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Away with the pharaohs

As her bestselling book is republished, it’s time to look anew at Clerkenwell woman Amelia Edwards – the UK’s greatest populariser of ancient Egyptian culture

By Oliver Bennett

A painting of men around a campfire surrounded by palm trees near a river
Tombs at Asyut by Amelia Edwards

It is a curious fact that one of the most eminent British Egyptologists ever – one Amelia Edwards – came from Clerkenwell. Go to 19 Wharton Street, and you’ll see a plaque commemorating her.

Now Edwards’ bestselling 1873 travelogue A Thousand Miles Up the Nile is to be republished to mark the 140th anniversary of the Egypt Exploration Society, based in nearby Doughty Mews. “There would be no British Egyptology without Amelia,” says Carl Graves, the Society’s director. “She is the very starting point of it all, instrumental in the history of British Egyptology and known worldwide – our American branch called her the queen of Egyptology’. She was an extraordinary character.”In line with contemporary interpretations of excavation, the book has been designed by Egyptian artist Deena Mohamed, and has a new introduction by Graves and Egyptian scholar Anna Garnett, giving context on the book and her legacy.

Edwards grew up in Wharton Street as the only child of elderly parents: her father retired from the army and working for a bank, and homeschooled by her Irish mother. She wanted to become an artist and had a few early successes – George Cruickshank’s Omnibus offered her work. Instead she became an organist in a church in St Michael’s Church in Wood Green.

Edwards only went to Egypt at 41 and as Graves says, there was “no real hint that she was passionate about Egyptian heritage until then.” But having warmed to it, she became an expert at a time when Egypt was in rapid growth as an exotic destination, with Thomas Cook taking tourists up the Nile.

Edwards would excavate and record her finds, but as Graves says, she recognised that mass tourism was having a massive impact on Egypt’s heritage through looting, damage and irresponsible archaeology.

“She wanted to do something about it on return to the UK and set up the Egypt Exploration Fund to safeguard these sites,” he says. “Unfortunately the Fund also got involved in distributing massive numbers of Egyptian artefacts across the world – much of what people see in the British Museum is there because of Amelia Edwards, although the director at the time, Samuel Birch, didn’t support the founding of the Egypt Exploration Fund.”

So while Edwards had taken antiquities she recognised that what she’d done was wrong. “She wanted to find a solution, perhaps a way of salving her conscience.” says Graves. Her large collection of Egyptian antiquities in her house near Bristol (where she lived in the latter part of her life), was later donated to UCL and is now the core of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology at Malet Place, WC1.

She was an interesting character in other ways, too. Despite having been engaged to a man, Edwards had relationships with women. “She was an LGBT pioneer too,” says Graves. “Within her circle, she was probably out and was close to poet John Addington Symonds, known for his homosexual relationships.” After that came life as a bestselling Victorian novelist plus bouts of depression, cured by travel including her Egyptian sojourn. A Thousand Miles Up the Nile became an instant bestseller and made her famous.

Now, the talk is of restitution and return claims for antiquities and Edwards’ reputation has shifted once again. “In the introduction, we’ve unpacked Amelia’s life and legacy so that people can carefully read the narrative Amelia was given,” says Graves.

“A lot of people say she was “of her time’. But we’ve critiqued that approach. Amelia was writing for an audience, and it was her choice to fit the prevailing ideas of the time, which is why it was so important for us to write this introduction.”

Even so, Graves says that she is well-respected in Egypt – and there’s an argument that having ambassadorial objects around the world has encouraged tourism. “Nor were they stolen from Egypt but given by the Egyptian authorities, then French-run,” he says.

As Edwards said of A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, “This is the most important of my books, and the one by which I most hope to be remembered – if I may hope to be remembered at all!”

Visit ees.ac.uk.

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