Egyptomania: The Impacts of the Discovery of Ancient Egypt on Popular Culture

Leslie Johnston
Following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, images of Egyptian archaeological sites and artifacts were widely distributed through the illustrated press and the wildly popular “Description de l’Égypte” series of publications. The mania for all things Egyptian led to interpretations of its culture and iconography appearing in art, fashion, music, and literature in wildly varying degrees of authenticity; a second wave of Egyptomania was launched by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. This presentation will discuss the role of the illustrated and popular press in creating the Egyptomania craze, and show several examples of architecture, art, music and clothing influenced by ancient Egypt.

Egyptomania refers to a period of popular interest in the culture of ancient Egypt sparked by Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion in 1978. Napoleon was accompanied by many scientists and scholars during this campaign, which produced a huge amount of scholarly documentation, including the “Description de l’Égypte” series of publications from 1809-1828,
and images of ancient monuments and objects in the illustrated popular press, such as the Illustrated London News. Several important archaeological discoveries, such as Jean-François Champollion deciphering the Rosetta Stone that was recovered by French troops in 1799, the opening of pyramids at Saqqara in 1881, and the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, kept the craze going for over 125 years.

The impact of Egyptomania was widespread. The impact of ancient Egyptian culture in architecture is called the Egyptian Revival, an expression of neoclassicism. Literary works by Poe, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne include symbolic references to Egypt. Academic and Pre-Raphaelite artists created highly romantic images of ancient Egypt, and
Egyptian themes later were featured in art deco. Verdi’s grand Egyptian opera Aida, premiered in 1871, and incorporated speculative interpretations of historical flute music. Popular music pulled in Egyptian themes in songs such as “Mystic Nile,” “Across the Burning Sands,” “In Cleopatra’s Land,” and “Old King Tut was a Wise Old Nut.”

This multimedia presentation will cover the period from 1898 through the 1920s, and include images of archaeological finds from 19th – and 20th-century scholarly and popular publications, and many images of examples of Egyptian influence on popular culture.