Why France is so fascinated by exhibitions on Ancient Egypt?

By Isabelle Martinetti - RFI
Egypt  Culturespaces - C. de la Motte Rouge
© Culturespaces - C. de la Motte Rouge

An immersive exhibition about Egyptian pharaohs opened on Friday at the Ateliers des Lumières in Paris. It's the fourth expo on Ancient Egypt to be shown in the French capital since 2019, when artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun attracted a record number of visitors.

Projections of art pieces from the Louvre and the Egyptian museum in Cairo (EMC) adorn the walls of the 2,000 square metre Atelier des Lumières. They're accompanied by classical and contemporary music, some from the soundtrack of films.

"The selection is based on art pieces that have been remarkably conserved despite the millennia that separates us from this civilisation," the exhibition's artistic director, Virginie Martin, told RFI.

She also uses new technology based on the 3D reconstitution of temples. Sme of the projections come from the original Assassin's Creed video game, which was set in Egypt.

"There really is a love, a passion for the Orient and especially for Egypt," French egyptologist Jean-Guillaume Olette-Pelletier told RFI. He was exhibition's scientific advisor. 

"Because Egypt is a land of mysteries, it's still very much part of our collective imagination, especially in France."

There's been a longstanding relationship between Egypt and France since Bonaparte's Egyptian Expedition from 1798 to 1801.

"It's also thanks to [French egyptologist] Champollion, who discovered the key to hieroglyphic texts and ensured these hieroglyphs were no longer just images," says Olette-Pelletier.

Several museums used the anniversary of deciphering the hieroglyphs (in 1822) to put on commemorative exhibitions highlighting the scientific and cultural relationship between France and Egypt.

Record visitors

In 1967, an exhibition dedicated to Tutankhamun at the Petit Palais in Paris was the first to exceed one million visitors.

In 2019, the works dedicated to Tutankhamun were once again shown, this time at the Grande Halle de la Villette, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the famous pharaoh's tomb.

A new record was set with 1.4 million visitors.

These exhibitions top the list of the most visited shows in French museum history –  trumping those devoted to Leonardo da Vinci, in 2020, Monet, in 2010, Dali, in 1979 and Renoir, in 1985. 

Scientific, cultural cooperation

A significant number of French archaeologists and egyptologists work in Egypt, says Olette-Pelletier.

"There are three French centres in Egypt – in Alexandria, Cairo and Karnak – and they work all year round in collaboration with the Egyptians to bring certain works to the fore and to uncover temples or tombs," he says.

Olette-Pelletier himself was trained at the French-Egyptian Centre for the Study of the Temples of Karnak (Cfeetk).

"Egypt loaning us some of Tutankhamun's ancient artefacts is also a great way for Egypt to promote its own tourism," he says.

Egyptian Pharaohs. From Cheops to Ramses II is at the Atelier des Lumières in Paris from 9 February 2024 to 5 January 2025.