Gina Davidson: Egyptian mysteries are far from history

Ahead of a major new exhibition on Egyptian history, Gina Davidson asks why we’re so fascinated by it all

By Gina Davidson
Wednesday, 19th October 2011, 1:03 pm

MUMMIES and curses, papyrus and hieroglyphics, scarab beetles and bizarre animal-headed gods, and who could forget the pyramids . . . but what did the Egyptians ever really do for us?

While the Romans may have left us a useful legacy of roads, irrigation and viaducts, the ancient Egyptians seem only to have instilled in us a pre-occupation with their weird and wonderful cultures, in particular their way of dealing with death and their belief in the afterlife.

Indeed so intrigued are some by mummification that – aptly just before Halloween – a television programme will show how the late Alan Billis from Torquay was recently the first person to be mummified in 3000 years using the same techniques as those used on the pharaohs.

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But just what is it about ancient Egypt that it inspires such intrigue – and so many TV documentary repeats?

Why was one of Edinburgh’s top scientists so fascinated that he determined to prove that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built by Noah and therefore Christianity was God’s true belief? Why did a pensioner from Blackhall spend his retirement trying to find a fabled lost city near Cairo?

Why are there pyramids scattered around the Lothians? And why do Egyptian exhibitions at the Capitals’s museums and galleries always generate massive visitor numbers?

Certainly experts seem to agree that the roots of fascination with all things Egyptian date from the Battle of the Nile between Nelson and Napoleon in 1798, when the Rosetta stone was found and hieroglyphics first entered the mass consciousness.

By the mid-19th century there was frenzied debate on all things Egyptian and it was during this time that Charles Piazzi Smith, professor of astronomy at Edinburgh University and Astronomer Royal of Scotland, went to Giza to attempt to accurately measure the great pyramid for the first time.

He was desperate to prove that it was a scale model of the circumference of the Earth, and that its perimeter measurements corresponded exactly to the number of days in the solar year.

But Smyth also wanted to prove that it wasn’t an Egyptian monument at all, but rather the oldest man-made structure in the world so must have been designed by someone from the Old Testament – namely Noah. He apparently had a deep spiritual commitment to demonstrating “scientifically” that the Christian religion was true, and that his work with the pyramid was a means to do so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smyth’s paper when presented to the Royal Society was rejected – resulting in him resigning his post.

The more modern obsession with Egypt, though, is undoubtedly a result of the expedition that discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

The discovery of the boy-king’s resting place and its spectacular treasures in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon – and the so-called curse that some believe led to the mysterious deaths of those involved in the expedition – sparked Neo-Egyptomania in the twenties. But according to David Winpenny, author of Up to a Point, a comprehensive guide to the pyramids of Britain and Ireland, the real reason we’re all so fascinated are the ideas of immortality and power.

“The ancient Egyptian empire was so powerful that it even influenced the Greeks and the Romans, and so its ideas moved into Europe that way. People are always interested in great power, and how it is wielded.

“Then there were the very well developed funeral customs which still keep us fascinated to this day. The idea of immortality is attractive, especially if you’re surrounded by golds and riches. Mummification certainly seemed to offer the chance to live forever, or at least have your name remembered forever – although we know now that even mummies can eventually crumble.”

According to David’s book there are seven pyramids in the Lothians. The mausoleum at Gosford House in Aberlady is, he says, one of the best in Britain. Its walls are lined with 64 niches for coffins, although only one is occupied. It holds the remains of the 7th Earl of Wemyss, Francis Charteris, who was Grand Master Mason of Scotland – and freemasonry itself is believed to have Egyptian origins.

Then there’s the pyramid memorial to Captain John Haldane in Duddingston Kirk and a pink Peterhead granite pyramid memorial to Sophia Rutherfurd, wife of Andrew Rutherfurd, Lord Advocate of Scotland in Dean Cemetery. Others include the artwork at the Livingston roundabout junction with the M8, the regional HQ of Hills Electrical and Mechanical at Bilston Glen (the pyramid design was chosen to be “cost-effective and impressive”), the second-oldest pyramid in Scotland in Penicuik cemetery built by Sir John Clerk in memory of his first wife, and that built by Sir James Clerk, in memory of the poet Allan Ramsay. It is set in farmland in Cauldshoulders Park above the wooded valley of the River Esk.

David adds: “With pyramids people are attracted by their simplicity of design – and the fact that it means in their eyes at least they were of some importance and should be remembered.”

The National Museums of Scotland is certainly hoping to cash in on our enduring fascination. Next February it launches a three-month long exhibition, Fascinating Mummies, which will display the treasures from the Egyptology collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden alongside the museum’s own collection. It’s hoping to attract at least 80,000 people.

A spokeswoman says: “Our permanent gallery on Ancient Egypt is consistently one our most popular galleries and next year we will also be the only UK venue for the Fascinating Mummies exhibition, which will explore the complex rituals surrounding death and afterlife in Ancient Egypt. It will be the first blockbuster exhibition since the transformed Museum re-opened.”

She adds: “Ancient Egypt fascinates because their tombs and graves have provided us with such an incredibly rich, vibrant and detailed insight into a past civilisation, and yet so many mysteries remain. The human forms of the coffins, with their vivid iconography and dense, hieroglyphic texts, evoke lives lived long ago, and modern science is continuing to throw new light on them.”

One of those who had hoped to throw such light on new findings was the late Ian Mathieson. The pensioner from Blackhall, who died last year, spent his life dabbling in archaeology, but in 1986, after following up a one-line reference in the papers of archaeologists Auguste Mariette and Jacques de Morgan, who had worked in Egypt in the 1890s, he found a fabled ancient settlement buried beneath the sands 15 miles south west of Cairo.

Unfortunately funds and time were against him, and the lost city is still waiting to be uncovered properly.

Egypt still has many fascinating stories to give up.