A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology

Toby Wilkinson. Norton, $30 (512p) ISBN 978-1-324-00689-3
Historian Wilkinson (The Nile) revisits the whirlwind of archaeological discoveries made in the Nile Valley between the 1822 decoding of the Rosetta Stone and the 1922 unearthing of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, in this meticulous and vibrant account. He sketches how Napoleon’s 1798 expedition into Egypt inaugurated an “intense Anglo-French rivalry” over the country and its artifacts, and documents the competition between British polymath Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion won out, though the Rosetta Stone ended up in British hands—a foreshadowing of the British takeover of the French-built Suez Canal, and the country itself, in the 1880s. In between, Wilkinson highlights the achievements of Prussian explorer Karl Richard Lepsius, who made the first “systematic exploration” of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Auguste Mariette, who discovered the Serapeum at Saqqara in 1851, among other Egyptologists. He also notes the devastating impact of “treasure-hunting,” “slapdash excavation,” and Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali’s modernization efforts on archaeological sites, and details novelist Amelia Blandford Edwards’s campaign to “save Egypt’s patrimony for future generations.” Wilkinson marshals a wealth of detail into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. The result is an essential portrait of how the rediscovery of “[Egypt’s] ancient past paved the way for its modern rebirth.” Agent: Jon Wood, RCW Literary. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 07/14/2020
Release date: 10/20/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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