Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits

The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863) by Elihu Vedder

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…
Shelley, Ozymandias

For centuries, the lure of Egypt on the European imagination has been strong.

Giovanni Belzoni had excavated the tomb of Seti I and broke his way into the Great Pyramid of Khufu to leave his name in foot-high letters on the wall of the Great Chamber.

Lord Elgin had moved on from looting Greece to bring back the treasures of the Acropolis of Athens, and persuaded the government (of which he was part) to build the British Museum in which to display his ill-gotten gains.

Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon frieze, east pediment (British Museum). Image at wikipedia commonsPart of this was the direct result of the Napoleonic Wars, still resonating across the French Empire almost twenty years later in 1832.

Bonaparte may have ended his rule in ignominy after the Retreat From Moscow, but he took the French Armies across north Africa before he over-reached himself. The prize in his cross-hairs was Egypt.

The greatest prize in all history.

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Egypt remained semi-autonomous [within the Ottoman Empire] under the Mamluks until it was invaded by the French forces of Napoleon I in 1798. After the French were defeated by the British, a power vacuum [led to] a three-way power struggle that ended in 1805 when Muhammad Ali Pasha siezed control. – Wikipedia

But Europeans had already gone crazy for the place (much like we did in 1922, when Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun).

The extent of the extinct Egyptian civilisation was one attraction.

The mystery of its fall was another.

How could an nation, so great that it split the Roman Empire into civil war, just… disappear?

The key to unlocking this mystery lay in the untranslatable hieroglyphics which festooned every surface of the ancient Egyptian landscape.

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831). Champollion is buried in Paris, in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831)

Untranslatable, that is, until the arrival of Jean-Francois Champollion, polymath, genius and Frenchman.

Using classic code-breaking technique, Champollion took the Ptolemaic Greek texts on the Rosetta Stone and applied those translations to the hieroglyphics.

Genius.

Other Egyptologists followed. Soon, the entire fascinating history of Ancient Egypt began to emerge from the pictures. History was rewritten.

Mythology, too.

The kings of Ancient Egypt strode out from the statues and tomb carvings and into popular culture with the same pervasive assurance as quack medicines and elixirs with exotic-sounding names and ground-up mummies listed in the ingredients.

And the gods of Ancient Egypt found new life breathed into their stories, like the new life breathed into Osiris in his voyage through the underworld.

Rebirth.

So sacred to the Ancient Egyptians it became the keystone of the Osiris Myth, their earliest and most primitive gospel.

From the watercolours and drawings by George Alexander Hoskins (1832) in the Archive of the Griffith Institute, University of OxfordSo sacred that each pharaoh became the living embodiment of Osiris, guaranteeing the return of the Nile floods to feed the population in a re-enactment of the deity’s sacrifice and regeneration, risking the wrath of the goddess if he should fail.

The sacred king.

Le Roi Sacré.

Just like Louis Beauregard, Consort to the Last Rhinemaiden.

“The boat of the dying sun god Ra, tacking down the western sky to the dark river that runs through the underworld from west to east… will tomorrow reappear, bearing a once again youthful, newly reignited sun. Or, …a vast motionless globe of burning gas, around which this planet rolls like a pellet of dung propelled by a kephera beetle. Take your pick… but be willing to die for your choice.” – Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates


Next: the penultimate post in the SHADOWBOX series: All Roads Lead To The River.

And journey’s end draws nigh.

Published in: on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits  
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Shadowbox: In Byron’s Shadow

“There is something pagan in me that I cannot shake off. In short, I deny nothing, but doubt everything.”John William Waterhouse - a mermaid
Byron

SHADOWBOX begins in 1832. The young Louis Beauregard flees London to escape a crime he cannot forget and seeks to drown his memory in debauchery and revels.

He wouldn’t be the first man to do so.

Lord George Gordon Byron, accompanied by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Polidori, Mary Shelley and a few hangers-on, set the tone for many adventurers of the upper class when they escaped public outrage and landed on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Others followed.

A peculiar fashion arose in the salons of London. Borne out of the tragic loss of the Colonies in North America to independence, the wealthy of London sought adventure elsewhere.

France and Italy, the twin states ruled by Bourbon kings, were at peace with the rest of Europe, for a little while at least. Internal strife might cause problems, but tourists were hardly impacted. And following on from the lack of ability to travel to north America, the wealthy of Britain – England – spread their adventuring to Europe on the Grand Tour.

The nation’s public schools (actually fee-paying and not at all like public education, especially public education of the time) emphasised Greek and Latin scholarship.

There was also a lack of reading material. Back in the early 19th century there was no publishing business to speak of.
Many homes had no access to a book. Many more had access only to a single Bible, and while the religious reformers taught in English, a grounding in Latin was seen as the basis for understanding the great poetry and literature of the time.

Who’s to say that Greek epic poetry isn’t worth keeping? And so the schools taught Greek, the stories of Homer and Troy, of Penelope and Odysseus and Helen. Still stirring today.

But the wealthy of the 19th century took advantage of the political peace across Bourbon regions and headed off to see Rome for themselves. The more adventurous disregarded the rebellion and the bandits in Greece and set off to find Athens, Sparta, Corinth, all happily trundling along with much the same sort of lifestyle they imagined had been borne by the ancients.

Except they plundered the places they visited.

