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Aegyptography (Many Wonderful Things)

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The field of Aegyptography is a body of writings, disciplines and philosophies centered around the history and culture of Ancient Egypt. After the disappearance of Egyptian inscriptions during the late Roman Empire, knowledge of Egyptian history was completely lost until the 13th century, when the Tabula Rashida was uncovered by Roman forces during the Fifth Crusade. This new discovery opened the doors to a wealth of studies into Egypt from about the late 13th to early 18th centuries, after which point interest as a scientific field died out until recent years. 

Definition and Scope

The word Aegyptography is a corruption of the Greek term Graphes Aegyptou (Γραφές Αιγύπτου) or "Writings of Egypt", which has been a term to desrcibe bodies of literature about Egypt since at least the 16th century. In the early days of Aegyptography in the 13-15th centuries, western European literature used the Latin term Scripta Aegypti, which shifted into Greek during the High Renaissance. The earliest appearance of the term is in the writings of Panvinio in 1561, who attributes it to the architect Rusconi. Athenasius Kircher (1602-1680) described Aegyptography as "a form of science about the literature of the Egyptians". In more modern times Howard Carter (1874-1939) broadened the definition as falling under one of the following categories: 

  • Schools of thought (including philosophy, theology, mathematics, architecture, etc.) that originated from Pharonic Egypt.
  • Understanding the relationships between these disciplines that create a synthesized view of Egyptian culture.
  • Understanding the placement of Egyptian culture and history within the context of other Classic civilizations.

Early Investigations

The first explorers were the ancient Egyptians themselves. Pharoah Thutmose IV restored the Sphinx and had the dream that inspired his restoration carved on the famous Dream Stele. Less than two centuries later, Prince Khaemweset, fourth son of Ramsees II, is famed for identifying and restoring historic buildings, tombs and temples including the pyramid.

Early histories of Egypt were written by the earliest historians such as Herodotus, Josephus, and Pandorus. The largest work was the Aegyptica by Manetho, a priest in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (305-283 BC). This work, although immensly famous, was completely lost when the Library of Alexandria burned. Restoration of Egyptian monuments, particularly the Giza necropolis, continued throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman eras.

Translation of Hieroglyphics


Albertus Magnus

The fifth century Greek scholar Horapollo was the first to attempt a translation or explanation of certain hieroglyphics assuming them to be purely ideographic, rather than what we know of them to be phonetic and pictographic. Various Islamic scholars, such as Ibn Wahshiyya in the 9th century, compared Coptic scripts to discern and translate a few actual hieroglyphics. Both of these works would be influential to the understanding of the Egyptian language later on. 

A complete understanding of the Ancient Egyptian language didn't come until the Tabula Rashida was uncovered by Roman legates during the Fifth Crusade. After the Greek texts were transcribed and sent to the Universities of Bologne and Paris, the Egyptian text was taken under the study of Dominican friars in Naples in 1221. The translation work was primarily run by Polydore Beneventus and William Moerbeke at first, before being completed by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas in 1259. The two works published by them, Lingua Aegyptiorum and Novo Hieroglyphica, are both monumental pieces of work. Albert's work is framed by an historical introduction, describing the history of Egypt as understood at the time and the recovery of the Tablet. Aquinas' work focuses on the theological significance of understanding hieroglyphics, foreshadowing the quest to understand Egyptian culture and history for the next five centuries.

For the latter half of the 13th century and into the early 14th century, a heightened interest in Egyptian literature spread throughout Europe, mostly thanks to the fame of Thomas Aquinas. The primary centers of collecting Egyptian relics were in the Dominican Monastery of San Maggiore in Naples, as well as the University of Toledo in Castile. The latter institution was primarily funded by King Alfonso X as a way of promoting the interest in classical languages. In general, it was in southern Europe that the most interest in Aegyptography gathered due to the increasing migrations of Arab people from North Africa. Peter of Spain is believed to have first translated parts of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in 1298.

Impact on Humanist Writings

The earliest known author to commentate on Egyptian writings was the German theologian Theodoric de Freiberg, a student of Albertus Magnus who became Provincial of the Dominican Order in 1293. Heavily influenced from his neoplatonic philosophy, Freiberg nonetheless identified key components of Egyptian philosophy, such as the separation of the soul into baka, and khepri, which he identified as the three part soul of Plato. Giles of Rome, the Augustinian Prior and contemporary of Freiberg, also did early work on Egyptian theology. In 1301 he wrote a commentary on the Book of the Dead, in which he connected many of the symbolism to that in Judeo-Christian literature. Unfortunately, the condemnation of books in Paris and subsequent removal of the Pope from Rome greatly dissuaded further philosophical work for some time.

