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An Egyptologist with a passion for poetry

The American Egyptologist and archaeologist, Dr. Donald P. Ryan, has excavated for several years in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. His work there resulted in the rediscovery of the lost and controversial tomb KV60. Author of eleven books, including Egypt 1250 BC: A Traveler’s Companion (AUC Press 2010), Ryan also served as a consultant for television programs produced by BBC, Discovery Channel, and History Channel.

 

You are an Egyptologist and archaeologist and have spent years excavating in the Valley of the Kings. You are the author and editor of several books including more recently Ancient Egypt in Poetry: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Verse (AUC Press 2016). Why the interest in this particular combination–poetry and ancient Egypt?

I have a broad background in the arts and am always interested in exploring the influences of the ancient world on the millennia that followed. Music, art and literature, for example, continue to be affected. As Egyptology developed, and tourism became more popular in the 19th century, it's no surprise that Egypt's past would especially inspire writers of poetry at that time.




Do you have a particular affinity for poetry?

Not specifically, but I do enjoy how poetry often can evoke so many multi-dimensional impressions in a reader that mere prose usually cannot convey.




So many travelers and explorers have written about Egypt. How is poetry different in describing this country’s wonders?

There are so many wonderful things going on in Egypt to capture one's imagination: the beautiful landscape, the culture, and of course the ruins, the latter which were often perceived as glorious, mysterious, and of great age. 


Is there any particular poem in this anthology that resonates for you more?

“Ozymandias” by Percy Shelly is a classic, and literary scholars have dissected and deconstructed it every which way.  I, myself, have studied the composition in depth and have published on the subject. The poem has a fascinating history and there has been much speculation regarding such things as the sources of its inspiration. Shelley never visited Egypt.




Have you ever tried writing poetry to convey beauties and mysteries
of ancient Egypt?

No.  I consider myself a consumer of poetry rather than a creator.




In his poem
“Morning Mist on the Great Pyramid,” the prolific English writer Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley wrote:

I climbed great Chufu’s giant stair,

I felt the anguish of the stones,

Loud lamentations filled the air,
And cries of vengeance against thrones.

Could the ancient Egyptians write poetry like this?
 

 

A significant body of ancient Egyptian literature survives and reveals that they had their own forms of poetry, some of which was sung. Translations into English that reflect their original nuances can be challenging, but it has been done. The late John L. Foster's “Love Songs of the New Kingdom” is an excellent example.

Regarding the excerpt cited above: Rawnsley traveled widely in Egypt and a collection of his poems was published under the title, Idylls and Lyrics of the Nile (1894). His poem about the Great Pyramid involves the common belief in his day that many of Egypt’s monuments were constructed through the use of slave labor. 


How did your passion for Egyptology and archaeology begin?

My interest in the past began with a fascination with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures when I was quite young.  Archaeology soon followed and ancient Egypt became a favorite subject.  I particularly liked the exploration aspects of it.




Why do you say that by the late 1800s “poets found humor in their visits [to Egypt], or at least discovered something in ancient Egyptian culture as a source of amusement”?

Not all poetry needs to be deep and introspective.  Richard H. Horne’s poem, “Pelters of Pyramids,” for example, comments upon the boorish behavior of some tourists he observed, while James W. Riley’s short rhyme about the Sphinx is whimsical, if not fun.




How difficult was it to select which poems to include in this anthology?

There are many more 19th century poems about Egypt than are represented in the anthology. Of course, there is a large degree of subjectivity involved in the selection process, but I wanted to provide an appealing variety of authors, places, and themes.




You also wrote Egypt 1250 BC: A Traveler’s Companion (AUC Press, 2010), a time-traveler’s guide to sightseeing and survival in the land of the pharaohs. What is the one site the traveler should absolutely visit back in 1250 BC?

That’s a difficult question as there would be so much of interest to see!  A trip down the Nile would bring one to Memphis, gleaming with its backdrop of magnificent pyramids, and further upstream, Thebes was home to temples which must have been utterly spectacular in their day.  And if you could continue to journey far to the south, the newly constructed temples built by Rameses II at Abu Simbel would be incredible.

 

March 2017

 

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