We are fortunate to live in a time when we can travel great distances from the comforts of our home and see marvels to which most people in the not-too-distant past did not have access.  Documentaries and the internet, books and photographs—all of these mediums enable us to review what is currently known after centuries of archeological research in Egypt.

But imagine a time when the art and the wealth of ancient Egypt were not largely known, and imagine seeing it for the first time.

“Eygptomania”—the fascination of all things related to ancient Egypt—spread across Europe after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Traveling with the French military leader at that time were both soldiers and scholars (“savants”), and it is thanks to the savants that ancient Egypt was introduced to the larger world.

Savants and soldiers alike were in awe of what they witnessed.

The savants’ drawings of ancient temples, obelisks and other sites were published in a tome entitled Description de l’Egypte.  These images, along with the artifacts they discovered, would inspire wonder and archeological research through the present day.

That is the story most people know.

But take several steps further and dive into the wide-reaching influence ancient Egypt has had, not just on Europe on the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the larger world through today.

“Egyptianizing”, explained Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale, “refers to Egyptian-inspired design that is also informed by contemporary iconography and style.”

And it is this theme that permeates Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Echoes of Egypt

The exhibit is the result of two and a half years of work and the collaboration of myriad scholars.  It combines ancient artifacts with more recent artifacts from all over the world.

“One key to understanding the many echoes of Egypt in other lands and cultures is to explore how an architectural image and other iconographic aspects of a culture can be transferred from one time and place to another.”– from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

“I was phenomenally lucky,” wrote Dr. Manassa, curator of the exhibit, “that every object I wanted to include in the exhibition was successfully loaned.”

These objects are as diverse as they are remarkable. Visitors might be thrilled to view a page of hieroglyph translation from Jean-Francois Champollion (1824) or a plate of Esna North from Description de l’Egypte.  But one can also see objects such as a mantleclock with Sphinx and Obelisks from Tiffany’s (1885), an American political cartoon (1877), and an announcement for a mummy unwrapping in Boston (1850).

Also on display is a parchment leaf from Shenoute’s White Monastery, so named for the color of its walls.  The parchment is written in Coptic, Egyptian language written in the Coptic alphabet, and its date is estimated between the 7th-8th centuries CE.  According to Daniel Schriever, Yale PhD Candidate and the person who wrote the information about this piece on the website, Shenoute is “the most important author in the Coptic language.”

“The Dahesh Museum was particularly generous with its painting collection,” wrote Dr. Manassa.

Example of these, such as “The Temple of Karnak, The Great Hypostyle Hall” by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner  and “Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae” by Hermann-David Salomon Corrodi, transport the viewer not just to ancient Egypt but how people in the 19th century may have seen it.

“The engagement—and occasional obsession—with ancient Egypt and the adaptation of its concepts and imagery are not confined to the forms and contents of the pyramids, temples and tombs that have so awed tourists since classical times, but exist within the history of ideas.” – from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

This is an extraordinary exhibit, not just in its breadth of knowledge, but also in its very unique generosity: it is accompanied by a website that details every item on display.

In other words, Echoes of Egypt is available to anyone anywhere.

“The website was designed to be a true ‘online exhibition,’” Dr. Manassa wrote, “in which every object is represented alongside detailed catalog text.”

Dr. Manassa credits Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and the assistant curator, for the idea and the design behind the website.  It was thanks to the work of both Dr. Cunningham-Bryant and the Yale CMI2 Team, she said, that the website came to fruition.

“CMI2” refers to Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation.  When asked about this, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant explained that it is this team “that develops and integrates technology with classroom content, specifically in new web-based formats. Our whole web team, excluding myself, were staff from CMI2. They donated their time to the exhibit and were a tremendous resource to the entire exhibition.”

“For the online exhibit,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant continued, “we knew we wanted the most complete and enduring version of the exhibit possible since it was only a temporary physical exhibition. The web team and I spent a lot of time working on how to make the most user-friendly interface that still held true to the exhibit’s organization and structure, and told the same story.”

Somewhat akin to discovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, the website offers treasures that astound, inform and excite.  The more one explores, the more one finds. The details offer a wealth of information one would not find otherwise without access to disparate and sometimes obscure reference material.

