And as mass media began to gain power in the 1950s and 1960s, the wonders – including bewildering mathematical marvels in Ancient Egyptian sites, from the Grand Pyramid to Karnak – began to raise wider interest. Public consciousness was waking up to the possibility that Ancient Egypt was a reservoir of a richer and deeper knowledge than most observers, and scholars of Egyptology, had thought.
For some, this knowledge transcended Egypt. In this view, this knowledge had been there before Ancient Egypt became what it was and remained after Ancient Egypt ceased to be. And so in this school of thought, Ancient Egypt was a continuation of an earlier civilisation whose remains had been lost, in the same way that Ancient Greece was a continuation of Ancient Egypt. And in both cases – and others – that continuing knowledge took a shape that corresponded to the culture, temperament, and geography of the place and society it was in during that era.
Many historians dismiss this view, primarily on the grounds that the evidence supporting it is largely anecdotal. Many Classicists, on the other hand, entertain it because it explains how Egypt’s advanced civilisation had appeared with a sophistication unrivalled in its contemporary world and without having a clear growth and development trajectory.
Perhaps Classicists are drawn to this view because it is quite Platonic. The idea that there exists a continuing body of knowledge – of truth – moving throughout human history, from one location to another, being moulded in one culture after another, has loud echoes of Plato’s view that higher ideas and ideals inform, inspire, illumine, and guide humanity – or enlightened communities - towards moral advancement.
This view solved a dilemma in early Egyptology work. There we found rather simplistic explanations of Ancient Egypt’s view of the world, the universe, and the place of humanity in it, which were hardly commensurate with the mathematical and engineering prowess that Ancient Egypt’s architecture demonstrated.
This led to new narratives that tried to see symbolism in many of the stories that early Egyptologists had translated from the drawings and inscriptions on temples and sites all over Egypt.
Deciphering symbols is all about connecting dots. And so there started new narratives about Egyptian mythology that connected observations in sites, to mathematical facts revealed by studies of Egyptian architecture, to comments attributed to Greek authors, most notably Herodotus.
These narratives indeed followed a Platonic view of the world. According to which, there were two bodies of knowledge in Ancient Egypt. One simple, aimed at the masses, that explained life and existence and the role of humans in it in a binary way – a fight between good and evil, temptations and tests to humans, and that their responses and actions are rewarded or punished in the afterword.
The other was a deeper body of knowledge. In it, no binaries existed; rather it rested on a sophisticated conception of unity that encompasses the universe in which, and through which, humanity exists - a unity that evolves all of its constituents, universe and man combined.
There was a bit of Goethe in this approach. These narratives could only be perceived through an active imagination, a mind that finds, if not creates, the images-in out of which a bigger fabric takes shape.
Interestingly these narratives prospered and found major audiences far away from Egypt, particularly in Britain, France, and the US. There, many writers found it crucial to anchor their Platonic-Goethite narratives on Ancient Egypt in particular. In these writings, Ancient Egypt became not merely a place in which this continuing knowledge had manifested and advanced that civilisation at a particular moment in time; rather Ancient Egypt became the centre of that continuing knowledge. The next episode of this series explains this particular focus on Egypt.