To reflect on how a civilisation thought about the divine is to look her into the eyes, attempting to delve into her soul – which is what the previous article in this series has tried to do.
Those who attempted that deep look before often philosophised (to put their understandings into relatable analogies), sometimes romanticised (to conceive the civilisation’s soul with their hearts as well as with their minds), and in some cases even eroticised (bringing their fantasies of what is secular into realms the civilisation had reserved for what is sacred).
In Egypt, as in the most elevated understandings of true humanity, the secular and sacred merged, two gates that lead onto two essences of a whole that’s one. But that journey into Egyptian thought – and soul - is for another time.
Today’s article concerns how those who had philosophised, romanticised, and eroticised often took ancient Egypt away from her milieu into a historical and geographical exile.
The geographical exile was in exporting artefacts to the West, with Paris, London, Rome, and Washington DC, the prime destinations. For the exporters, the artefacts were spirited away from the mud and sand into which they had sunk for centuries, to be displayed with glamour in humanity’s new centres of power and glory, and crucially of knowledge. In the minds of many, the exporting out of Egypt was saving the remains of ancient Egypt from ignorance and bringing them to where they would be looked after, and perhaps more importantly, understood.
But this entailed a historical exile. Obelisks in the West, say in Paris or Washington, brought with them subtle meanings, for those who know how to look. They certainly added glamour to the milieus into which they were placed. But these were not their milieus. Meanings do not survive intact out of the contexts into which they were put. Plots do not carry their true weight if they were told, as opposed to unfold in a book.
Ancient Egypt, as we discussed in the first article in this series, is a book with many chapters feeding into each other. It is a book whose pages are to be read on the walls and ceilings of temples and tombs all over the land. The artefacts, statues, and obelisks that were siphoned away were given new lives where they were taken. But they were pages torn off from that book.
The torn off pages are missed. But given the tremendous scale of the civilisation and what it has left us in Egypt – the weighty erudition in the book - the torn off pages do not cut off the book’s narrative.
Away from the country, the torn off pages remain full of informing and enchanting knowledge, but they become individualised items in a civilisation that was whole and that directed towards wholeness. One can stand in front of the obelisk in Paris’s Place de la Concord. The observer admires, and the observed awes; and for those like Goethe who look to immerse themselves, who look to participate, the obelisk will inspire. But the obelisk was not made to stand alone; it was part of a bigger construct, put in the midst of a larger scene. Placed at the Place de la Concorde, the obelisk stands in dignity, retaining the knowledge that ancient architects and authors placed on her. Yet, she stands separated from the narrative she was designed and written to be a part of.
This separateness dictated historical exile, which in turn severed the meanings entailed in the features of ancient Egypt (its temples, tombs, and artefacts) from the flow of history on that land.
The separateness was often intentional – certainly it was needed. The Egyptologists who had opened the heavy gates of the ancient civilisation after centuries of heavy closure and rust accumulation, understandably saw what they had discovered as utterly disconnected from modern Egypt. For them, they were resuscitating the civilisation from the silent recesses of history. The differences between what was in the distant past and what is in contemporary Egypt was so vast, that, the modern Egyptologists reckoned, fully separate the ancient civilisation from the present culture.
This led to the culmination of geographic and historic exile - viewing ancient Egypt as not really Egyptian in the modern view of today’s Egypt, but rather as a global civilisation, a period of advanced knowledge that happened to have had existed on that land, and that was now totally gone. In this view, the remains of that civilisation are disconnected, in almost everything, from today’s Egypt. And so, with this understanding of ancient Egypt, the Concord obelisk could stand well alone in Paris away from its home in Luxor – because in this understanding, modern day Luxor is no longer that obelisk’s home.
Ancient Egyptology could not have conceived such thought, such separation between old and new. As we’ve seen in the first article in this series, early students of ancient Egypt, such as Pythagoras and Plato, realised that there is a continuous flow of knowledge that is a fundamental feature – and meaning – not only of ancient Egypt, but of the knowledge that ancient Egypt was a representation of. To effect such a separation and see periods and products of that civilisation as individualised, disconnected from their milieu, was a colossal failure in understanding the civilisation and the knowledge entailed in it.
But like any failure, it is corrected – for there indeed were modern Egyptologists, in and out of Egypt, who grasped and respected the continuity, the wholeness of the civilisation. For them, ancient and modern Egypt are false constructs; there is only one Egypt, whose historical flow and geo-political coherence are but ever-present features. The next article in this series will look at the work of these thinkers.