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How early Egyptologists formed 'small, ephemeral communities'

 A black and white image of the Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo from the late 1800s.
Bibliothèque nationale de France)
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The Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo during its heyday.

The study of ancient Egypt flourished in the late 1880s, and, over the next decades of British occupation of the country, archaeologists and historians sought to study the artifacts and tombs left behind.

After working at their dig sites, these early Egyptologists gathered in hotels to discuss what they found. Their conversations, held in the hotels of Alexandria, Cairo and Luxor, became “small, ephemeral communities,” writes Missouri University of Science and Technology history professor Kate Sheppard, whose research on the topic is featured in her new book, “Tea on the Terrace: Hotels and Egyptologists’ social networks, 1885-1925.” 

“I'm a biographer, so what happens when you're reading biographies and notes and diaries and letters, you find that a lot of the letterhead is the same,” Sheppard said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. “It's from the Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo, or somebody is talking about, ‘I went to meet this person at the Continental for tea.’”

 Kate Sheppard, a history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, sits in a studio near a microphone.
Jonathan Ahl
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Kate Sheppard, a history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

This wasn’t just small talk. As Sheppard discovered, these conversations — often held over tea on a hotel terrace — represented the formation of an entirely new field of study.

“That's when I kind of started thinking: What are Egyptologists doing in these spaces? Very specifically, what are they talking about? How are they forming the discipline in these really informal places? And how is that going to impact their work once they get out into the field?”

But while Egyptologists in this era like Howard Carter and James Henry Breasted rose to fame as they cracked into the ancient tombs, their findings were part of the aftermath of the 1882 conquest of Egypt by Britain.

“A lot of Egyptologists understand how the discipline was built in a colonial infrastructure,” Sheppard noted.

"The fact that the English took over control of Egypt, essentially from that point in 1882, opened up the political landscape, the social landscape, the economic landscape to the English, so they could come in a lot more freely, tourists would come in more freely.”

The influx of British archaeologists, joined by American counterparts, led to a period known as the Golden Age of Egyptology. But it was only a golden age for some.

“One thing that I really tried to draw out in this book is for whom was it a golden age — because you've got these hotels going up, you have tourists coming in, you have infrastructure being built, electricity lines being laid, telegraphs, rail lines, safe travel up and down the Nile. But at what expense? Who was doing the building? How much were they getting paid? Not much. How much were they getting fed? Again, not much.”

While Egyptians labored, she noted, the European tourists and archaeologists found fortune and fame. For decades, the British presence enabled the export of antiquities to museums across the world, where many of these items still remain.

Kate Sheppard discusses "Tea on the Terrace" on St. Louis on the Air

Though clouded by colonialism and mass cultural theft, the legacy of these early Egyptologists — from their archaeological discoveries to the conversations they had in Cairo hotels — remains crucial to the modern study of these civilizations.

“It's hard not to fall in love with the people that you write about,” she added. “But also, you are reading some of the things that they're saying about the Egyptian population, and it breaks your heart.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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