The riddle of the sands

The Pharaoh's Shadow by Anthony Sattin (Gollancz, £20, 234pp)
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The Independent Culture

Most of us are familiar enough with the baloney of the Pharaohs, the curse of Tutenkhamun or the Secrets of Ancient Egypt. It seems to me that, marvellous though it was, the Pharaonic civilisation itself was founded upon bunkum, for the whole mighty paraphernalia of pyramids, sphinxes and divine revelations depended upon demonstrably nonsensical beliefs. Sacrifice the lives of a thousand slaves, build an artificial mountain to protect your corpse, create the most exquisite offerings to the gods, and your mummy ends up in a museum anyway!

So far as I know, the ludicrous aspect of it all has not yet found a memorialist, but in this curious book Anthony Sattin sets out to demonstrate how resilient its heritage of mumbo-jumbo has proved in the Land of Mystery. From a long and intimate acquaintance with the country he has distilled a delightfully idiosyncratic exhibition of Pharaonic survivals in modern Egypt - half travel book, half Golden Bough. It is fun, enthralling and sometimes scary, rather like Egypt itself.

I did not myself find it very surprising. Sattin convincingly demonstrates how much of contemporary Egyptian custom is inherited directly from Pharaonic times, surviving Christianity, Islam and secularisation alike: not just the lives and manners of the Coptic minority, who claim to be ethnic descendants of the original Egyptians, but in countless manifestations of Muslim Egypt too. In sacred festivals and fertility rites, in liturgies and language, in building methods and the superstitions of the fellahin - in all these, he finds echoes and memories of the ancient kingdoms.

He is no pedantic anthropologist, and no New Age nutter either. He draws upon the widest range of academic research, and he also uses the unpublished writings of two remarkable women: the scholarly Winifred Jackman, who lived for years among the peasants of the Fayoum in the 1920s, and the inexplicable Dorothy Eady who, after falling down the stairs as a child in London, believed herself for the rest of her days to be a reincarnated Egyptian from the 19th Dynasty, and for 27 years performed religious rites at the temple of Seti I in Abydos.

Sattin is also a tireless researcher on the ground, quartering the country in taxis and trains, rickety buses and jam-packed pick-ups. He throws himself into the crowded clamour of city festivals, with their dervishes and circumcisers. He contemplates the sacred lake of Medinet Habu, which can assure women of motherhood. He discovers the holy tree of Senaru, which can calm the anxieties of senior citizens. He is undaunted by pi-dogs, impervious to discomfort and not bamboozled by charlatans.

It is this irrepressible enthusiasm that gives the book its alarming moments, rather than any supernatural evidence. In contemporary Egypt Pharaonic symptoms are officially considered both insufficiently progressive and inadequately Islamic, and foreigners searching them out, and consorting with Christian Copts in desert monasteries, are apparently regarded with suspicion. There are moments, when our author is hemmed about by hostile youths, or interrogated by loveless watchmen, or given the bad eye by intolerant religionists, that made me decidedly uneasy.

But seldom, as I say, surprised. In most countries of the world habits, skills and delusions of remote antiquity defy the progress of history. Africa is full of magicians. Irish people circumambulate the sacred slabs of Lough Derg. Breton ladies sit on megaliths. Peruvians eat guinea pigs à la Inca. All over the planet people touch miracle-working images, and even in England herbal medicine is back in fashion. The universal faith in horoscopes is an immemorial legacy. It is certainly remarkable that in Egypt so many popular habits and beliefs have lingered for quite so long, but its survivals are particular only in longevity, not in kind.

Of course, at the start of the 21st century, such a book must end on a note of wistful speculation. How long will it all last? Even in Egypt, even under the protection of sacred crocodiles or cow-headed goddesses, these anachronisms are under threat as never before. Sattin believes that Egyptianness in its most timeless forms will survive "by shifting, by adjusting, accommodating, mutating", and I think he is probably right.

Customs so old that they have become instinctive seem to me almost endlessly flexible. I suspect that in Egypt, as everywhere else, long into the computer age people will still be surreptitiously venerating sacred trees, or embracing lucky statues, or summoning mystic apparitions from the past.

Touch wood, anyway


Jan Morris's 'Wales' has just been reissued by Penguin