The incredible buildings, temples, and treasures that the ancient pharaohs left behind continue to awe and fascinate visitors more than 2000 years after they ruled over the Nile valley – which they did for more than three millennia.

Hatshepsut obelisk detail
Detail from Hatshepsut’s obelisk

After almost three thousand years of existence, the formerly mighty kingdom stagnated and suffered greatly under Persian dominance. As a result, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 232 BC, the Egyptians celebrated him as a liberator. Many of the monuments and temples were already ancient at the time, and many of them had been neglected or were partially in ruins. The Ptolemies made several attempts to restore Egypt’s authority and prosperity. They were successful in preserving the country’s wealth and stability, and they worked to revitalise and promote ancient Egyptian culture and religion. In order to make Egypt a centre of scholarship and culture, they also erected several impressive structures and commissioned works of art, such as the famed Library of Alexandria. In general, the Ptolemies attempted to reconcile their Greek ancestry with the traditions of ancient Egypt.

Greek and Roman visitors to Egypt included Herodotus, the Greek geographer Strabo, and Roman geographer Diodorus Siculus and provided some of the first historical records of Egypt outside itself. The kingdom’s enormous time span was hard to fathom and even harder to accept for foreigners. The history of Egypt by Manetho was not taken seriously, because Egypt could not possibly be that ancient, could it? After becoming a Roman province, Egypt slowly faded into obscurity, essentially becoming a massive granary for the Empire. The spread of Christianity hastened the indigenous culture’s demise, and as a result, the ancient Egyptian language, both written and spoken, died out around 450. The Muslim conquest in 641 effectively removed Egypt from Western consciousness throughout the Middle Ages, what remained was little more than the legends of a long gone mythical place.

Although riddled with symbolism and speculation, Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica1 is recognised as the first book—at least partially—based on actual understanding of hieroglyphs, and was most probably written in the fifth century by one of the last members of the Egyptian priesthood. It consists of two books, claiming to be a translation from an Egyptian original into Greek by an otherwise unknown Philippus. Individual cases provide sufficient evidence that the correct value of hieroglyphic signs was indeed still known by the author. The “Hieroglyphica” was highly influential in the Renaissance, and it played a role in the revival of interest in hieroglyphs and the ancient Egyptian civilization.

Knowledge about the hieroglyphs faded from memory during the Middle Ages, and when interest was revived during the Renaissance, they were assumed to be a magical and symbolic script representing ideas rather than sounds. Early European missionaries, explorers, and adventurers began to write about encountering monuments and ancient ruins in Egypt in the sixteenth century. For more than a millennium, the maps of Egypt relied on descriptions from Claudius Ptolemy of antiquity, but as travellers explored further up the Nile, more accurate maps were required. Despite Ptolemy’s map of Egypt clearly showing Thebes in the south, it was misidentified with more accessible ruins near the delta. In the early 18th century, the French Jesuit priest Claude Sicard was part of a mission sent to Egypt, and he was first to correctly identify the ruins at Luxor and Karnak as being those of the ancient Egyptian capital Thebes.

Greek books began to be translated into Latin after Constantinople fell in 1453 AD as Greek scholars and their works migrated to the west. This also sparked the discovery of long-forgotten classical writings and the revision of well-known ones.

The Age of Enlightenment (roughly c. 1650–1825) meant that society now required reliable and accurate maps without imaginary embellishments. Instead of replicating Ptolemy, as had long been the practice, French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697–1782) sought reliable data and was content to leave spaces blank rather than fill them with imaginary features. After examining and comparing the available sources meticulously, both contemporary and ancient, he created the first modern map of Egypt, despite not visiting it himself.

