But in 2011, Mr. Brier told a reporter for The New York Times that he was working on a book about the transportation of Egyptian obelisks to Paris, London and New York. This was a painstaking business, and “Egyptomania” covers it in detail. Each trip involved daunting feats of engineering, not to mention quick thinking. A lot of the book turns out to be about the pulleys, pontoons, windlasses, wooden supports and iron strappings that were needed to transport these artifacts. By far the most dramatic journey was the turbulent sea voyage of Cleopatra’s Needle from Egypt to its present home at Greywacke Knoll in Central Park, near the Metropolitan Museum.
This material is interesting, but it may not be what readers expect. The book’s cover art is sunny. Its color plates are lavish and witty. And its section titles, like “What’s a Royal Mummy Like You Doing in a Tomb Like This?,” promise more fun than most of the book delivers. As Mr. Brier’s own love of Egyptotrash demonstrates, there’s more interest in the terrible Tin Pan Alley songs written about Tut and Cleopatra than in the laborious process of moving large columns of granite around the world.
Mr. Brier may be a serious scholar, but he’s a guy who remembers this ad: ‘I dreamt I was Cleopatra floating down the Nile in my Maidenform bra.” (Here, Mr. Brier’s enthusiasm is keener than his memory: One ad said, “I dreamed I played Cleopatra in my Maidenform bra.” Another: “I dreamed I barged down the Nile,” etc.”) He appreciates the crazy ways in which the idea of ancient Egypt has been misunderstood and exploited in many parts of the world. (Interestingly, Egypt is not one of them.) And “Egyptomania” does a good job of tracing the chronology with which Egypt fever caught on.
Its first big converts were the Romans, who were fascinated by the hieroglyphics they could not understand; in the case of Alexander the Great (a Macedonian), the appeal lay in the idea of becoming an immortal pharaoh. But Mr. Brier places the birth of Egyptomania with the Emperor Hadrian’s building of Antinopolis, a city in Egypt dedicated to the memory of his lover, Antinous. This Roman’s construction of a Greek-style city in the second century A.D. was the start of a craze that proved all but unstoppable.
Mr. Brier’s favorite bit of Egyptomania is the Isis Tablet, which appeared in Rome around 1628 and contained what appeared to be an elaborate message written in hieroglyphics. One scholar wrote a four-volume study of it, devoting Volume 3 to the claim that he had deciphered the ancient Egyptian language. Little problem: The Isis Tablet was the work of a Roman. Its antiquity was legitimate, but its language was gibberish.
“Egyptomania” has some startling omissions, for example, in the story of how Napoleon arrives, is bested at the Battle of the Nile and the surviving members of his expedition begin to organize a library. A library and a librarian “were concepts foreign to Egypt,” Mr. Brier writes, making no mention of the Library of Alexandria, one of the world’s great wonders until it was destroyed by fire. It’s true that Alexandria’s library stored information on papyrus, not in books. Still, it would seem worthy of mention. So would the connection between obelisks and Freemasonry, which warrants only a few paragraphs here but was the basis for a whole book of Dan Brown’s.
Only late in the game does “Egyptomania” get down to the trivial pursuits that are its main attraction. What’s the connection between “Downton Abbey” and King Tut’s tomb? Read on. How did the United States wind up with a torch-bearing statue in New York Harbor originally intended for the Suez Canal? That makes another good story. But best of all are the ways that American popular culture deemed Egyptomania the bees’ knees and cranked out songs, movies, cigar boxes, soaps and knickknacks to cash in on it. “What about all those little kids begging to be taken to the Egyptian section of the museum?” Mr. Brier asks. “They never want to see the Greek vases.”
In 1922, Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb (financed by the Earl of Carnarvon, owner of Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed) set off a wave of Tut fever. The merchandising got ahead of the archaeology, since the contents of the tomb had to be handled slowly and carefully. That didn’t stop the writing of “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut,” since nobody yet knew that Tut had died before the age of 20. On the sheet music, which is lovingly reproduced here:
He got into his royal bed
Three thousand years B.C.
And left a call for Twelve O’clock
In Nineteen Twenty Three.
Mr. Brier does have a fine eye for howlers. He loves ads that combine several cultures by mistake, like the sheet music depicting “My Sahara Rose” in Egyptian headdress, even though the lyrics say she was discovered “in the marketplace in old Baghdad.” He also loves the 1920s flappers whose chic cigarette cases actually carried images from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And from the film “The Mummy’s Hand” — not to be confused with “The Mummy’s Tomb,” “The Mummy’s Ghost” or “The Mummy’s Curse” — there is the professor who declares that the mummy he is examining was buried alive. A moment later: “The most amazing example of embalming I’ve ever seen.” If Egyptomania were saner, it would be much less fun.