Egyptology and expansionism in 19th-century Belgium

In 1855, Bernard Fiedler accompanied the Belgian king Leopold II on a trip to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. The party passed the ancient temple of Kom Ombo on the east bank of the Nile twice, first while sailing upstream to Aswan on 17 February 1855, and then again sailing back on 20 February 1855. He may have painted this view, which picks out the ruinous details of the temple in white highlights, as they went past, or made it from memory when they arrived back in Cairo that March. Another sketch, completed at around the same time, depicts the countryside around Thebes (Luxor, or Waset), with tall palm trees, a rutted track, and a couple of villagers, one leading a donkey and the other overseeing what looks to be a small makeshift mill. Both paintings are clearly romanticised, but they offer an interesting glimpse of the Belgian king’s journey, which was the first of two he would make to Egypt.

Egyptology and ‘Egyptomania’ didn’t emerge in Belgium as early as it did in some other European countries, but when it did, it really took hold. National interest in ancient Egypt coincided with a period of Belgian expansionism as Leopold II attempted to establish Belgian as an imperial power. He turned his attention to Africa, annexing the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1885. Leopold II wanted the country to become a major player on the global stage, and the grandeur of Egypt’s monuments inspired Leopold II in his quest to turn Brussels into a real imperial metropole.

These two watercolours have made it on to The Watercolour World website with the help of a research project called ‘Pyramids and Progress’, which was set up in 2017 to explore the rise of Egyptology in 19th- and 20th-century Belgium and to answer many lingering questions. What motivated Belgian interest in Egypt? How did it relate to the Belgian colonial presence in Congo? How did Belgian royalty, politicians, diplomats, industrialists and intellectuals operate within the expansionist doctrine? The researchers have been analysing the personal, institutional and commercial networks that emerged at the time, to better understand the climate in which famous Egyptologists like Jean Capart were able to bring their discipline to prominence in Belgium.

In the course of their research, multiple watercolours depicting Egyptian landscapes and archaeological sites have been rediscovered in Belgian archives. These unique snapshots are an important reflection of the fascination people felt about Egypt at the time, but until now they have remained unknown to all but a few experts. Adding them to The Watercolour World should help integrate them into a global context of watercolour production – and by sharing these images the researchers at Pyramids and Progress have also made new discoveries relevant to their work. This view of Cairo in 1834 by William Eden, 6th Baronet, for example, shows the Heliopolis area before its development as a new suburban centre by the Belgian imperial-industrialist Baron Empain. As watercolour images become more visible to more people, a more complete view of history could emerge with them.

Pyramids and Progress. Belgian Expansionism and the Making of Egyptology, 1830-1952’ is a collaboration between members of KU LeuvenULB – Université libre de BruxellesGhent UniversityArt & History Museum Brussels and Musée royal de Mariemont, bringing together the perspectives of archaeologists, Egyptologists, modern historians, archivists and documentalists. It is funded by the Excellence Of Science (EOS)-programme. This article was written with the help of Gert Huskens, a member of the research group.