The Intellectual development of Egyptology and popular perceptions of Egypt, 1780-1880

Dr Robert Morkot

The literature on the history of Egyptology has concentrated on ‘achievements’, such as the decipherment of hieroglyphic, and the ‘discovery’ of sites and artefacts (with an emphasis on ‘great’ discoveries) or on ‘Egyptomania’. More recent studies have focused on the presentation of Egyptian artefacts in museums and the ‘creation’ of a European view of Egypt, and on the development of Egyptology as an academic discipline framed within the discourse on colonialism and imperialism. Little has been written on the intellectual development of the subject or the dissemination of knowledge to a wider public. This research is to address the intellectual basis of the discipline around 1800, and its responses to direct contact with the country and its monuments, the impact of decipherment, and the subsequent development of the academic discipline in (largely) Western Europe within the broader changes in understanding the ancient world at the time.

This research, supported by the AHRC, focuses on the 19th century, beginning with the dramatic political changes within Egypt following the Napoleonic expedition of 1798/99 and ending with the first histories of Egypt written using Egyptian textual sources rather than Classical ones. This period saw with the appearance of Muhammad Ali as Viceroy and the opening of Egypt to Europeans; the arrival of consuls and, following the defeat of Napoleon, a large number of ‘tourists’ in the years 1815-20. Although the arrival of the French savants in 1798 is an axial – and symbolic – point in the European relationship with Egypt, and in the emergence of ‘Egyptology’ as an academic discipline, they represent the culmination of earlier perceptions of Egypt, whereas ‘newer’ views did not emerge until well into the 19th century.Champollion’s announcement of his decipherment of hieroglyphic in 1822 is a key point in development of Egyptology, although the first published translations of texts did not appear until the 1840s and the impact of ‘decipherment’ was initially quite limited.