Egyptomania: Why are we so obsessed with Ancient Egypt?

After Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Europe was gripped by a phenomenon known as Egyptomania.  Egyptomania was a total fascination with anything related to Ancient Egypt.  This was largely the result of Description de l’Égypte, a comprehensive scientific and historical description of Ancient Egypt produced by a group of scientists and other scholars that Napoleon brought with him to Egypt.

Egyptomania eventually spread to other parts of the world, including the United States, and still exists today.  References to Ancient Egypt can be found everywhere: in television and movies, music, architecture, and more.  Some of the most recognizable examples in film and music include The Mummy film franchise and the hit song by The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian.”  A notable example in architecture is the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The building itself is shaped like a pyramid, and a giant replica sphinx sits out front.  There are countless other examples as well.

The presence of all of these Egyptian-themed things brings about a question:  why are we so obsessed with Ancient Egypt?  What is it about Ancient Egypt that has captured the imaginations of people all over the world for centuries?

I believe there are a few reasons for our infatuation with Ancient Egyptian culture.  One of the main reasons is that accounts of life in Ancient Egypt conjure up grand images in our minds: wealthy and powerful kings and queens, enormous breathtaking buildings, endless piles of gold, and mystical gods.  These things are the essence of all the adventure tales and fantasies that we have heard our entire lives.  Romanticized tales of that sort capture our imagination when they are fiction, but the fact that these things actually existed in history adds to the appeal.

Another reason that we are so interested in Ancient Egypt, which we have briefly touched on in class, is that humans have a fascination with discovery and the unknown.  Stories like Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb resonate with us to this day because we can feel that sense of excitement when we learn about him opening the tomb.  When people think about discovery and archaeology, they think about Ancient Egypt.  Egypt has yielded countless amazing finds, and is the quintessential example of the excitement of archaeological exploration.  That sense of anticipation before a discovery is exciting to people, and is part of the reason people are so interested in archaeology in general.

A final reason that we are so fascinated with Ancient Egypt, one that we have also discussed in class, is that humans have a natural interest in the past.  We want to understand the past because it contributes to our understanding of the present.  A way of honoring and remembering the past is to incorporate it into our present life, and that is what we are doing by bringing Egyptian themes into the present day.

These three things combined, along with other reasons, contribute to Egyptomania.  They create a perfect storm that may have not been present for other archaeological discoveries, and that has embedded Ancient Egypt in our imaginations.