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Pharaoh’s groupies: why are we obsessed with ancient Egypt?

We should not romanticize ancient Egyptian culture.

Credit: Jeremy Zero via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • I was initially attracted to Egyptology because of some unexplainable, irrational love for an ancient culture.
  • But I now view these gorgeous, chiseled kings as bullies and narcissists.
  • Fetishizing ancient cultures makes ourselves easy marks for the next charismatic authoritarian who comes along.

The following is excerpted from The Good Kings, to be published by National Geographic Books on November 2. Courtesy of National Geographic Books.

I am a recovering Egyptologist.

Like many of us in the field, I was initially attracted to the subject because of some unexplainable, irrational love for an ancient culture that lay millennia in the past. I felt I knew these ancient people somehow, and followed an indescribable urge to jump into the academic time machine to learn anything I could. I’ve now worked in Egyptology since entering graduate school in 1994, investing countless hours learning and teaching the ancient hieroglyphic language, committing kings’ portraits to memory, traveling back and forth to Egypt, and waxing academically about what my research has uncovered.

The most common question asked of me as I stand at a podium for a lecture, or at a cocktail party with a drink in hand, is why I chose to become an Egyptologist. People want to know what a person like me is doing in a field like this. But other Egyptologists never demand my origin story; we all know in our bones that our urge to study that ancient place remains inexplicable, like the reasons we fell in love with someone. The heart wants what the heart wants. Maybe I just don’t want to admit that I was drawn in by the dazzling gold, the massive statuary, the pyramids whose codes have yet to be cracked, the unabashed displays of power. Or maybe I fell for the idea of divine kingship that could reify miracles in stone and craft philosophical tales of complex religiosity.

But that unassailable strength of ancient rule, once so attractive to me, has now soured. The realization was like suddenly understanding that you’re in an abusive relationship. Such sudden apprehension is not as stark as an addict hitting rock bottom; it’s much more subtle. Your partner treats you real nice when he’s in a good mood and buys you beautiful things. But everything seems stacked in his favor, and you begin to question your reality. Is he telling you the truth? And should you really be constantly submitting to his so-called better judgment? When what you thought were moral truths repeatedly turn into lies, it’s time to admit you have a problem and find a way out.

Escaping from such an asymmetrical situation can be difficult, though. The cognitive shift is usually not a panicked run from a physical abuser in the dead of night. But it does demand unlearning what you have learned, or remembering what you forgot. Any victim of the more nuanced forms of psychological control knows that cognitive retraining is required to see what could not be recognized before, to understand that your cult leader does not truly have your best interests at heart, that you can indeed exist on your own.

Analogies to abusive partners and cult leaders may seem overblown. But suddenly I can’t help but view my once beloved Egyptian kings — and their stunningly beautiful artistic and cerebral productions — in light of the testosterone-soaked power politics of the patriarchal system in which I live. I am quickly becoming antipatriarchal and anti-pharaoh, in whatever form the absolutism takes, ancient or modern. I now dwell in a strange in-between world in which the script has been flipped, where those gorgeous, chiseled kings have been revealed as bullies and narcissists.

I’m being naive, you might say. And, of course, you could be right. But how many of us have had deep obsessions with the ancient world — I just love Egyptian temples! I adore Greek mythology! — that are really symptoms of an ongoing addiction to male power that we just can’t kick?

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This book presents an analysis of how we make ourselves easy marks for the next charismatic authoritarian to come along. It’s high time we see how fetishism of ancient cultures is used to prop up modern power grabs. And we need to admit — somewhere down deep — that we think the powerful patriarch, coolly in control, is superhot. Only then can we actually figure out how to smash him.

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