Egyptomania Comes to America

Historians often date the arrival of American “Egyptomania” to the 1820s, but the two books shown here reveal that American interest in ancient Egypt emerged much earlier, in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Among the most influential books in the rise of American Egyptomania was the Comte de Volney’s Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte (1787). The first English edition, shown here, appeared the same year. The French geographer and philosopher Volney lived in America from 1795 to 1798, following his release from imprisonment during the Terror. By then Volney was internationally known as the expert on Egypt. His illustrated Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte was the fruit of his three-year voyage to the Middle East. It contains careful descriptions of ethnic divisions, religious beliefs, commerce, climate, and politics in Ottoman territory that remained inaccessible to most Europeans before 1800. Volney’s map of Egypt fused modern geography and ancient landmarks familiar from Herodotus. Like many during the Enlightenment, Volney believed ancient societies held powerful meanings for moderns. Convinced that the ruins of ancient Egypt bore silent witness to the megalomaniacal folly of despots past, Volney encouraged in modern man the silent contemplation of these antiquities to inspire “reflexions which fill his heart with sadness, while his soul is elevated by their sublimity.” His Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte appears in Gilbert Stuart’s lavish 1797 painting of the Philadelphia salonnière Anne Willing Bingham: she was a personal friend of Volney, and holds the book so that the title on the spine is clearly visible. (The painting is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Volney also sent a small-scale cork replica of an ancient Egyptian pyramid to his friend Thomas Jefferson, who displayed it at Monticello.

Among the most influential books in the rise of American Egyptomania was the Comte de Volney’s Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte (1787). The first English edition, shown here, appeared the same year. The French geographer and philosopher Volney lived in America from 1795 to 1798, following his release from imprisonment during the Terror. By then Volney was internationally known as the expert on Egypt. His illustrated Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte was the fruit of his three-year voyage to the Middle East. It contains careful descriptions of ethnic divisions, religious beliefs, commerce, climate, and politics in Ottoman territory that remained inaccessible to most Europeans before 1800. Volney’s map of Egypt fused modern geography and ancient landmarks familiar from Herodotus. Like many during the Enlightenment, Volney believed ancient societies held powerful meanings for moderns. Convinced that the ruins of ancient Egypt bore silent witness to the megalomaniacal folly of despots past, Volney encouraged in modern man the silent contemplation of these antiquities to inspire “reflexions which fill his heart with sadness, while his soul is elevated by their sublimity.” His Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte appears in Gilbert Stuart’s lavish 1797 painting of the Philadelphia salonnière Anne Willing Bingham: she was a personal friend of Volney, and holds the book so that the title on the spine is clearly visible. (The painting is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Volney also sent a small-scale cork replica of an ancient Egyptian pyramid to his friend Thomas Jefferson, who displayed it at Monticello.

One of the earliest images to show the Sphinx without a nose appeared in Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, first published in 1755. A Danish naval officer, Frederik Ludvig Norden sketched the magnificent temples and tombs of Egypt in 1737–1738 with exceptional precision. In 1759, Benjamin Franklin shipped a copy of “Norden’s Egypt” from England to Philadelphia.