Maps of Egypt were created using descriptions from antiquity

The earliest printed travel accounts from the late 17th century on on described the pyramids, but did not include any illustrations. The development of the, of holy locations associated with the Bible. The sea route for pilgrims from Europe to the Holy Land naturally passed through Alexandria, but only on rare occasions did pilgrims venture beyond the Mediterranean coast, though the pyramids were well-known, and eventually both the pyramids and the Sphinx began to appear in print. Even though Herodotus gave the correct measurements of the pyramids in the fourth century BC, the early drawings failed to show their true scale. The travelogues steadily fuelled interest in Egypt, and the splendid antiquities brought back home furthered it even more. Paul Lucas, a French antiquarian to King Louis XIV visited Egypt around 1700, travelling up the Nile, encountering an abundance of ancient ruins in the south. His accounts, richly illustrated with depictions of rare subjects caused a sensation all over Europe, were republished many times and translated into English and German.2

English churchman Richard Pococke and Danish navy commander and cartographer Frederic Norden independently chronicled trips up the Nile in 1737-38. Pococke was satisfied upon reaching Philae, while Norden entered Nubia and went as far south as Derr. Pococke published A description of the East, and some other countries in 1743, complete with illustrations and maps. Norden’s highly detailed maps and drawings were published posthumously in Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie in 1755. These books were well-received and were reprinted numerous times. Ancient manuscripts, coins, and relics were sought after in Egypt so that they might be purchased and displayed prominently by the nobles in Europe.

The birth of Egyptology

King Tut statue
Statuette of Tutankhamun (JE 60714)

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte led a military expedition to seize Egypt and to secure a trade route to the Indian subcontinent. Napoleon’s masterstroke was to include hundreds of scientists, artists, and scholars in the expedition, ostensibly making the campaign peaceful. Their discoveries included the Rosetta Stone, and they produced several extravagant folios published from 1809 in the Description de l’Égypte that included a plethora of drawings and paintings of architecture, tombs, ruins and the flora and fauna of Egypt. Egypt’s arid climate is one of the key factors that has kept many monuments and objects from deteriorating. The Description sparked an unprecedented sensation and frenzy or Egyptomania, as interest in all things Egyptian soared.

The monuments in ancient Egypt had never been so systematically documented before, in fact, apart from simple drawings by travellers, most were entirely unknown. The true size of the Pyramids was revealed, having previously thought to be much smaller granaries. Numerous books were published that sensationalized ancient Egypt, and the cartographers of the French Expedition eventually produced a very detailed proper modern map of Egypt on 47 plates.

The high demand for Egyptian artifacts provided fertile ground for shady actors. Using credentials from many European courts, adventurers disguising as diplomats and merchants raced to secure as many artefacts as possible for their sovereign before their competitors. Thanks to the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt granting unrestricted access to tombs and monuments, unscrupulous individuals amassed vast collections plundered from all over Egypt. These were then sold to royals in Europe, so it is no surprise that the major collections of Egyptian art were created during this time.

Several researchers, including Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young, worked in the early nineteenth century trying to decipher the ancient Egyptian writing systems, to which the Rosetta Stone and the Philae obelisk would prove to be instrumental. In 1822, Champollion realised the hieroglyphic script was a mixture of phonetic and ideographic elements, and furthermore, that hieratic was a cursive version of hieroglyphs. The decipherment was a success, but there were pieces missing, that needed to be discovered.

To rectify this, Champollion and his protégé, the Italian Ippolito Rosellini, organized an expedition to Egypt in 1828-29. The intention was to make accurate copies of as many texts as possible and to make translations of the hieroglyphs from the monuments and tombs. Champollion called for the establishment of a government organization to protect the monuments after personally observing the careless removal of antiquities from nearly every significant site. This was disregarded, and the unrestricted removal of artifacts continued unabated for many decades.

Lepsius spent three years (1842–1845) exploring the Nile Valley and collecting numerous items that would later serve as the foundation of the Berlin Museum. The expedition’s findings were published in the renowned survey, Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopen, that gave the study of Egyptology a sound scientific foundation.

Rosellini and Lepsius refined the decipherment over the next few decades, allowing ancient Egyptian text to be fully read for the first time in centuries. As the 19th century progressed, modern archaeology emerged, providing a clear provenance for previously unknown monuments and objects discovered by excavations. An enormous corpus of hieroglyphic texts were amassed throughout the century, from both legal and illegal excavations. Many excavations were performed of the various monuments discovered throughout the century. Numerous books were published with descriptions of many of the monuments, complete with detailed maps and illustrations.