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, published in 1323, had tremendous influence from Egyptian literature, testifying to how much it had spread across Italy by that time. References to judgement include the "weighing of men's souls", which emphasizes how those saved by Christ are "as light as a feather". One of the angels here is even given the head of a dog, echoing the imagary of Anubis. In the Inferno, the deamons torturing souls are given the heads of crocadiles and bodies of lions, similar to the Egyptian Ammit. Some of the deamons are even given borrowed names: Sobecco (Sobek), Socoor (Sokar), and Settio (Set). In Pergatory, many of the landmarks and creatures are borrowed from the soul's journey to the afterlife on coffin texts. In Paradise, the radiance of God passes metaphors for life into the mouths of the souls, similar to the imagary of Amun passing ankh to the Egyptian Pharaohs. If not for Dante reigniting interest in Egyptian literature, the entire field of Aegyptography may have been put far behind.

Durand de Saint-Pourcain, a Dominican scholar known to disagree with Thomas Aquinas, wrote his own commentary on the Amonitions of Apwaro. Published in 1332,  it is monumental as the first mostly unbiased survey of Egyptian philosophy, laying the foundation for later Aegyptography. Dominico Cavalca's work On the Soul, published in 1342, greatly expanded on Freiberg's work. It's considered one of the first serious discussions on Egyptian art, mentioning the use of tripartites on temple murals as a picture of the Trinity. 

Petrarch, the Father of Humanism, was also influenced by these earlier works, but his contribution made a startling turning point. In the Secretum, Petrarch reinterpreted the struggle against order and chaos in earlier cosmologies as an internal struggle against reason and folly in human nature. This new insight would set the standard for spirituality in Humanist philosophy

By the mid-to-late 14th century, Aegyptography had spread out of Italy to other parts of Europe. The works of Catherine of Siena makes references to the same imagary used in previous works, and even atributes some of them to the original Egyptian authors. A section of Siena's On Divine Providence explains how, by natural revelation, the Contention of Horus and Set was a prefigurement of Christ. Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, published in 1409, draws on Petrarch's view of establishing order over chaos in the soul, which she executes in an alagorical setting. Finally, the Spanish theologian Francesco Eiximenis drew on these same principles in his Book of Angels, which also includes some angels borrowed from Egyptian texts. 

Egyptian cosmology and history also began appearing in works around this time. The Genoese map of Pietro Vesconte in 1330 made note of the chaos existing outside the known world, represented by a black snake. The snake was later removed in the Catalan Atlas of Abraham Cresque in 1375, but the distinction between the "orderly" Christendom and the "chaotic" heathendom. The descriptions of the world by Odoric de Pordenone and John von Hildesheim also emphasize the chaotic edge of civilization. Hildesheim's work Historia Trium Regum likewise references the Egyptian astologers as foretelling the coming of Christ.

Revival of Egyptian Architecture

As so many religious and literary pieces of Egypt were translated into Latin, so too were works of art and architecture.

The Hypostyle Hall of Florence Cathedral

Al-Baghdadi (1162-1231) wrote a catalogue of Egyptian monuments and architectural styles before hieroglyphics were translated. Giovanni Giocondo, a Dominican of Verona, wrote commentaries on building manuals from Egypt while also drawing on the works of Al-Baghdadi. By 1560, Motepius' book on constructing the Pyramids was completely translated by Rusconi, published under the name Ten Books on The Architecture of Egypt

Filippo Brunelleschi traveled extensively around the Mediterranean, gathering undertanding of all classical art styles. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, completed in 1436, combines techniques from both Egypt and Rome, most notably in the Hypostyle Hall in the west nave. The polymath Leon Alberti made a careful study of Motepius's structural mathematics in his work, On the Art of Building. Using these techniques, in 1458 Alberti shocked the world when he constructed the Church of San Sebastiano in Mantua, as most of the front facade and archways used no morter. Borrowing language from Procopius, Giogori Vasari wrote how bystanders were amazed "as if the angels were suspending the doorway". 

A use of more stylized architecture was begun by Raphael at the beginning of the 16th century. In 1508, Raphael adorned several of the rooms in the Vatican Palace with historical and Biblical frescos. These frescos employed a great deal of both Egyptian and Roman knowledge, particularly by depicting realistic doors and hallways on the same level as the viewer. Use of symmetry and duplicate themes were also very important. In designing Saint Peter's Basilica in 1514, Raphael created a plan that was almost a mirror image of the Egyptian Temple of Karnak. The baptismal font in the east nave was inspired by the Osirium, complete with frescoes of reeds and fish on the walls. 

