When we think of ancient Egypt, we usually conjure up images of mummies, Pharaohs and hieroglyphics on some ancient temple wall. But the legacy of Tutankhamun, Egyptian art and architecture is much greater than these iconic images. The influences of ancient Egypt are all around us; interwoven throughout modern American culture: in the giant Sphinx in front of the Luxor casino in Las Vegas; in the Art Deco skyscrapers of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco; in the many Egyptian Theaters from the 1920’s and 30’s in cities and towns across the United States.
Left to Right: Decorated capitals on Columns of Queen Hatshepsut's tomb,
in the Valley of the queens, luxor, egypt
The Great Pyramids of Khufu (or Cheops) c. 2,600 B.C. on the plains of
Giza (the largest of the Ancient Pyramids)
interior oF king tut's tomb, in the valley of the kings, luxor,
egypt with life size fresco of king tut and his wife
Reflections on the Nile
By Mark A. Wilson
In August of 1982, I took a three week trip to Egypt, to see some of the ancient sites I had been teaching about in my Art History classes. All the captioned photos in this article are ones I took during that trip. First I spent seven or eight days in Cairo, where I went to the Pyramids of Giza, and spent two or three days in the Cairo Museum, where all of King Tut’s treasures are permanently housed. Next, I took an Egypt Air flight down the Nile River to Luxor. I stayed there for several days, visiting the Valley of the Kings with King Tut’s Tomb, and the Valley of the Queens with Queen Hatshepsut’s Tomb. Then I toured the great temples at Karnak and Luxor, with their 50-foot tall columns which stretch for a mile along the Nile. Upon my return to Cairo, I explored many if the older mosques, and other Arabic landmarks of the city. This trip was one of the most fascinating of all my many travels, and one whose vivid memories have stayed with me to this day.
Left to Right: ceiling of king tut's tomb, with frescoes of astrological signs
and egyptian gods, done with traditional colors of yellow and cobalt blue
king tut's outer sarcophagus, inside king tut's tomb, the spot
where howard carter found it in 1922
The Return of the King
The long lines waiting to get in to see “King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco, are the graphic proof of the continuing interest in Egyptian Art in modern America. Those of us, who were fortunate enough to see the previous “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit when it came to the United States in 1979, will inevitably be disappointed with the current exhibit, which sadly does not include the famous death mask, inner sarcophagus, or throne of King Tut. However; there are enough exquisitely decorated objects from King Tut’s extended family that it’s well worth seeing, these objects will dazzle your senses. There’s an impressive life-size statue of King Tut in gray granite; a colossal sand stone head of the Pharaoh Akhenaton; a gilded coffin of Tjuya, one of Tut’s relatives; a miniature golden shrine, of wood and gold leaf, also from Tut’s tomb.
The fascination with ancient Egyptian Art began in the 1920’s, when the discovery of King Tutankhamuns tomb by the British archeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings touched off a wave of “Egypt-mania” that gripped the globe. King Tut’s tomb was the first Pharaohs tomb to be found intact in modern times. After Tut’s tomb artifacts were displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1923, a massive revival of Egyptian art motifs occurred in fashion, interior design; jewelry, film, furniture and architecture.
In architecture, this movement came to be called “Art Deco”, after the name of an exhibit of Egyptian inspired art objects in Paris that was called “Les Arts Décoratifs d’Egypte.”
art deco style commercial building in cairo, c. 1930,
with arabic tea and coffee shops
The Dynamics of Art Deco
The Art Deco architecture movement began in Paris and London in the early 1920’s, and spread to the United States in the mid-20’s. Art Deco style sky-scrapers, like the Chrysler Building in New York City, and the Board of Trade Building in Chicago, soon graced the skylines of major American cities. There was also a trend towards Egyptian style movie theaters in downtowns across the U.S. One of the most superb examples of an intact Art Deco style is the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland California, designed by Bay Area architect Timothy Pflueger in 1931. The grand lobby has Egyptian style female goddesses in gold, marching in profile across the interior Frieze.
Art Deco experienced a decline in popularity during the late 1930’s and early 40’s, and soon fell out of public favor. It did however experience resurgence in the 1980’s with popular updates in graphic design.
Surviving examples of Art Deco’s dramatic style may still be seen in different locations worldwide, in countries such as Spain, Cuba, Indonesia, the Philippines, Romania, New Zealand, India and Brazil.
Pharaoh’s Fashion Sense
By Ruth Carroll
In addition to Art Deco’s stylish impact on architecture and furnishings, the fashion world resonated influences of Egyptian Art & culture. As early as 1922 almost every element of women’s dress & fashion were inspired by Egyptian influence. It was particularly strong in garment styles and the use of embroideries that adorned them. With their exotic applications of Pharaonic colors like cobalt, turquoise, vivid corals enriched with golden symbols of the Egyptian “key of life”. Entrancing scarab medallions were also widely used to adorn women’s accessories. Long before celebrities and fashionistas adorned themselves with dazzling gemstones and bold fashion statements, the Egyptians were creating striking arm bands, bracelets, earrings and collars for the royal hierarchy of their day. Today many retro Egyptian creations have re-emerged into the limelight, contemporary beauties don oversized gold cuffs, Art Deco themed chokers and arm bands fit for Cleopatra’s boudoir.
