The West is in in love. This affair has existed for centuries, and in addition, is the subject of controversy, adventure, mystery, and research. This devotion is for Ancient Egypt, particularly in the times before Rome and Greece dominated the Mediterranean. I not visited Egypt; my parents have, as has my brother, and my aunt has a PhD in Egyptology. We do not have an explicit ethnic connection to Egypt – we are thoroughly Anglo-Celtic, born from a tradition built on Celtic Catholicism and the British Empire. In Australia, where we live, it takes over a day to reach Cairo from Sydney. You’ll need a brief stop-over in Dubai or Doha. After wondering around the overpriced halls and food courts, you’ll then fly to Egypt, tired and sore from an adventure which is yet to begin. I would like to visit Egypt, of course; imagining Luxor offers an excitement akin to reading Harry Potter for the first time as a young girl.

Without an ethnic or physical connection to Egypt, I must enjoy a love affair built on intellectual curiosity. You don’t need certain racial characteristics or to have visited a civilisation to love it. These help, but perhaps a sense of adventure and a curious mind can make up for this. As for my prior knowledge of Ancient Egypt, it is limited to the Greco-Roman period with a special emphasis on Hellenisation and the New Testament. A fascinating primary source from Late Antiquity – and one bewitching many Western scholars – is the Greek Magical Papyri, abbreviated to the PGM, where papyri suggest rituals, hymns, and magic composed in Egypt. The languages are eclectic: Ancient Greek, Old Coptic, and Demotic, and there is even a suggestion of Mithras. Egypt is home to a fascinating variety of religious histories, and Mithras is part of this tapestry, as is Christianity, Judaism, various Roman cults, and later, Islam. Yet Ancient Egypt goes further back. The various dynastic periods date as early as 3100 B.C. Here, historians categorise Ancient Egypt into numerous categories: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, and to further contextualise these eras, Egyptologists also focus on the Early Dynastic Period and the Ptolemaic Period. This is a simplification, however; the Australian Museum gives a greater outline into the various timelines making Ancient Egypt.

It’s November 2023. I’m at the Australian Museum; outside, the air is sticky and hot, a warning for the upcoming summer. The waiting hall is crowded, with school children and families awaiting the exhibition on Ancient Egypt and Ramses II. I am by myself, a woman near thirty, whose passion about history came in her adult years. It’s easy to forget the role history plays in educating and entertaining children. While out of place, I look forward to entering the exhibition. It starts with a short explainer film about Ramses II and life in Ancient Egypt. The lush animations and the excited narration indicate an exhibition done by curators incredibly passionate about their topic. There’s no presentism, no attempt at appealing to progressive values, or shaming the visitors. It’s history, without apology.

Egypt Hieroglyphics in Valley of kings closeup detail , 15 Jan 2019 , Luxor , Egypt.

The items inside are mostly typical for museums showcasing the ancient world: necklaces, funerary relics, clothing, decorated tiles, and pottery. Most illuminating of all is the decorated outer coffin of Sennedjem. It is adorned with Ancient Egyptian motifs, from hieroglyphics to cats. Egyptian culture – like that of the Romans, Persians, and Greeks – are known for their distinctive approach to the afterlife, to death, and most interestingly of all, to mourning. I learn about the Ancient Egyptians putting cherished items in the tombs of bygone kings. My concern of mortality is not limited to myself; it is present throughout history, from the Nile to the Napoleonic era. At the end, I enter the gift shop and purchase a souvenir book about the exhibition. I spend quite a bit of time here. I want the Australian Museum to know my appreciation for the wonderful exhibition. While reading the souvenir book, I am delighted to discover the collaboration among Egyptian, Australian, and Italian scholars. Historical studies, whilst frequently bemoaned for its ‘Eurocentric’ worldview, benefits from the work of curators and historians across the world.

Ramses And the Gold of the Pharaohs, on top of being enjoyable and educational, is also a romantic glimpse at Ancient Egypt. I am reminded of other Western ventures in romanticising Egypt: Agatha Christie’s gripping mysteries, Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun, the charming yet corny film series from the 1990s, The Mummy, as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s melancholic poem Ozymandias. These portrayals vary in tone and seriousness. However, these romantic exercises have a prevailing sense of adventure, akin to something out of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Living in the modern West means having familiarity with romanticism. To some critics, like Edward Said, this romanticism blooms into ‘Orientalism’ and degrading stereotypes against Arabs as well as others in the Middle East and North Africa. To this, I’d argue there is an innocence and joy found in the West’s love for all things Egypt.  

Growing up, the boys at school played a game where they’d wrap one of them in toilet paper, until they fully disappeared underneath the layers of tissue. Egypt never fails to capture our imagination. To my delight, the Australian Museum are unafraid to show the romance, and intrigue, of the past.

The lovely Nile today is plagued by terrorism, poverty, and scammers, whether the Islamic State or a dishonest trader seeking profit. Cairo, the megacity capital of Egypt and home to numerous pyramids and Egyptologists, was once known as ‘the city of a thousand minarets’ as per the 14th century traveller, Ibn Battuta. Today, Cairo – and Egypt as well as the neighbouring Jordan – welcome thousands of tourists each week. They are drawn to the many museums, mosques, and markets. These compliment nicely to the main attraction of Egypt: the pyramids, which loom over the nation like skyscrapers in the Manhattan skyline. Whilst Egypt does not enjoy the favourable reputation given to Jordan, it is clear my parents and my brother do not regret their visits. Likewise, I take deep pride in my aunt’s doctorate in Egyptology. Such intellectual curiosity is vital to the world.

I hope to visit Egypt someday. For now, I’ll enjoy terrific exhibitions like Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs until the opportunity to walk amongst the pyramids and the rivers occurs.

Read more travel articles

There's More.

Sign up for monthly novel updates, musings, book + film recommendations and other exclusive content. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This