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The Obelisk and the Englishman: The…

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist…

by Dorothy U. Seyler

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Dorothy Seyler’s book is a popularized biography of English explorer, collector, and MP William John Bankes (1786-1855). After graduating from Cambridge (BA 1808, MA 1811), where he met and befriended Lord Byron, Bankes set off in a long series of travels in Continental Europe, the Near East, Egypt, and Nubia (1812-1819). He was a man of conspicuous financial means and amassed an impressive collection of works of art, both ancient and modern. He copied several Greek, Latin and Nabataean inscriptions himself and hired a series of draughtsmen who worked for him, especially in Egypt and Nubia, to copy temple and tomb reliefs. Louis Linant de Bellefonds was engaged by Bankes specifically to search for the ancient city of Meroe, a task accomplished in 1821-22. After returning to England, Bankes was arrested twice for homosexuality and eventually fled, an outlaw, spending the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Italy.
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William John Bankes (1786-1855) was a pioneer in the nascent study of the language, history, and civilization of ancient Egypt. At the Abydos Temple he discovered the King List --a wall of cartouches listing Egyptian kings in chronological order -- which was vital to the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. At Philae he uncovered a fallen obelisk, which he arranged to be transported back to England. And in modern-day Jordan he was the first European to make sketches and site plans of the zlosty city of Petra. Bankes's life was rich and full, and his discoveries have proven to be quite valuable and influential. But, living in an era when homosexuality was a capital offense, he was persecuted for being gay and threatened with imprisonment and execution. His decision to travel and pursue his love of art and architecture went against his father's wishes that he follow in his footsteps and become a politician. Despite such obstacles, Bankes's pioneering work on ancient temples and artifacts now enriches the knowledge of modern Egyptologists, and his art collection and decorative talents can be enjoyed by those who visit his home, a National Trust estate -- with the obelisk from Philae still raised on the south lawn. Enhanced by many of Bankes's drawings and paintings, this engaging story is full of vivid detail about the beginnings of Egyptology, Regency England, and a fascinating individual, and it sets the record straight about Bankes's crucial role in setting the stage for the work of later scholars.--… (more)

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