Ancient Egypt Renaissance Antiquarians

Apr 1, 2011

Ancient Egypt Renaissance Antiquarians

In 1517, the Ottoman ruler of Constantinople,Sultan Selim I, invaded Egypt and soon established it as a Turkish governorate (pashalik).
The Turks retained control there until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte launched his ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Egypt. As part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was opened up to the outside world and became a place where merchants, diplomats, pilgrims, and travelers experienced much greater safety. Consequently, merchants sought to develop this potentially lucrative market and were closely followed by pilgrims who visited the holy sites, and travelers, antiquarians, and collectors who sought out the ancient monuments and antiquities. These events coincided with the Renaissance in Europe, which introduced more relaxed religious attitudes and an increased interest in the Classical civilizations and their religious beliefs and philosophies.

Some scholars became aware of Egyptian antiquities through their interest in Rome, where some major items, including seven obelisks, had been moved from Egypt during the early part of the Roman Empire. Pharaonic remains such as these inspired further study and also led scholars to visit Egypt to see the major monuments in situ.
In addition, in the fifteenth century, two Classical texts were rediscovered: One was
Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica (fourth century AD), which claimed Egyptian origin and, in addition to containing great wisdom, sought to show that hieroglyphs were symbols rather than the written form of a spoken language; the other was the Hermetic Corpus, which included philosophical texts believed to preserve the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.


Unlike most medieval authors who wrote about Egypt, many Renaissance accounts were by travelers who personally visited the country, and instead of writing derivative versions based mainly on the Classical authors, they produced firsthand descriptions that augmented and sometimes corrected earlier narratives. More than 200 accounts written by travelers who visited Egypt between AD 1400 and 1700 have survived, but these vary considerably in terms of their originality and the quality of the information they provide.

One of the earliest of the travel writers of the seventeenth century was an Englishman,
George Sandys (1578–1644), who started his tour in France and Italy and continued on to Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine, in 1610. In 1621, he published an account of his journey in four books entitled Sundys’ Travells: A Relation of a Journey begun An. Dom. 1610. He described his visit to the pyramids at Giza and his exploration of the interior of the Great Pyramid, but he also drew extensively on Classical sources for theories about the use of the monuments and for descriptions of sites he had not visited.
Generally, Sandys’s work provided an interesting travel account but contributed little new information about ancient Egypt.

A contemporary traveler, the Italian Pietro della Valle (1586–1652), explored various countries of the eastern Mediterranean between 1614 and 1626. He combined sight seeing with the pastime of collecting antiquities, which included Coptic grammars and vocabularies that were used in later attempts to decipher hieroglyphs, and some magnificent mummy portrait panels.
The first examples of this type of art to reach Europe, these revealed the role that such paintings had played in the development of Western art (see Chapter 5, Religion of the Living).
French travelers were also active during this period. Some were diplomats who combined their political duties with a great interest in pharaonic Egypt; for example, François Savary (1750–1788), the French ambassador to Constantinople, visited Giza in 1605, and Benoît de Maillet (1656–1738), French consul general in Egypt from 1692 to 1708, traveled extensively throughout the country and investigated various sites. He also acquired many antiquities, and a selection of Coptic and Arabic manu scripts that were sent back to France.
His most significant contribution to Egyptology was the suggestion that a proper scheme should be established to initiate the scientific exploration of Egypt; this was ultimately put into effect after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798.
Another Frenchman, the Jesuit missionary Father Claude Sicard (1677–1726), was one of the most significant travelers of this period.

Originally a professor at Lyons, he went first to Syria as a missionary and then in 1707 became the superior of the Jesuit mission in Cairo. He remained in Egypt until his death, and visited the south of the country four times, ostensibly to attempt to convert the Coptic communities there. These missionary trips provided him an excellent opportunity to examine many ancient sites, some of which had not hitherto been explored or identified. These included the sites of ancient Thebes—the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Colossi of Memnon, the Ramesseum, and the Valley of the Kings—as well as Philae, Elephantine, and Kom Ombo. Sicard collected more information about ancient Egypt than any previous traveler and apparently complied a complete list of all the monuments he visited. However, his work was not published in his lifetime, and his manuscripts have never been discovered. His reputation as an outstanding traveler and scholar therefore rests on a few surviving letters and a map, intended to accompany the missing manuscript, that is now housed in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris.

