The fashion for “Egyptian” design that swept Europe after Bonaparte’s expedition was actually a revival of sorts. Europeans had drawn inspiration from the Nile at least since the fifth century B.C., when the Greek historian Herodotus wrote his famous account of the land that even then was seen as the fountainhead of ancient wisdom.
In the next century Alexander the Great established the Ptolomies as Egypt’s rulers. For almost three hundred years Alexandria, their peerlessly splendid capital with its famous library, remained the intellectual centre of the Mediterranean, the conduit through which wisdom flowed west.
The Romans, who conquered it in 30 B.C., were fascinated by Egyptian cults, Egyptian architecture, and Egyptian art: Rome imported them all and imitated them. The cult of the creative mother goddes, Isis, spread widely, for instance. Her temples were scattered throughout Rome’s vast empire, along with Egyptian (or Egyptian-style) obelisks, pyramids (favoured for tombs), and art objects.
Religious zealots created the catastrophe that broke the links with Egypt’s venerable past. In 391, when the Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered of closing of non-Christian temples throughout the empire, fanatics burned Alexandria’s fabulous Temple of Serapis and – details are murky -a large portion of its seven hundred thousand volume library. Whatever survived of the vast collection of Pharaonic and Ptolemaic scholarship vanished in the Muslim fires of Arab conquest in 640.
After that, Egypt was essentially closed to the West. Even the understanding of hieroglyphic writing had been destroyed. Not that interest in the Egyptian style died. remnants of earlier glories, such as pyramids, obelisks, lions and sphinxes, remained in Rome all during the Middle Ages; there was also a lively trade in mummies, which apothecaries ground to powder to use in medicines.
The Renaissance interest in antiquity – and exploration of Roman temples to Egyptian gods – sparked a small Egyptian revival that spread to France in the ornamental forms of palm-decorated columns, obelisks and sphinxes. As a few French, British and German travelers ventured once more into the unknown land, recording wonders like crocodiles and bananas, pyramids and temples, the fashion grew.
By the 18th century, Egyptian style was seen as sublime – grand and terrifying, an architecture hinting at mysterious wisdom – especially in the hands of proselytising artists like Giovanni Battista Piranesi and writers like Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, whose Journey in Egypt and Syria was in Bonaparte’s traveling library.
It would take Bonaparte’s expedition to produce accurate images of Egyptian art and architecture. These were first offered by Vivant Denon, leading artist among the general’s savants, who in 1802 published the magnificent Voyage in Lower and upper Egypt during the Campaigns of General Bonaparte in two huge volumes with superb engravings from his original drawings. The book was the bestseller. Translated into English and German, it went through forty editions.
In fact, it became the source book for Egyptian style all over Europe. The results were amazing: Egypt was everywhere. There were Egyptian monuments with palm-topped columns and sphynxes; Bonaparte’s victory monument in the Place du Chatelet in Paris is only one example. There were Egyptian “halls” like the one built in 1811 to house a museum of curiosities in London’s Piccadilly; its statues and pylons sat oddly among its impeccable Georgian neighbours. Designers produced Egyptian rooms to house such furniture as boat-shaped couches with crocodile feet. famous porcelain factories created Egyptian dinner services with gigantic centrepieces that featured temples flanked by obelisks. There were Egyptian-style libraries, gates, bridges, tombs, chimney pieces, and gardens with stone sphynxes and pyramidal topiaries. The Antwerp Zoo even built an Egyptian temple to house its ostriches.
Not everyone approved of this Egyptian excess, but doubters seem to have beed few. The English poet Robert Southey spoke for the minority when he wrote that “the ladies wear crocodile ornaments and you sit upon a sphinx in a room hung around with mummies… The very shopboards must be metamorphosed into the mode, and painted in Egyptian letters, which, as the Egyptian had no letters, you will doubtless conceive to be curious.”