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The Rape of The Nile

Tomb Robbers, Tourists and Archaeologists in Egypt

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The Rape of the Nile (Westview Press)

The Rape of the Nile

Westview Press
Brian Fagan. 2005. The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists and Archaeologists in Egypt. 253 pages, extensive notes and an index. ISBN 0-8133-4061-6. Westview Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

A Lot to Answer For

The roots of archaeology, like every other science, are firmly set in the Enlightenment of 18th and 19th century Europe. Like botanists (whose species collections often irreparably damaged fragile habitats) and doctors (who suppressed and jailed midwives), the practitioners of archaeology must regret as well as celebrate the mad creation of science.

But for most of us, comfortably sober in the 21st century, the heady exhilaration that drove the scientific movement of the Enlightenment is remote, amusing, or unfathomable. Brian Fagan's The Rape of the Nile brings that heady dangerous destructive exhilaration to life.

Begun in the 1960s as a commissioned biography of that quintessential showman, Giovanni Belzoni, The Rape of the Nile was first published in 1975. This new edition from Westview Press, has been extensively revised and updated. Far from a simple catalog of the sins of the tomb robbers, The Rape of the Nile communiciates that intellectual fever that created such havoc.

Champollion at Dendera

For example, in 1822, Jean Francois Champollion realized that he had begun to recognize the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphic text. Six years later, after extensive investigations of every hieroglyphic text he could get to in Europe, he finally took his first trip up the Nile.

"Champollion's expedition was a triumphal journey. It was an electrifying experience both for the master and for the other members of the party. For the first time they were able to read the inscriptions on the great temples and understand the significance of some of the oldest monuments in the world. Champollion's ideas and the many startlingly revolutionary hypotheses about the significance and context of Egyptian monments that had welled up in his mind were confirmed again and again by his field observations.

Moonlit Temples

"...It was Dendera that was the most overwhelming experience... Unable to restrain themselves, the members of the expedition rushed ashore from their boats on a brightly moonlit night and stormed the temple in a state of wild excitement. ... For two glorious hours the travelers wandered through the moonlit temple, drunk with enthusiasm and rapture, before returning to their boat at three in the morning." (p. 163-165)

It was also during this expedition that Champollion carved his name on one of the columns at Karnak, and cut away areas of plaster with friezes from the tomb of Seti I, taking them with him back to France.

The Rape of the Nile is, as is usual with Brian Fagan's many general public books, eminently readable--and in this case awful and awe-inspiring in its resonant description of those days when science and scientific thought was being forged.

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