The love affair of Western Europe with ancient Egypt can be traced to Napoleon’s invasion of Alexandria in 1798. Until starting to research this topic, I had always thought of the French mission to Egypt as an “expedition” but in truth it was a military maneuver aimed at weakening British control of the Mediterranean Sea and cutting them off from their Indian colonies. If Napoleon’s forces had only contained soldiers, we may never have become so enchanted with the ancients, but he also brought engineers, scientists and cultural historians to document and describe what they found. By July 21, 1798, the French troops had reached the Great Pyramids and driven the Egyptian military into Syria.
Within a year the British retaliated by systematically destroying Napoleon’s ships in The Battle of the Nile and the local population revolted against their new French overseers. The Egyptian uprising in Cairo was quashed, but people all over Egypt were taking up arms against “the stubborn infidels and unbridled rascals.” Also, the Ottomans in Constantinople got wind of France’s defeat at sea and saw it as an opportunity to strike another blow. When the Ottoman forces were discovered only 10 miles over the Syrian border, Napoleon attacked, and his forces were eventually repelled out of Egypt on February 5, 1799. They returned for a brief time four months later, but Bonaparte eventually left Egypt for good in August of the same year to save face.
Even though their time in Egypt was short, France left the situation far from empty-handed. The savants in Napoleon’s employ conducted meticulous surveys of animals, plants, topography, local industry, and trades. Their exploration led them to discover ancient and forgotten burial grounds and temples at Luxor, Philae, and the Valley of the Kings. Everything about these sites were measured and recorded (not to mention looted) for posterity. Even with only a year to collect data and objects, the savants had gathered enough materials to publish a 23-volume reference book, called Description de l’Egypte between, 1809 and 1828.
The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone, probably the most notable archaeological discovery in history, occurred only a month before the French retreat, but like so many of the objects they collected, it fell into British hands and never reached France. This stone, which is now on display in the British Museum, contained the same passage in three different languages, unlocking our ability to translate ancient texts.
Britain would eventually occupy and control Egypt starting in 1882, but Egyptomania gripped the general public long before. Many sources point to a special event in 1821 as the real spark that ignited the British public’s imagination at large. At a theater near Piccadilly, a mummy unwrapping was held for the general public. A few years later, Jane Webb wrote The Mummy, A Tale of 22nd Century, which is not only the first mummy story in Western literature, but also one of the first science fiction stories penned by a woman. Several notable authors embraced the trend and the genre exploded (see list of books below).
Even before the British occupation, they were on friendly terms with the Ottoman occupiers and exported many incredible pieces of Egyptian artwork. To Western eyes, these treasures had been “abandoned” and needed a big brother type “custodian” to take care of them because it was obviously beyond the local population to do so. The British Museum is one of the best places in the entire world to view Egyptian artefacts as a result.
Egyptomania didn’t confine itself only to museums. While walking around London there is plenty of evidence of it still scattered around town. I noticed a very high concentration while strolling along the Queen’s Walk, which follows the Thames. Right next to the river there is an obelisk flanked by lordly lions, and if you need to rest your feet you can avail yourself of the benches that line the walk and are supported by cast iron camels.
19th and early 20th Century Books and Short Stories
- The Mummy, A Tale of 22nd Century, novel, Jane Webb, 1827
- “Some Words with a Mummy,” short satirical story, Edgar Allen Poe, 1845
- “The Mummy’s Foot,” short story, Theophile Gautier, 1863
- “Lost in a Pyramid: The Mummy’s Curse,” short horror story, Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), 1869
- “The Ring of Thoth,” short story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), 1890
- “Lot 249,” short story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), 1892
- The Beetle, novel, Richard Marsh, 1897
- The Jewel of the Seven Stars, novel, Bram Stoker, 1903
- Smith and the Pharaohs, novella, H. Rider Haggard, 1913
- “Under the Pyramids,” (aka “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”) short story featuring Harry Houdini as the protagonist, H. P. Lovecraft, 1924
- The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, novel, Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot), 1924
- The Vengeance of Nitrocris, novel, Thomas Lanier (aka Tennessee Williams), 1928
Contemporary and Steampunk Books (1975-2014)
- Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters
- Kythan Guardians series by Trisha Wolfe
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (Les Aventures extraodrinaires d’Adele Blanc-Sec), comic book, written and illustrated by Jacques Tardi, 1976
- Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Homemade Truly Egyptian Mummy, novel, Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), 1981
- The Anubis Gates, novel, Tim Powers, 1983
- Bubba-ho-tep, novella, Joe R. Lansdale, 1994
- Seven Stars, novella inspired by Conan Doyle’s Jewel of the Seven Stars, Kim Newman, 2000
- The Osiris Ritual, Newbury and Hobbes #4, George Mann, 2009
- As Timeless as Stone (2010) and As Timeless as Magic (2012), novels, Maeve Alpin
- Timeless, Parasol Protectorate #5, Gail Carriger, 2012
- “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” (1972), movies (technically Dieselpunk set in the 1920s)
- “The Mummy Returns,” movie, 2001. The sequel to 1999’s “The Mummy” starring Brendan Fraser. Though both films would technically be best called Dieselpunk, “The Mummy Returns” features a super cool dirigible that is very Steampunk.