Lord Elgin stole the marble statues from the plinth of the Parthenon, ostensibly to save them from the Turkish troops taking potshots or from the gunpowder stored inside blowing them up.

When he returned to London with them, Robert Smirke was commissioned to build the first hall of the British Museum to house them, along with all the Egyptian antiquities we’d hoarded since Giovanni Belzoni began bewitching women with stories of dead princes and painted tombs.

Napoleon Bonaparte stole treasures from Egypt while his army occupied the country.

Britons followed, continuing a fascination which had begun centuries earlier and continues to this day.

Germany, too, although not yet a nation state, sent its archaeologists to acquire antiquities.Ottoman Empire

Uprisings against the Ottoman Empire tinged these adventures with a smidgeon of danger, always a thrill to recount back in the comfortable drawing-rooms and parlours of one’s home nation.

Into this foment of passion, exploration, revolution and liberty, I pitched the young Louis Beauregard with a price on his head and a past he cannot escape.

In the shadow of Byron he set off for Greece and the wild hills of Olympus. But he stopped off in Paris on the way, and there the story really catches up with him.
___________________
Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Rogues Gallery.
Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

Giovanni Belzoni Gets A New Assistant

A trip to the British Museum this week brought an unexpected resource to  my attention for my current work-in-plan, Project AR: the travel drawings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. The work in progress is a prequel to my novel, The Last Rhinemaiden, and is about the life of that story’s hero, Louis Beauregard, as a younger man.

Edward Dodwell, Simone Pomardi, Panorama from the top of the Mousaion Hill, Athens. Watercolour, 1805. From the British Museum website.

In my short story, All Roads Lead To The River, Louis visits the pyramids at Giza in the company of two English explorers. He’s described as having “caroused around the Greek islands in the company of playboys and poets”, until he arrives with Smyth & Petherick in Libya as their draftsman.

Dodwell and Pomardi were draftsmen.

Gold mine.

All their work took place twenty years or so before Louis fictionally arrives there. The landscape hadn’t changed much in that time, although it did in the ensuing twenty years as the Greeks, having won their War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, proceeded to remove all trace of the overseers.

I originally went to see the exhibition of Ice Age Art (how could I not? I majored in prehistory at university; Ice Ages and their effects on northern Europe play a major part in the story of The Last Rhinemaiden and its offshoots). While I waited for my ticket time to come around, I took a wander.

It’s the British Museum – there’s plenty of things to see. For once I didn’t go to see to Pete Marsh. I avoided the Egyptian gallery too, and the Elgin Marbles (although I began to wish I’d zipped past them just the once after this…)

Serendipity, call it what you will, but I entered the exhibition entitled “In Search of Classical Greece”. I hadn’t heard of either of the two gents whose drawings formed the mainstay of the exhibits, but as I went around I learned a lot more about them and the circles they moved in.

The drawings of the Greek landscape were technically perfect, but lots more interesting snippets popped out of the texts. Names to look up, topographical details, local people in costume, travellers in English period costume. I was scribbling notes like a wild thing. Byron; Shelley; the aforementioned Lord Elgin. A touch of The Stress Of Her Regard (Tim Powers) in the air, perhaps, of the British Museum on a sunny afternoon.

Then yesterday, in a planned day of exploration for more Project AR groundwork, I took a trip to Bristol and wandered around their Georgian House Museum – fascinating – before going up the steep hill of  Park Street to the university area and the lovely, compact but jam-packed City Museum & Art Gallery for a lunchtime talk.

On the drawings of the tomb of Seti I by Giovanni Belzoni.

Wow.

In addition to a peek at some Belzoni artefacts – a chunk of plaster chipped from the wall of the tomb that Belzoni had marked with his name, for example – the talk also mentioned how the paintings were produced: the techniques used, the inks, the paper, the protocols for painting the scenery. I already knew some of the original Egyptian protocols, the dimensions and such like, but it was interesting to see that the copyists used much the same ideas.

And when he’d finished despoiling the tombs he excavated, what did Belzoni do with the goodies?

Belzoni assistant

Belzoni toured with his discoveries. This in the collections of Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery.

He shipped them off to Europe and toured the provinces at their expense.

Belzoni produced the drawings as part of a touring exhibition, and they formed a mock-up that people could wander around in. If I hadn’t been to the Dodwell & Pomardi exhibition the day before, I wouldn’t have known how common that was at the time, to the extent that special rotundas were built in the 1790s-1800s so people could go into a landscape and experience it in 360 degrees – the original Imax.

The Museum staff handed round a handbill of the exhibition of two mummies, an excellent example of the over-wordy printer-going-bananas-with-his-art. And there was a guidebook – a genuine one, from the period, with a map of Egypt that folded out, and about 8 pages of tight typescript explaining the excavation and the exhibition.

Wow. Again.

As a historian, even Belzoni’s artefacts are cool. I have handled a 180-year-old booklet produced for Giovanni Belzoni’s exhibition. Cool.

And in addition to being cool, both exhibitions gave me a nice set of reference points for Project AR and how Louis Beauregard would actually do all that carousing around the Grand Tour with poets and playboys.

The exhibitions are totally free. The talk was totally free. The British Museum, and Bristol City Museum, are getting a big acknowledgement in the front of the finished novel.

But first, I have to write the blasted thing…