Why does the West care? Egyptomania, White Man’s Burden, and Orientalism

By Simurgh Staff 

Egyptomania is the total fascination with anything related to Ancient Egypt in popular culture and exists particularly outside of Middle Eastern societies.¹ The Egyptomania phenomenon has persisted for decades. It reveals itself in film, music videos, art, and fashion, through depictions of Egypt’s most famous symbols of ancient civilization such as mummies, hieroglyphs, and the pyramids.² The history of this Western popular culture phenomenon is engulfed in the mystical classification of Egypt’s antiquities and dates to Napoleon Bonaparte’s scientific expedition to Egypt in 1798. Bonaparte brought 400 ships and 54,000 men to Egypt, along with 150 scientists, engineers and scholars to collect cultural artifacts for study.³ When they returned to France, the first volume of the Description de l’Égypte was published in 1809, describing the discovery of tombs with in-depth descriptions of artifacts and cultural symbols. The European obsession with Egyptian cultural heritage began with this French conquest of Egypt. More recently, the origins of some Egyptian antiquities in Western museums have been exposed as stolen goods originally taken as cultural treasures and spoils of war.⁴ 

Egyptomania can describe part of the motive behind the preservation and reconstruction of historical sites by Western nations, Western based NGOs, and international organizations across Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Historical sites may be preserved and antiquities appropriated to satisfy American and European fascination with the exoticism of the Middle East—orientalism. In a sense, museum attractions are a frontier through which culture becomes a public spectacle.

Preservation also serves as a tool to shift anti-Western narrative in the Middle East. “Hearts and minds” is a method of countering and preventing insurgent uprisings and terrorism for the purpose of reducing anti-American sentiment. Hearts and minds efforts encourage people to abandon support for opposition movements by appealing to their emotion or intellect. For example, a hearts and minds campaign may include cultural heritage preservation projects to demonstrate that the United States cares about the heritage of the people they are assisting. In 2003, United States General David Petraeus focused on winning hearts and minds in Iraq by rebuilding infrastructure and restoring religious sites in Mosul that were destroyed during the initial invasion during Operation Iraqi Freedom.   

Another motive behind the Western initiative toward cultural preservation in the Middle East is Rudyard Kipling’s idea of the “white man’s burden.”⁵ The white man’s burden is the idea that privileged, white people have the responsibility to raise up “uncivilized” non-white people for the betterment of the world. It describes the racist ideology of British colonialism as they took up the “responsibilities” of Westerners, indicating that they understood themselves as more civilized and somehow better than others across Africa and the Middle East. Colonialism promoted the advancement of the colonists’ own position—they profited while others suffered.  

The lure of Egyptomania and the Middle East as a mystical, exotic land is related to orientalism, a concept discussed by Edward Said in his 1978 book of the same title.⁶ Orientalism is a post-colonial theory which explores preconceived notions about the Middle East. Edward Said notes that Westerners see the Middle East through an orientalist lens based on art, novels, and textiles depicting its people as uncivilized, exotic, or mysterious. The artists behind those works popular in the west were often created by people who had never been to the Middle East who constructed the images based their own thoughts or how someone else described it to them.

by alittleblackegg,CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The continuation of Egyptomania, orientalist thought, and the white man’s burden could influence the way Westerns go about preservation projects in the Middle East. Regardless of the true reasoning behind preservation projects, the involvement of Western people and organizations is influenced by the past.

1. Fritze, Ronald H. Egyptomania: A History of Fascination Obsession and Fantasy. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 
2. Brier, Bob. “Egyptomania: What Accounts for Intoxication with Things Egyptian?” Archaeology. 2004, 57(1): 16-22.  
3. Tignor, Robert. Egypt: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. p. 196-7. 
4. Cuno, James B. Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 71–86.  
5. Kipling, Rudyard. Modern History Sourcebook: Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden. 1899. Accessed via https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/kipling.asp
6. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.