Designs for constructing new obelisks in Rome was first proposed by Pope Clement VII, who in 1527 commissioned the engineer Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to the task. Using the translated designs left by Queen Hatshepsut, Sangallo completed the obelisk of Saint Peter's Square in 1534, replacing the traditional hieroglyphic markings with a Latin inscription from the Gospel of John. Several other obelisks would be built in Rome and other cities in later years based on this design.

In painting the walls of the Sistine Chapel in 1512, Michelangelo utilized Raphael's model to the nth degree. The heavenly scene of the Last Judgement dominates the ceiling, but gradually merges with paintings on the walls, meant to look like real people in another room. Starting in 1546, Michelangelo began the design of the monumental work later known as the Pizan Pyramid, which wasn't completed until 1611. Originally commissioned as a family crypt for the Medici family, it was ultimately used by Cosimo II of Tuscany to relocate the coffins of his ancestors, back to Lorenzo de' Medici. Not technically a true pyramid, the Pizan Pyramid includes both public and private rooms, with access to balconies on each of its exterior steps. The Palladian Palaces constructed in the 1560s would employ all of these techniques combined for the first time. 

Development of the Field

During the Mamluke rule over Egypt (1250-1517), unrestricted access to Alexandria and general dissorder in the nation prompted many travelers in Egypt to pilage Pharaonic tombs for items that could be considered valuable in Europe, but to the Muslim world generally worthless as pagan icons. This led to an increasing interest in understanding and cataloging Ancient Egyptian culture, but later on would prove frustrating for Aegyptographers to see so many tombs disturbed at this stage. The antiquarian Oliviero Forzetta recorded many Egyptian relics that arrived in Rome in the mid-14th century, the most magnificent being the sarcophagus of "King Belus", later identified as Pharaoh Ramses II. Thanks to Forzetta's notes, the tomb of Ramsees was carefully reconstituted in the 1930s. 

Ciriaco d'Ancona di Benozzo Gozzoli

Ciriaco de' Pizzicoli

By the early 15th century, regular pilgrimages from southern Europe through Alexandria would specifically work to excavate for antiquities. It was at this time that Ciriaco de' Pizzicoli did his greatest work. Variously named as the "Father of Aegyptography" and the "Father of Archaeology", Pizzicoli led excavations in Egypt himself for three separate periods: 1422-1426, 1435-1439, and finally 1445-1450. Comparing both inscriptions and artifacts, he worked relentlessly to piece together both Egyptian chronology and burial practices, mostly in an attempt to identify the Pharonic tombs with the Kings of Egypt in Herodotus and the Bible. In his last letter, Pizzicoli remarked that there was a single tomb from the Fourth Age he could not find, because it was not in the Valley of the Kings. This was Tutankhatens tomb found in 1455, just one year after Pizzicoli's death. The artist and traveler Francesco Squaricone was also instrumental in uncovering Amarna in 1458, which he noted as being the most unique among Egyptian art. 

In 1474, Pope Sixtus IV opened the some of the first public museums in Rome, the Capitoline Museums. Rather than the Medieval reliquaries, this was a carefully catalogued collection of art from across the history of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Several other museums would appear across Italy later on, such as the Ulfiz Museum by Cosimo de' Medici and the Vatican Museum of Pope Julius II. 

The spread of these collections led to a more firmer development of Aegyptography in the 16th century. Onofrio Panvinio, styled as the "Father of All history", compiled an archeological survey and political history of Egypt. Published under the title Aegyptographia in in 1559, it is considered one of the most foremost sources of Egyptian studies. Pirro Ligorio followed up with an equally invaluable discussion on Egyptian culture and daily life in 1565. Finally, the German scholar Conrad Peutinger focused on the biographies of prominent Egyptian figures. Published as Mirrors of Egyptians in 1535, it included such people as Motepius and Anius, known by their original Egyptian names as Imhotep and Ani. 

Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria is mainly attributed to have propagated the study of archaeology in Germany. Having helped to establish various museums in Vienna, Augsburg, and Prague, Ferdinand also patronized several prominent aegpytographers. John Stow was the first to merge aegyptography with antiquarianism in England, helping to found the Royal Museum of London in 1575. Emperor Rudolf II created one of the largest museums in history at Prauge Castle. Obsessed with antiques, Rudolf styled himself as a new Pharaoh with his patronizing of the arts. He also worked to popularize the study of Egyptian occult sciences late in his reign. 

