David Roberts

"The Hypostyle Hall of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, Egypt." (David Roberts (1849). Yale Center for British Art; Paul Mellon Collection / May 22, 2013)

Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharoahs

Ends Jan. 4, 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, 170 Whitney Ave., New Haven, (203) 432-5050, peabody.yale.edu. Colleen Manassa, curator of Echoes of Egypt, gives a tour of the exhibition on June 28, 10 a.m., followed by a short walking tour of New Haven to look at Egyptian design motifs in the city.


Ancient Egypt left an indelible mark on world history and Western Civilization. That mark was so deep and distinctive that each succeeding wave of history pushed it forward, like residue left at high tide along a beach: the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, French, British and even Americans (a pyramid shows up on our currency, after all).

Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History has documented these and other more subtle "echoes" in the small but potent exhibit "Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharoahs," on view through the end of the year.

To enter "Echoes of Egypt" one must pass, like a mummy, into the Afterworld. Don't be afraid, though, because the inscription on the gateway reads "The Dead Shall Be Raised." If this seems familiar to you, that's because it's a replica of one of New Haven's most distinctive pieces of architecture — the entrance to Grove Street Cemetery designed by Henry Austin in the 1840s. Austin based his structure on ancient Egyptian temples (though the inscription is from the New Testament). There's nothing kitschy about it.

Indeed, by 1840, Egyptian architecture had become part of the Western "grammar of ornament," influencing Austin, the British architect Owen Jones and the Italian visionary Piranesi — examples of each are on display at the Peabody. But it did not stop with architecture. The renewed interest in Egypt in the 19th century was partly due to its brief conquest by Napoleon (1798-1800), an interest that became an obsession in Europe ("Egyptomania") with Napoleon's establishment of the "Institute of Egypt" and the discovery of the so-called Rosetta Stone, a tablet on which was a trilingual inscription that allowed, ultimately, Egyptian hieroglyphs to be translated.

The French schoolteacher Jean-Francois Champollion qualifies as a culture hero for deciphering these inscriptions and publishing the definitive text on it in 1824; a copy of his publication is one of the highlights of this exhibit. Think about it: Until Champollion, this was knowledge lost to the West for 15 centuries. Nearby is a similarly awe-inspiring book by an Iraqi scholar that beat Champollion by eight centuries, offering a detailed breakdown of the Egyptian language and serving as a sobering reminder of how much more advanced the Arab world was in the 10th century, when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.

Following Napoleon's lead, Western artists hopped on the Egypt bandwagon. Paintings of an obligatory exotic nature (tombs, snake charmers, temples) by the likes of Ernst Koerner, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Karl Wilhelm Gentz are interspersed with more interesting, and accurate, work by David Roberts and other travelers, not to mention two works by the satirists Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray mocking the whole idea of "Egyptomania." Gillray's "The Pursuit of Knowledge" shows two ridiculous looking French scholars (replete with askew powdered wigs) fleeing for their lives from crocodiles along the Nile. Other "echoes" can be found in everyday objects, too, such as the two stunning pieces of furniture from the 19th-century America on display — a rosewood and mahogany veneer cellaret (a cabinet for storing liquor) and a mantle clock with obelisks.

These latter-day echoes, however, pale in comparison with the artifacts on view from ancient Egypt itself, such as a limestone fragment showing a "map of the cosmos" from 664-332 BCE; Meroitic objects, from Meroe, a kingdom in Nubia (south of Egypt); a fragment from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, from 1000 BCE, describing the ritual of "opening the mouth" of the mummy; and, of course, the familiar mummy mask and linen cartonnage pieces that have been moved from the Peabody's permanent exhibit on Egypt, all from 325 BCE; a mummified cat from 200 CE, looking like a foot-long deli sandwich, and even a mummified ibis.

One of most thought-provoking displays has two original papyrus manuscripts written around 1400 BCE by a woman named Hotep in reference to a debt she owed a man named Perre. This raises the amazing possibilities that women and men corresponded as equals two millennia ago and that common women and men both knew how to read and write. And, speaking of reading and writing, "Echoes of Egypt" is kid-friendly, featuring touch screen displays that demonstrate how to make a mummy and how to read hieroglyphs.

If you are lucky enough to catch the gallery at a quiet time of the day, you can stand at the back of "Echoes of Egypt" and let the five millennia of human dialogue sweep over you.