Today, Egyptology – the study of ancient Egyptian history, culture, and language – is a worldwide discipline studied and taught at major universities on nearly every continent. It has evolved from a more esoteric study known only to elites in a handful of schools and museums in Europe to something much more global that is accessible to a wider range of people, which has come to influence many aspects of modern society. The very definition of Egyptology and what makes one an Egyptologist has also changed over the last 200 years because it involves a variety of sub-disciplines that include but are not limited to some of the following: archaeology, art history, history/chronology, and philology. Essentially, Egyptology is a modern study that can trace its roots to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.
It was during the Enlightenment when people began to question the governments they lived under and the religions they followed, when the idea of studying older, venerable cultures became popular. Enlightenment scholars began to see the perfect forms of government in ancient Athens and Rome and as they looked further, they began to see that the even older cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt also had a lot to offer. It was in the milieu of the Enlightenment and during the Napoleonic Wars that followed during the early nineteenth century where most scholars pinpoint the origins of Egyptology. The seminal event within this period was the discovery and subsequent decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, which allowed modern scholars to read the enigmatic hieroglyphic script of the ancient Egyptian language, thereby making the plethora of Egyptian texts readable. Once the texts became readable, ancient Egyptian chronology became clearer and the nuances of pharaonic civilization became accessible to the modern world. As much as the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta Stone represented a watershed moment in the history of Egyptology, the march toward understanding the pharaohs began hundreds of years earlier and then continued long after scholars translated the text on the legendary stone.
Although the ancient Egyptians wrote about their own history, the first true critical analysis of ancient Egyptian history was conducted by the early Greek and Roman historians and geographers. The fifth century Greek historian, Herodotus, is perhaps best known for the in-depth treatment he gave to pharaonic history in Book II of The Histories, which influenced others, such as Diodorus and Strabo, to follow with their own observations of the Nile Valley. The accuracy of the classical accounts of ancient Egyptian history could vary widely. The further back in time the accounts went, the more likely that the chronologies were garbled and facts were simply wrong. The reason for these problems is directly related to the fact that even the most educated Greeks and Romans never took the time to learn the ancient Egyptian language so they were often forced to rely on the Egyptian priests for translations and explanations of texts. The priests were only human, which meant that some parts of Egyptian history were sacrificed for others they believed more important.  The classical historians were able to more critically examine events closer to their own period, though, because many of those events were already written about in Greek.
Categories: Ancient Egyptian History