Enabling the user to pick-and-choose what she or he wishes to view, one can ‘walk’ through the exhibit at one’s own pace, at one’s own schedule, and as often as one wishes.

Related items are listed under each image.  And each item contains more information about its history and its relevance. Reference materials, should one wish to know more, are listed below the text.

Dr. Manassa explained that there is more information on the website than within the exhibit, but that “there are signs with numbers you can type into a smart phone that directly bring up the website for that particular object.  So there is also an integration of the physical exhibit and the website.”

“Colleen had already been in touch with the various authors for the material as they were collaborating on the exhibition catalog as well,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant wrote in an email, “For the online exhibition, I asked each author to provide accompanying references that would be accessible and useful for understanding the specific piece/theme.”

One exceptionally well-documented piece is a manuscript written in 1751 from Iraq.

“I was particularly proud of the loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Arabic manuscript by Ibn Wahshiyya,” stated Dr. Manassa, referencing this specific piece, “which has never before been seen in the United States.”

“Arabic attempts to translate hieroglyphs were not common,” she continued, “but their existence eight hundred years before Champollion, particularly the assigning of phonetic (rather than symbolic) values to the hieroglyphs is an important aspect of intellectual history and the reception of hieroglyphs that is not often told.”

This is exactly the type of surprising information one learns throughout the exhibit.

Dr. Isabel Toral-Niehoff, the author of the details about that manuscript, offers fascinating thoughts on research the non-Arabic-speaking world has yet to learn.

“Although some preliminary work has been constructed, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now,” she writes on the exhibit’s website.

“…Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current—mainly European—scholarship. The most famous statement in this context…is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion.”

Mummies—while not the highlight of this exhibit—are indeed included.  And the one human mummy on display is on loan from, of all places, the Barnum Museum, as she was originally obtained in Egypt by the widow of the famed circus owner.

The text for this artifact is intriguing, startling and informative.

Dr. Manassa and S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society, introduce the reader to mummy unwrappings that took place in this country in the 1800s.  They describe, as one of the central characters to this type of event, George Gliddon—a man born in England, but who eventually lectured on Egyptology in the States. He subscribed to polygenesis, a “highly racially charged” idea that human races come from different origins.  And one that he and his father tried to help prove by collecting mummy skulls.

Gliddon obtained a mummy for an 1850 lecture in Boston, and apparently advertised the mummy as the “body of the daughter of a high priest of Thebes.” His promotional efforts paid off, and the event sold out.

But the event did not end successfully; in fact, Gliddon eventually fled to Philadelphia.

(One might find this particular story amusing, and this author leaves it to the reader to enjoy it in full: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/mummy-mania/unwrapped-egyptian-mummy-female-fragments-linen-wrapping)

Perhaps because of the diversity of the artifacts (from paintings and ancient artifacts from Egypt to movie posters and political cartoons), the exhibit lingers in the mind, prompting thought and wonder long after one has reviewed the website (or reviewed the physical objects).

“[T]his exhibit was a labor of love for all of those who worked on it,” wrote Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, “and I am immensely pleased with how it turned out. I hope it helps the public engage with Egypt in a new way and demonstrates how much we as archaeologists, historians and museum professionals can do with the digital technology available to us enabling us to reach new and varied audiences.”


Please be sure to visit the Yale Peabody Museum between now and January 2014 to see this exhibit: http://peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/echoes-egypt-conjuring-land-pharaohs

To see the exhibit online: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

For a complete list of the scholars who contributed to this exhibit: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/contributors

To see the New York Times’ review of the exhibit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/nyregion/a-review-of-echoes-of-egypt-exhibition-at-yale-peabody-museum.html

For more images from the Description de l’Egypte: http://description-egypte.org/

Many thanks to Melanie Brigockas at the Yale Peabody Museum!

A very special and sincere thank you to Dr. Colleen Manassa and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, who responded so generously and so quickly, despite their incredibly busy schedules. 

And an enormous thank you to Dr. Manassa, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, and to everyone who brought about the Echoes of Egypt exhibit!