Egyptology was something of a craze in Victorian England, to say the least. The late Victorian period was when it peaked, during the days of Flinders Petrie, the man who is credited with pioneering modern archaeology techniques and who has sadly been all but forgotten. Mr Flinders Petrie did, however, train up the slightly more well-known Howard Carter, he of Tutankhamun (and inspiration for Indiana Jones) fame. But he was only a mere boy of nine when a certain other famous figure travelled to Giza to climb the pyramids and marvel over the… marvels. Bet you can’t guess who!
It was in the early spring of 1862, that the future King Edward VII set off on an educational expedition to the Near East and Palestine. Prince Albert had just died and it seems the grieving queen wanted to be left alone. so off he went on what must have been a truly exciting adventure for the twenty-year old Prince of Wales. An except from his diary reads:
“We then proceeded on the dromedaries (not at all an unpleasant mode of conveyance) to the celebrated Pyramids of Ghizeh – They quite exceeded my expectations, & are certainly wonderful mementoes of our forefathers. We visited the Sphinx just before sunset, which is also very curious and interesting. We had a charming little encampment just below the Pyramids where we slept for the night.’ (Prince of Wales’s diary, 4 March 1862)
At the time, the customary way for anyone to ascend the Pyramids was with the help of three locals – two pulling and one pushing! But not so for our hero, who earned great admiration for climbing to the top completely unaided. This was in the days when he was slim and sprightly, of course.
He visited again six years later, in February 1869, this time with Princess Alexandria. They partied up the Nile on a royal barge and, in the words of one J. Castell Hopkins in a ‘profusely illustrated’ 1910 biography of his Majesty, “[f]or two days, ending February 19th, the heir to a thousand years of English sovereignty wandered amidst these tombs and monuments of the rulers of an African empire which had wielded vast power and created works of wonderful skill and genius three, and five thousand years before. The great hall and colonnades and pillars of Karnac, the obelisk of Luxor, the famous tombs of the Kings, the Temples of Rameses, the colossal statues of Egyptian rulers, were visited by daylight, and, in some cases, the wondrous effect of Oriental moonlight upon these massive shapes and memorials of a mighty past was also witnessed.” Well, quite. The Prince also had a jolly time shooting things, as he was so fond of doing; in this case, crocodiles. The Royal party ascended the Pyramids again, and explored the burial chambers, in between lavish dinners and soirées. It sounds like a dream.
Due to the fact that our Edward was the Prince of Wales, he was afforded far more freedom than most other tourists, and some of the stunning photographs from his two trips can be found in the Royal Collection. But he also collected some souvenirs of his own, and one thing in particular was what I came to the British Museum to track down.
The King owned a Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Nehjmet, which he donated to the British museum. It’s a big old thing at over four metres in length, and was apparently to be found in the Reading Room. Except, the exhibition had finished over a year ago and though I scoured the whole Egyptian section, I couldn’t find it. Alas! So here are some alternative Book of the Dead specimens! Plus a cat mummy for good measure.
The Prince was not alone in his passion for Egyptian artefacts. Egyptomania swept England, with the first ever package tours going there in the late 19th Century, and ‘mummy unwrapping’ demonstrations drawing huge, sell-out crowds. It’s hard to know how to feel nowadays about it all, since countless relics must surely have been lost, thanks to lack of knowledge on preservation, not to mention a lack of careful handling. It was the aforementioned Flinders Petrie who, after being appalled as a small boy at the rough handling of a Roman excavation near his home, changed the way archaeologists worked. The standard, painstaking uncovering of buildings and their contents in situ is entirely thanks to him. On a side note, I will be heading to the Flinders Petrie museum at UCL at a later date, for certain to find out more about him. But I loved poring over all the mummies, statues and other antiquities at the British Museum (even if I couldn’t find the Prince’s donation).