In 1857, French archaeologist Auguste Mariette was appointed director of the Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte, set up to regulate all archeological activity, which resulted in that no rivals were permitted to dig in Egypt, effectively creating a monopoly for Mariette. He conducted an unequalled number of excavations throughout Egypt; Saqqara, Dendera, Edfu, Tanis, Memphis, Abydos and Thebes, among many others, everywhere making important archaeological discoveries. Mariette was able to persuade the Khedive to create the Egyptian Museum at Boulaq near Cairo in 1863. When Mariette died in 1881, the Service des Antiquités lost its monopoly on archeological digs.

Flinders Petrie’s ground-breaking excavation methods began under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund, that was founded in 1882. Now, even the smallest parts of an archaeological site were examined for crucial hints for dating and identity. Petrie’s systematic methods and standards of exploration, scrupulously followed by publication, set the norm for archaeological excavations in Egypt.

The massive task of cataloging the numerous antique artifacts and structures began in the latter decade of the 19th century and took decades to accomplish. Other scholars produced hieroglyphic, hieratic and coptic dictionaries, while others began to establish and redefine the actual history of Egypt that is based on archaeological facts rather than anecdotes from the authors of antiquity.

Modern Egyptology

Any archaeologist, historian, linguist, or art historian who focuses on Egyptology—the academic study of Ancient Egypt and its artifacts—is generally referred to as an Egyptologist. Egyptology is defined as the study of the language, history, literature, architecture, and culture of Ancient Egypt from 4000 BC to 500 AD, with an emphasis on the dynastic kingdom from 3000 BC until the Roman conquest in 30 BC. Egyptology integrates the study of ancient texts using linguistic and philological techniques with archaeological methodology.

Egyptology is the study of the language, history, literature, and architecture of Ancient Egypt

Egyptology is generally usually said to have begun with the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script by Champollion and others in the early 1820’s. However, it was only in the very late 19th and the early 20th century that Egyptology developed into a programme of study in its own right. Understanding of the Egyptian language and vocabulary has grown and been refined considerably since the early days of Egyptology.

The early Egyptian expeditions taught us, among other things, that the hieroglyphs were copied with varied degrees of accuracy. Sometimes only one or a few signs were overlooked, while other times entire columns were forgotten. Over time the scientific methods pioneered by Lepsius and much improved upon by Petrie became the standard way to perform excavations. Because some of the recorded sites have been lost, irreparably damaged, or even completely destroyed, and artefacts have been lost or misplaced, these old works are nonetheless very useful—if not essential—for Egyptologists.

  • Catalogue Général
    Published from 1901, the Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire, abbreviated CG, or CGC consists of more than 100 volumes classifying ancient Egyptian objects and monuments, with description and photographs, including line drawings and hieroglyphs. In fact, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo used multiple inventory systems parallel to the CG, most notable Journal d'entrée, abbreviated JE or JdE.
  • Urkunden
    Urkunden des Ägyptischen Altertums, abbreviated Urk. — 32 volumes of handwritten hieroglyphs from monuments and objects. Especially valuable as many texts have deteriorated severely or been lost since they were recorded here. Published 1903–1958.
  • Porter & Moss or Topographical Bibliography
    Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Statues, Reliefs and Paintings, by Bertha Porter and Rosalind Moss, abbreviated as Porter and Moss, or PM — 7 volumes containing astonishingly detailed descriptions and publication histories for nearly all Ancient Egyptian monuments and objects. Published from 1927–1952. A digital version detailing newer finds is available online.
  • Epigraphic Survey
    The Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute — multiple volumes containing accurate copies of monuments, including detailed photographs and line drawings. Published by the University of Chicago from 1930.

In contrast to the past, when they were exclusively accessible to the privileged few at prestigious academic institutions, the digital era and the Internet have made many of the rarest Egyptological sources accessible to everyone. This is awesome, though one have to wonder what AI-generated texts will mean to books and journals... Let us be hope that it will usher in a golden age of knowledge for all!