A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson review – the golden age of Egyptology

From Napoleon and the Great Pyramid to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb ... archeological explorations and European colonialism

Cleopatra’s Needle in Paris
‘It would be absurd for the people of any great city to hope to be happy without an Egyptian obelisk’ … Cleopatra’s Needle in Paris Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP
‘It would be absurd for the people of any great city to hope to be happy without an Egyptian obelisk’ … Cleopatra’s Needle in Paris Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP
Mon 14 Dec 2020 02.30 EST

In 1880, a ship from Alexandria moored off 23rd Street, New York City. On board was an obelisk. Nothing proclaimed imperial might quite like a phallic pharaonic monument. This was why, in ancient times, obelisks had been transported to both Rome and Constantinople. Now, in the 19th century, the capitals of more recent empires were getting in on the act. Paris had an obelisk. London had an obelisk. No wonder civic leaders in New York, eager to draw attention to the growing wealth and might of America’s financial capital, should have been desperate to obtain one as well. “It would be absurd for the people of any great city,” as the New York Herald put it, “to hope to be happy without an Egyptian obelisk.”

Toby Wilkinson’s new history of the golden age of Egyptology is also very much a history of western willy-waving. How could it not be? Wilkinson begins with Napoleon posing in the shadow of the Great Pyramid; he ends with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the adoption by Egyptians of the boy-pharaoh as an icon of their recently won independence.

Over the course of his fluent and entertaining narrative, the explorations and excavations of archaeologists are always placed firmly in the context of great power politics. Just as it was Napoleon’s victory in the battle of the pyramids that enabled the first great survey of Egypt’s antiquities to be made, so, over the course of the century that followed, it was the military and economic might of Europe’s colonial powers that underpinned the development of Egyptology. The shipping of obelisks to Paris, London and New York provided a brutally castratory metaphor for the way in which scholars from distant lands took ownership of the study of Egypt’s past.

It provides a metaphor as well for the degree to which the plundering of antiquities was consistently driven by national as well as personal rivalries. “The whole of ancient Thebes,” wrote a British traveller in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat, “is the private property of the English and French consuls; a line of demarcation is drawn through every temple, and these buildings that have hitherto withstood the attacks of Barbarians, will not resist the speculation of civilised cupidity, virtuosi and antiquarians.”

Nevertheless, as a distinguished Egyptologist himself, Wilkinson is reluctant to cast the history of his discipline as merely a record of looting. The obelisk from Luxor which now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris had originally been requested for France by the scholar Jean-François Champollion. No one could accuse the man who deciphered hieroglyphs of lacking respect for Egypt’s past, nor of having failed to play his part in illuminating its murk.

Archaeologist Howard Carter, left, and  the bearers of the gilt shrine from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 1922-1923.
Archaeologist Howard Carter, left, and the bearers of the gilt shrine from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 1922-1923. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Wilkinson, framing Champollion’s character and achievements against the backdrop of French colonial ambitions, does not hesitate to frame them as well against the almost complete lack of interest shown by Egyptians in the antiquities of their country. Muhammad Ali, the ruler who donated the Luxor obelisk to France, viewed interest in Pharaonic monuments as a European eccentricity, and certainly felt no compunction about cannibalising them to feed Egypt’s industrial revolution. The sheer scale of what was lost over the course of the 19th century is one of Wilkinson’s most sombre motifs. “Champollion was the first traveller since Roman times to be able to read the ancient Egyptian monuments, yet also one of the last to see the sites as they had been preserved since antiquity.”

The challenge faced by Champollion, of negotiating a tension between a buried past and an uncertain future, did not end with him, however. Wilkinson, in his rendering of his discipline’s evolution, demonstrates brilliantly that every Egyptologist was obliged to wrestle with it. They coped in various ways. Wilkinson has a talent for vignette, and by sketching how different scholars and archaeologists negotiated the demands of their infant discipline he succeeds as well in creating a consistently fascinating gallery of characters.

The reader encounters Karl Lepsius, the great Prussian scholar, confidently asserting that the waters of the Nile “may be enjoyed in great abundance without any detriment” shortly before everyone on his expedition falls violently ill. There’s Auguste Mariette, Egypt’s first director of antiquities, indignantly protesting against the export of the obelisk to New York; and Flinders Petrie, the father of modern archaeology, “as odiferous as a polecat”, throwing tins of rotten meat against a wall to make them explode.

Academic tensions that under normal circumstances would barely raise an eyebrow come to possess the quality, amid the heat of a desert or the darkness of a tomb, of mythic quarrels. It is a story full of drama, with the Nile, the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings as backdrop. That A World Beneath the Sands is also a subtle and stimulating study of the paradoxes of 19th-century colonialism is a bonus indeed.

A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology by Toby Wilkinson is published by Picador (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.