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2 April 2024

The Craze for Ancient Egyptian Mysteries that Swept 1920s England

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The Craze for Ancient Egyptian Mysteries that Swept 1920s England

When Agatha Christie wrote her short story “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” people were mad for everything Egyptian. Whether calculated or not, she tapped into a trend that had been wildly popular for decades. 

Travel writer Richard Lassels coined the phrase “The Grand Tour” to describe the educational travel of wealthy young men through France, Italy, and Greece to become grounded in classical art, architecture, and literature. Lassels published a guidebook in 1670, and while “Grand Tourists” followed his lead for decades, Egypt eventually became a destination as well. 

Egypt seemed especially mysterious because, while every educated person could read Latin and Greek, no one could understand hieroglyphics – yet. In 1798, Napoleon led a French campaign to establish a French presence in Egypt and Syria. The following year, his troops obtained the Rosetta Stone which contained hieroglyphic content alongside a Greek translation. It took some time because hieroglyphics do not exactly represent Greek letters, but the Rosetta Stone was finally deciphered by the 1820s which fueled a serious study of Egyptian writing.  

Victorians became so enamored that the trend was dubbed “Egyptomania” and Egyptian themes began showing up in jewelry, art, and architecture. Queen Victoria herself was a fan after delighting in the illustrations of artist David Roberts who had traveled and sketched throughout the country in 1838.

Academics suggest that one of the reasons for Egyptomania was that the unique burial customs of ancient Egypt harmonized so well with the Victorians’ mortality obsession. Many mausoleums built during that time featured Egyptian influences. 

The cliche of ancient Egyptian curses had been popular even before the translation of the Rosetta Stone, showing up in stories of how bad luck followed certain traders in antiquities. Once hieroglyphics could be read, few actual curses were found on Egyptian tombs, and most were threats to the priests charged with guarding the tombs. Still, by the mid-1800s, stories were being published that featured mummies exacting revenge on the people who had disturbed their slumber. 

Egyptomania never really faded during the 1800s – Cleopatra’s Needle was erected along the Thames in 1878 – but it reached a new fever pitch in 1922 when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

By all accounts, there never was a curse written on Tut’s tomb, but when Carter’s patron, the Earl of Carnarvon, died, some reporters ran mummy’s curse stories, partially because The Times had exclusive access to the dig and they had nothing else to report. The Earl succumbed to blood poisoning four months after witnessing the tomb’s opening, followed one month later by a visitor to the dig. The next “victims” of the supposed curse weren’t stricken for five or more years and Carter himself died sixteen years later of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Still, curse theories were put forward by many, including spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Carter officially opened Tutankhamun’s tomb in February of 1923 and “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” was published in September of the same year, capitalizing on the Egyptomania wave. Hasting starts the story with “hard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen” and places the fictional dig in Giza where archeologists uncover the tomb of King Men-her-Ra.

I spent considerable time trying to figure out if this was a real pharaoh or not. Since those three syllables are used frequently in Egyptian names and the interpretation of hieroglyphics is a complicated art, a simple online search wasn’t enough. Eventually, I found a mention at the British Museum that referred to a 1917 book published by Sir William Mathew Flinders Petrie. In Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, Petrie identifies Men-her-ra as a vassal under Men-kheper-ra Khemeny who ruled in the Delta of Egypt during the 19th Dynasty. 

Hastings calls Men-her-Ra “one of those shadowy kings of the Eighth Dynasty,” which doesn’t agree with Petrie’s identification. It’s possible that Christie simply put together those three syllables to create a fictional pharaoh and it’s just a wild coincidence that there happens to be a real Egyptian noble with that name. 

Another wild coincidence is that the cartouche of Men-her-ra currently in the British Museum was obtained by the archeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley. Two years after publishing “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,” Agatha Christie would travel to Baghdad where she met Woolley and toured his excavation site. In 1930, she visited Woolley’s dig for a second time and that’s when he introduced her to his assistant, Max Mallowan. Max, of course, became Agatha’s second husband. They were married for more than 45 years and returned to archeological excavations in the Middle East over many seasons.

Illustration by Carl Goebel d. J

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Kate Gingold

... has been a huge fan of the works of Agatha Christie her entire adult life. Christie's vivid descriptions of picturesque English life in the early-to-mid twentieth century fascinated Kate, but many of the people and places were unfamiliar to her. A writer herself, as well as a researcher and historian with several local history books to her credit, Kate began a list of these strange words and set out to define them. Now, Christie fans like you and all those who come after will be able to fully enjoy the richness of Agatha Christie novels with their own copy of Agatha Annotated.

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