Synthesis of Egyptian Chronology

Main Article: Ancient Egyptian Chronology (Many Wonderful Things)

By the time the field of histiography was creating a synthesis of World history, Egypt was considered among the classical heritage of Europe along with Greece and Rome. However, creating a synthesized history of Egypt had a number of problems inherited from antiquity. Many dynasties of Egypt listed since Manetho were actually contemporary rulers of local regions. There were also errors of reign lengths being exaggerated, and many Pharaohs listed multiple times with name variations. The overall result was a much longer Egyptian history than could have been possible with the known dates for the Flood and Tower of Babel

Joseph Scaliger was the first to attempt a solution. Comparing Pizzicoli's notes with Greek and Biblical texts, he was mostly accurate in his chronology back to the Third Age, most notably by correcting an error in Josephus by identifying Aegyptus with Thutmosis III, not Ramsees II. Prior to that, however, Scaliger relied heavily on making dynasties contemporary as a way of shortening the chronology, to the point of treating the Pharaoh's as local lords until they were unified by Senusret I, a kind of Egyptian Alexander. John Greaves, an Oxford mathematician, would keep the dynasties mostly successive but instead shorten all the reign lengths by a consistent, albeit elaborate algorithm.

In 1647, James Ussher would be the first to propose instead simply removing Pharaohs from the chronology who may not have existed, stating "as mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah, the Egyptians would later boast of ancient kings" (referencing Isaiah 19:11).  James Ussher has been known as the "Father of modern histiography", placing the date of Creation very near the actual value. Finally, the polymath Sir Isaac Newton would finalize ancient history in its modern state in his work, The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms, Amended published in 1701. 

Impact on the Enlightenment

Egyptian Mysticism

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1608) was acutely interested in studying both Egypt and China, for the mutual purpose of understanding the origin of civilization. Kircher lived at a time when a lot of cryptic discoveries were being made in Egypt, such as the correspondence of Solomon and Amenope, and the Adamic Pyramid Inscription. Kircher interpreted both of these, along with his studies of the Egyptian and Chinese languages, as clues as to the secrets involved in the Creation of the Universe, as both Egypt and China traced back their histories to the appearance of man after the Flood. Also, after the discovery of the ancient alchemy lab in Memphis, Kircher wrote how he believed the Egyptians synthesized the Philosopher's Stone, and subsequently used this technology to construct the Pyramids and other monuments. Kircher wanted to explore this study further, but his work in other forms of art and science took away from his time.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Kircher's work would launch an explosion of excitement around this concept of secrets the Egyptians held, hence the beginning of Egyptian mysticism. John Desaguliers, an acquaintance of Isaac Newton, would establish the Freemasons in 1717 for the purpose of supposedly completing the Egyptians' work of finding the Philosopher's Stone. As the Freemasons early on were not successful in this endeavor, they eventually branched out to be a general secret society focused around the rituals of Ancient Egypt and its influences on Judaism and Christianity.

Other cult religions would later branch off from this. Martinism, a more esoteric branch borrowing elements from Jewish Kabbalah, was founded in 1765 by Jacques Pasqually. In 1776, Adam Weishaupt would found the Illuminati , a more secular branch focused on returning to ancient Egyptian science as an alternative to organized reilgion. In the 1830s, Joseph Smith claimed to have received visions from the Angel Moroni, explaining how Ancient Egyptians colonized America and established a home for the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem. The resulting Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints is a mix of Ancient Egyptian religion with Christian theology. Such use of Egyptian culture in cult religions have been repeated criticized by both Aegyptographers and the Coptic Church

Decline of Aegyptography

After the Ottoman Empire came to dominate Egypt in 1517, a slow decline in access to Egyptian relics would persist for the next three centuries. Although the Ottoman Empire would pursue their own expeditions, and even set up museums in Anatolia in the 17th century, in general the echelons of the western Turks were uninterested in the region's pagan history. 

In addition to this dilemma, the sudden increase of Egyptian mysticism in the 18th century would draw many Aegyptographers' attention towards them, either out of genuine interest or feeling the necessity to critique it. As a steady-state model for the Earth's origin would fade out in the face of Creationism in the late 18th century, many atheist historians would associate themselves with the Illuminati, primarily led by Thomas Paine. As such, the face of Aegyptography for much of the 18th and 19th centuries was that of mystical and unscientific. 

A revival in Aegyptography would begin at the dawn of the 20th century, when Howard Carter led a group of Oxford scholars to de-mystify the field and return to the firmer, scientific roots. The American Society of Aegyptography, and its overall organization the International Association of Aegyptography, currently leads heads the study.

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