The originality of approach shown by Sicard is to some extent paralleled in the studies of John Greaves (1602–1652).
An English mathematician and astronomer, Greaves had also learned to read several Eastern languages, including Arabic and Persian, so that he could understand relevant texts on astronomy.
In 1646, he published his Pyramidographia, or a Discourse of the Pyramids in Aegypt. He had visited Egypt in 1638 to 1639, and at Giza, he made measurements for the first scientific and systematic survey ever undertaken on one of the pyramids. His study involved climbing the Great Pyramid, exploring its inner chambers, and measuring the sizes of the stone blocks.
His measurements were not entirely accurate, but he is noteworthy because he adopted a totally different approach: His was the first scientific, firsthand attempt to investigate the facts about an Egyptian monument. He was able to compare his own observations with those of earlier writers, especially the medieval Arabic sources, and to provide a critical assessment of their writings. He advanced the study of ancient Egypt by using both literary and archaeological evidence and introducing innovative working methods.

Another Englishman, Reverend Richard Pococke (1704–1765), visited Egypt in 1737–1738. His book, A Description of the East and some other countries (1743–1745), provides more detailed information than many other contemporary accounts. In particular, he included the first description of a decorated, nonroyal (private) tomb at Thebes, and he also produced clear plans of the Valley of the Kings. However, the earliest known reference in modern times to a private tomb on the West Bank at Thebes is attributed to a Danish naval marine architect and traveler, Frederick Lewis Nordern (1708–1742), who arrived there a few days ahead of Pococke. Nordern’s Travels was first published in 1751; it contained a description of Egypt that for the first time attempted to provide information for both scholars and general readers.

The book was so popular that it was reissued several times and translated into French and German.

By the eighteenth century, there was a marked increase in the number of travelers to
Egypt, and as a result of their accounts, a much greater interest in this ancient civilization developed among scholars and the educated public in Europe. This enthusiasm inspired new, often multivolumed works that described the history of the civilization, as well as memoirs, such as those of the great eighteenth-century traveler James Bruce (1730–1794), who arrived in Egypt in 1768 and sailed up the Nile, continuing on to Abyssinia. His reminiscences, Travels to discover the source of the Nile, were published in five volumes in 1790, although only one is dedicated to a description of Egypt.
In general, by this period there were a num- ber of well-informed, attractively illustrated firsthand accounts that could be consulted alongside the Classical texts. These modern works often provided accurate information about the history, geography, and ancient monuments of Egypt.


In addition to the travelers and scholars who visited the ancient sites and subsequently wrote about them, there was also great enthusiasm among wealthy Europeans to acquire antiquities from Egypt. Some individuals recognized the considerable financial potential in acquiring antiquities and even monuments that could be sold to collectors in Europe. Various great private collections were started in the seventeenth century; for example, the kings of France were avid collectors, and in England,
Dr. Hans Sloane had gathered numerous Egyptian antiquities.
At this time also, some of the major national collections were being established. In
England, when an act of Parliament in 1756 established the British Museum, the latter acquired Sloane’s material to become the nucleus of its Egyptian collection. In addition, agents were constantly being sent to Egypt to collect antiquities, such as manuscripts and coins, for royal or noble patrons, and officials in the embassies and consulates in Egypt began to extend their diplomatic role by acting as local agents and acquiring antiquities for illustrious patrons in Europe.

However, although these activities ultimately led to the foundation of some great museum collections consisting of a vast resource of material that would enable scholars to pursue their studies, simultaneously there was a deleterious effect. Ancient artifacts removed from Egypt were often separated from their archaeological context, with the consequent loss of information about their provenance, date, and use. The process of acquiring artifacts, and especially inscribed blocks from monuments, also accelerated the destruction of some of the major sites.


Despite a greatly increased awareness of the Egyptian monuments that remained standing aboveground, Renaissance scholars still could not read or understand the hieroglyphs that adorned many artifacts and monumental walls.
They therefore had to speculate about the history and language of Egypt and consequently produced some theories, particularly about the use of the pyramids and the function of hieroglyphs that are now considered ludicrous. But in order to explore and correct these misconceptions, it was necessary first to acquire new evidence. Most essential of all was the decipherment of hieroglyphs and the related scripts of hieratic and demotic so that the inscriptional evidence could be read and understood. Secondly, archaeological methods had to be developed that could reveal all the buildings and artifacts still buried underground.


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