Kermet, the Black Land (Ancient Egypt)

If I felt sorry for myself at having a less than perfect trip to Egypt last year then I should spare a thought for previous generations of the family: travelling down the Nile in 1923 like my French grandmother or serving in the desert as a boy soldier of eighteen as my father did in 1946. Actually, given that the war was over by the time Dad was posted, the worst experience was probably that which my parents shared when they began to study archaeology seriously upon their retirement. A totally disinterested tutor for the Egyptology segment of their course left them to plough through this most difficult subject entirely on their own.

It’s great to see them enjoying themselves on the Nile cruise in 1992: I found that picture along with Lynne’s photos from 1923 when I was clearing out the family house a couple of years ago. No, the family pile was nothing like Highclere Castle, home of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, without whose American wife’s money Howard Carter might never have made the discovery that changed the face of Egypt forever. Highclere is now better known as Downton Abbey from the popular television series but when I visited it eighteen months ago it was nothing but an out-of-the-way backwater in the history of archaeology, stripped of genuine antiquities by the fifth Earl’s impoverished descendents. Descendents who not only half believed in the curse of King Tutankhamun but also had been left with some hefty death duties to pay.

My grandmother’s photographs came as quite a surprise because I don’t believe any of us had ever seen them before, taking her tales of a youthful passion for all things Egyptian with a pinch of the proverbial. And gosh, she was a beauty. So, given the stylish society reputation of Egypt at that period, she was indeed hanging out with the aristocracy, the camera being held by her long suffering and appropriately named sister Marthe. Mathe, whose photographs, now nearly ninety years old, are no more than four centimetres tall but clearer than my mother’s twenty year old Kodachrome.

It was Lynne who sent me to Egypt as a twelve year old schoolgirl, ensuring that I was “bitten by the scarab” at a sufficiently impressionable age. No pictures survive of me as a dumpy schoolgirl on that particular trip in nineteen sixty – ahem – but, given all that has come after, it seems to have done the trick. However, there is no need for me to attempt any purple passages on the appreciation of Ancient Egyptian art, I’m not an academic and so I hope my selection of a few favourites from the great collections of the world will speak for me. No photography is permitted in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

Space has already been given to discussion of the inheritance of the treasures of Ancient Egypt, to where they belong and to whom. I can’t say whether the amount of precious artefacts on display in the museums of Europe and America is appropriate but I can say that most (not all) were lawfully exported with the consent of the Egyptian governments of the time. I am quite sure that there are modern Egyptian scholars every bit as dedicated to the search for knowledge and the preservation of antiquities as the legendary expatriate archaeologists of former days but they must forgive me if a thousand years of Islamic de-nosification makes me a touch sceptical.

One more family story before I close: how did Mum do all this travel and study in retirement but miss the pyramids? Simple: Dad had seen them more than forty years before didn’t think that they were worth a detour. He also left me an extremely comprehensive archaeology library and some infuriatingly unlabelled pot sherds. Libraries are all very well but now that I am a grandmother myself I wouldn’t be without my DVDs. A particular recommendation is the BBC Egypt collection (pictured) which entertainingly dramatises the building of the pyramids, the decoding of the hieroglyphics and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Another favourite is the Discovery Channel Ancient Egypt series hosted by the charismatic Robert Brier who is such a fund of delightful humanising anecdotes about his subjects. The inclusion of the Return of the Mummy is a joke, Beatrice.

It goes without saying that I wish the best of societies to come out of the turmoil for the people of modern Egypt. I want very much to be able to make another contribution to their coffers by taking my own grandchildren to visit in due course. I will ensure that the children behave respectfully and wont be letting the girls wear strapless tops or micro-shorts but I don’t expect them to have to wear a chador either.


Categories: Africa, Middle East


  • Bea says:

    Wow! What an amazing collection of photos. Wasn’t that the holiday that everyone else got very sick, apart from mum and dad. Possibly due to mum’s extensive ‘first aid’ bag.

    I also like picture 89 and Millie’s rightful place in the collection.

  • Sandy says:

    Is Lynne your grandmother? If so, she is indeed a sultry beauty!

  • Yes, my father’s mother was born on the first day of the 20th century and grew up in Lyon, France. Celine (Lynne) and her sister seem to have been able to twist their prosperous father around their little fingers, fluttering off around the world as fashion dictated. Educated society girls at the time couldn’t get enough of the new archaeological discoveries and I was told that these two gorgeous French girls had also made their way to Mexico in about 1925 in search of even more exotic pyramids. It must have been quite a journey but unfortunately no family photographs or mementos survive.

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