Use of egyptian themes in today's fashion
Hieroglyphics to Haute Couture
In the contemporary fashion world, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, and no one does it better than the iconic fashion designers of the 20th & 21st centuries. From Yves Saint Laurent’s use of Egyptian ethnic themes, to the 2004 Egyptian inspired Dior collection, helmed by the brilliant John Galliano storming the runways with opulence and kohl, (which the Egyptians invented), roped sandals, and beetle brooches. An extravaganza that would have amazed Queen Nefertiti. But in simpler terms there are still Egyptian influences in fashion that we often fail to notice due to their modification to suit today’s modern women.
Egyptian influence in fashion
From Kalasiris to kilts
The Kalasiris is a simple but very elegant tunic which was worn by both genders in ancient Egyptian times. The length of the linen (from flax) started from the snug neck and extended to the ankles, which helped facilitate easy movements. The length of the sheath clothing depended on the height of the individual. Originally it served as a protective covering for workers, but eventually was adapted by the royal families, because of its simplicity and elegance. Later a more decorative version of this dress was created adorned with beads. This was similar to the kalasiris because it was sleeveless and a one piece tunic which reached down to the ankle. Most of the time colorful beads were found intricately imbedded to the neck portion.
The headdress was usually worn by those in authority in Egypt. There were several types based on the different deities of Ancient Egypt. There was the Amen (adorned by plumes), the Amentet (adorned by a half circle), Anget, ( adorned by feathers from the Ostrich), and many more that symbolized their various gods. In contemporary fashion shows we often see exquisite headdresses worn by models, often influenced by these past designs.
LEFT to right: Mel Gibson in Braveheart
Shendyt worn by pharaohs and the warriors of egypt
prince charles wearing a kilt
The hot and sunny climate of Ancient Egypt meant that simple lightweight linen clothes were the preferred choice of most Egyptians.The lower clothing of men and women usually were kilts, often referred to as Shendyt worn by Pharaohs & the warriors of Ancient Egypt. These were wraps which were pleated and folded towards the front and tied with a string or held in place using a belt. This was a loincloth which was meant to protect the skin and body from the extreme heat of the sun in hot days and from the wind in cool days.
Kilts…not just for Celts anymore…
Shop like an Egyptian…Fine Egyptian Arts and Crafts
There’s a charming apple growers festival located off of Scnell School exit, near Placerville, where I discovered Adel Elmahgoub’s Fine Egyptian Arts. The faire is called “Apple Hill” and Adels booth is at Boa Vista Orchards, 2952 Carson Road, Placerville, CA. 95667. With an air of bustling bazaars in old Cairo, Adel features hand crafted paintings on papyrus, depicting original ancient Egyptian scenes, plus hand designed, Egyptian-theme silver jewelry, and Adel can take orders for customized names on “Cartouche’s”…learn while you shop, his booth offers the public great educational information regarding the history of this venerable culture. For more information about "Apple Hill" faire visit www.applehill.com.
left to right: THEDA BARA CLEOPATRA
lIZ tAYLOR IN CLEOPATRA
gRAUMAN'S EGYPTIAN THEATRE, LoS ANGELES
Tombs to Tinsel Town…Hollywood’s fascination
From Sid Grauman’s opulent Egyptian Theater, (the first to be constructed in the U.S.), to Theda Bara’s passionate portrayal of the Queen of the Nile, Egyptian themes have played a prominent role in Hollywood history. Unfortunately the 1917 Theda Bara Cleopatra does not exist in print form, however; Claudette Colbert’s 1934 vampy version of the often told story is available.
By Ruth Carroll
But for my money & the nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox studios, the 1963 Taylor-Burton extravaganza is the “must see” version. Epically over budget, fraught with media frenzy and script changes by the minute, this Cleopatra remains the most stunning account of the doomed queen to date. Embroiled in controversy largely due to the on screen love affair between the two leads, plus strategic set location changes; it was a herculean task for director, screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz to keep this massive production on track. The final result was amazing; sets rivaling those of C.B. DeMille, Cleopatra’s breathtaking entry into Rome atop a Golden Sphinx, Rex Harrison’s regal and charming Julius Caesar, Roddy McDowell’s chilling performance of the twisted Octavian, and the hauntingly romantic score by Alex North.
Pixel Free….A Cast of Thousands!
Two other sword & sandal Egyptian epics I’d recommend would be Michael Curtiz’ the Egyptian 1954, made in glorious Technicolor with strong performances by Edmond Purdom, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov. The other is The Land of the Pharaohs 1955, directed by Howard Hawks, screenplay by William Faulkner, featuring meticulous historic research, accurate film locations, set decorations, costumes & a strong International cast, including Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins and Sydney Chaplin.
For additional Egyptian themed movies & documentaries click here.
Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile and beyond….
We conclude our virtual trip down the Nile with a list of books & films with Egyptian themes by the Grand Dame of Crime, Agatha Christie, plus a link to author Elizabeth Peters, “Amelia Peabody Mysteries” site.
Hercule Poirot in “Death on the Nile”1978…film version with Peter Ustinov as the Belgium sleuth. Also available in 2004 Death on the Nile televised version with David Suchet as Poirot. Interested in renting these movies please visit Netflix, Inc.
Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, 1988 film version with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, featuring an outstanding cast including Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Haley Mills, and Carrie Fisher…
Other Articles of Interest by Mark A. Wilson:
California Automobile Museum, Sacramento, CA
"Bernard Maybeck: Architect of Elegance" - A new book by Mark A. Wilson
Julia Morgan: Pioneer in Green Design
Mark A. Wilson is an architectural historian, author, and instructor of Art History at several Bay Area, California colleges.