Sunday, July 10, 2011

Page 30: Early Travellers and Modern Rediscovery

Herodotus, the Greek scholar and renowned
father of history' travelled in Egypt in
the mid-5th century BC. He recorded in
in detail everything he saw and was told,
and his work contains much of value
concerning ancient Egyptian temples.
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The beginning of rediscovery: explorers and travellers
"I did not travel for any useful purpose, but only to see so many superb edifices, churches, statues, colossi, obelisks and columns" Anonymous Venetion traveller to ancient Egypt, c. 1589.
Even as ancient Egyptian temples fell into disuse their legend was already in making.. Many Greeks and Romans travelled to the Nile Valley where not only the pyramids and Sphinx but also some ofo the great temples were considered 'wonders'. Especially notable was the Greek historian Herodotus who visited ancient Egypt around the middle of the 5th century BC and who described much of what he saw in the second book of his famous History. Although many of Herodotus claims are questioned by modern scholars much of what he recorded was clearly based on fact, and his writings preserve a great many details which would otherwise have been lost. The late Greek historian Strabo (c. 63 BC) also described monuments which, in many cases, are now greatly ruined or no longer exist, as did the Roman writer Diodorus Siculus an older contemporary of Strabo who visited Egypt between 60 and 56 BC. The Greek writer Plutarch (AD 46-120), who may have had only limited first-hand knowledge of ancient Egypt and who evidently drew on sources of varying levels of value, has nevertheless left us a welth of detail on cult practices and the various temple festivals celebrated in ancient Egypt.

These and other early writers who compiled accounts of their Egyptian travels - or those others - recorded the details of what they were told by the members of the temple priesthoods they interviewed, leaving us much useful information on the temples, their festivals and personnel But within a few hundred years of the advent of Christianity and knowledge of the ancient hieroglyphic script was completely lost. The ancient spoken language of ancient Egypt was replaced by Coptic and then Arabic, and as the old religion died, so too did knowledge of the old culture. During the ensuing Middle Ages Egypt was thus a source of little more than stories and legends which grew ever more fabulous as they spread though many ancient Egyptian sites were visited by medieval European crusaders and pilgrims for their supposed Christian associations. Interpretations of Egyptian monuments and artifacts by European scholars of the Renaissance were often no less fanciful, yet the period did see the beginnings of a growing interest in Egypt and its antiquities which would lead to increased travel and exploration.

Although dangerous and sometimes restricted by law, some of these early travels by European were extensive indeed. Although his identity is not known, one Italian tourist (quoted above) who travelled to Egypt in 1589 shows in his anonymous writings that he visited most of the major sites - and many minor ones - from Cairo as far south as el-Derr in Nubia. It was not until the 19th century and the rule of Muhammad Ali, however, that increasing numbers of Europeans began to visit Egypt purely for pleasure, and from this period we have several records giving impressions and descriptions of specific temple sites.

One of the most significant advances in to discovery was made by the Jesuit Claude Sicard  (1677 - 1726) who was commissioned by the French regent to investigate the monuments of ancient Egypt. Between 1707 and 1726 Sicard visited many ancient sites including 24 ancient Egyptian temples, among them the great temples of Thebes, which he was the first in modern times correctly to identify on the basis of classical descriptions. Most of Sicard's records were subsequently lost, though his travels rank high among those of a number of increasingly educated and careful observers. The writings of the Dane Frederik Norden (1708 - 1742) and the Englishman Richard Pococke (whose Observations on Egypt  records his extensive travels in Egypt between 1737 and 1740) were highly influential at the time. Likewise the account of the French traveller the Comte de Volnay, published in 1787, is said to have inspired Napoleon Bonaparte's inclusion of trained scholars in his military campaign to Egypt in 1789.

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