Victorians and Egyptomania – Part Three – By Sara Taylor

Sara is back with three of her “Victorians and Egyptomania” blog post. Enjoy!

Sara Taylor

In the popular Mind

As the field of Egyptology changed, ancient Egypt (and Egypt in general) was fast becoming synonymous in the western mind with everything exotic, sexy, and mysterious.

Egyptomania continued in other areas and the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 kept Egypt on everyone’s mind. Prince Albert, the consort to Queen Victoria, died in 1861, plunging the Queen into mourning with the nation following her. The Victorians had incredibly complex rituals and rules for mourning and so it’s probably no real surprise that they perhaps saw themselves in the ancient Egyptians and incorporated their symbols and motifs into their practices.

Victorians in mourning (from

Egyptian revival mourning jewelry was quite popular among women and Egyptian revival style saw a resurgence, making its way into mortuary architecture and memorials. The famous Highgate Cemetery in London had its own Egyptian Avenue and was a tourist attraction even in the 19th century. The trend even made its way to the United States where an Obelisk was chosen as the memorial to George Washington, complete with Egyptian sun-disk!

The rising spiritualist movement in Europe and America incorporated ancient myths and ‘magic’ into their performances and even secret societies formed around various interpretations of the Book of the Dead. The Hermetic Order of the Dawn being one, with high-ranking members dressing in complete Egyptian priestly vestments.

Egypt was the setting of the successful Italian opera, Aida, which opened in 1871, a love story of a captured Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military commander torn between love and duty. It even had an Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette, designing the costumes, staging, and even suggesting the plot! Hollywood could maybe learn a thing or two!

Radamès and Aida in act 4, scene 2 of the 1872 production (from Wikipedia) 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, wrote a short story titled Lot. No. 249 about a mummy, which was just one in the growing number of popular horror and mystery stories featuring a mummy terrorizing the living. It was at this time that the idea of a “mummy’s curse” started to arise in popular fiction. Oscar Wilde published a poem in 1894 called ‘The Sphinx’ in which the narrator questions the Sphinx about what she has seen through the centuries before ultimately rejecting the sphinx and turning to his crucifix.

A New Century and A New Science

As the 19th century came to an end, what had begun as a side project for Napoleon had blossomed a whole new art style and scientific field. Egyptology had grown by leaps and bounds, as had the public’s interest in Egypt and its history. Egypt became increasingly under the influence of European powers such as England and France. The turn of the 20th century resulted in the waning of Egyptomania at least for a time, until one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time occurred within the first two decades.

(Stay tuned for more.)

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