- “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec,” movie, 2010
Yestervid is a super cool website that compiles footage from the earliest days of filmmaking. This montage features some of the oldest film and sound recordings around the city of London, and they have a map showing the exact location and camera angle for reference.
Originally, the Kensington Gardens were part of the grounds of the Kensington Palace, the birthplace of Queen Victoria. During her reign her husband, Albert, commissioned the lovely Italian Gardens as a gift to his beloved and work was completed in 1860. Albert was an avid gardener and was entranced by the Italian-style water garden composed of ponds, terraces and raised beds along a geometric plan. This relaxing site sits on the Long Water, a river that runs into The Serpentine lake, so it is a nice place to spot birds and enjoy native water plants such as water lilies. After Albert’s death, Victoria had the Albert Memorial built on the south side of the Kensington Gardens.
There are eight Royal Parks in London, and this one dates back to the 1500s. Over time, different monarchs, architects, and gardeners have changed the landscape from a prime place to hunt deer to a sprawling grassy knoll perfect for picnics. It’s an appropriate site for “steam tourism” because the Great Exhibition was held on its grounds in 1851. There is nothing left of the Crystal Palace today, but this green respite is still a very nice place to visit.
If you are there on a Sunday and you stop by Speaker’s Corner on the north-east side of the park, you may still see people exercising their right to free speech on the same spot that has seen countless protests and demonstrations, including several advocating for the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the early 1900s. The Kensington Gardens used to be part of Hyde Park, but today they are considered separate entities due to a road that was built in the 1820s.
In the early days after its construction in the 1730’s, “Saville Street” was home to officers of the British military. The next century it became the first home of the Geographical Society of London (today known as the Royal Geographical Society, RGS), which was granted its Royal Charter under Queen Victoria. The RGS was responsible for financing such notable expeditions as David Livingstone’s sojourn into Africa, which lead to the discovery of the Nile’s source (named Lake Victoria) by Sir Richard Burton and John Speke. The RGS moved its headquarters in 1913, which was also the same year that women were first allowed to join.
During the Victorian era, Saville Row become strongly associated with the tailoring trade, and today the street is lined with stores selling natty men’s fashion. On a literary note, Jules Verne gives Phileas Fogg, the hero of Around the World in 80 Days, the address of No. 7 Saville Row. There isn’t a lot to see today, so for me, the most compelling thing about visiting this area ended up being the nearby Burlington Arcade.
If you have heard of this site, it is probably because of Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg’s journey began at The Reform (as it is colloquially named) over a game of cards, and ended in dramatic fashion on the same spot. The Reform was also featured in politically-minded novel entitled Phineas Finn, which was released as a serial by notable Victorian author Anthony Trollope from 1867-1868.
The club was founded in 1832 as a liberal bastion for people to exchange radical ideas in response to the conservative Whig Party that had held power in London for decades. For many years it was the unofficial headquarters for the Liberal Party, and boasts a huge library filled with contributions from its members. Unfortunately, the inside of the club is off-limits to non-members except for select groups that can visit during a special architectural festival in September, and the exterior is nothing special. But, you can see a few photos of the interior on their website.
The House of Parliament and its iconic clock tower date to 1844 and were built after the original building was destroyed by a fire in 1834. Although today we know the tower as “Big Ben,” this is technically the name given to the huge bell that accompanies the world’s largest four-sided clock. The tower has officially been known as the Elizabeth Tower since 2012 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, and prior to that was simply The Clock Tower.
However, during Victorian times journalists often referred to it as St Stephen’s tower because Members of Parliament (MPs) held their proceedings in St Stephen’s hall. In fact, there is a St. Stephen’s tower on the Westminster premise, but it is much smaller than the clock tower, which is the third tallest in the world. While you can tour the House of Parliament, the tower itself is off-limits unless you are a British citizen with express permission from an MP.
This is definitely a must-see attraction for any Steampunk visiting London. The first exhibit you come to is called Energy Hall and features full-size steam engines and has interactive features that show you the physics of how they work and give the history of how they fit into the evolution of steam technology as a whole.
But, the absolute best exhibit hall is Making the Modern world. It offers a veritable cornucopia of amazing inventions, including Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1 and a working model of a Victorian-era workshop run on a belt system.
Like the Museum of London, I would definitely recommend this as a great place to take people with mixed interests because the museum also has exhibits on the history of agriculture, real objects used in the early days of space travel and a “4D” cinema that has films on a wide range of topics.