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Timothy Larsen

The Noah Sphinx

Britain's fascination with Egyptology.

I have never attended a séance, but from what I have read they seem to consist largely of interrogating the deceased. As this is odd on so many more obvious levels, it has never before struck me that it is also a strange (if not downright rude) way to go about having a conversation. A true dialogue with the dead would surely include these knowledgeable souls initiating topics for discussion rather than just responding to our agenda.

David Gange never explicitly explains the title of his book, nor does he develop the metaphor of dialogues with dead. Nevertheless, his splendid cultural history of British Egyptology is an account of a century of people studying the land of the pharaohs in order to get answers to the questions that interested them rather than to find out what mattered to ancient Egyptians.

And what the Victorians wanted to know was what those who had dwelt beside the Nile long ago had to say about the Bible. A lazy assumption of secularization has infused accounts of modern history, making people imagine that a religious focus was decreasing as the 19th century progressed. Like the plagues of Egypt, however, it actually intensified at the end. Thus the Egyptology of the 1880s and 1890s was significantly more preoccupied with scriptural connections than was that of mid-century.

I have always admired the clever way that Jeanette Winterson used the first eight books of the Old Testament as the chapter titles in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Similarly, Gange's five well-researched chapters are named after the chronology of ancient Egypt, complete with first and second intermediate periods. The tour de force chapter that dramatically and convincingly overturns the existing narrative is thus "The Middle Kingdom: Orthodox Egypt, 1880-1900."

In the 1840s, religious iconoclasts were smirkingly confident that Egyptology would debunk orthodox Christianity. Higher critics assumed that findings would strengthen their case against a ...

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