Pyramid Schemes: What Can Ancient Egyptian Civilization Teach Us? (Gen Ed 1099)





How does ancient Egypt enlighten our times about what defines a civilization, and were those ancient humans, with their pyramids, hieroglyphs, and pharaohs, exactly like or nothing like us?


Histories, Societies, Individuals icon with text

Peter Der Manuelian

How much of your impression of the ancient world was put there by Hollywood, music videos, or orientalist musings out of the West? How accurate are these depictions? Does it matter? This course examines the quintessential example of the “exotic, mysterious ancient world” – Ancient Egypt – to interrogate these questions.  Who has “used” ancient Egypt as a construct, and to what purpose? Did you know that pyramids, mummies, King Tut, and Cleopatra represent just the (overhyped) tip of a very rich civilization that holds plenty of life lessons for today? Combine the ancient Egyptians’ explanations of the world’s natural forces with all the social complexity of human interaction and you have a fully formed society—about four millennia of accumulated experience! 

Can investigating the “real” ancient Egypt unpack our current misconceptions about the land of the pharaohs? Hardly morose, tomb-building “zombies,” the Egyptians embraced life in all its messy details. Piety and corruption, imperialism and isolationism, divinity and mortality all played significant roles in life along the Nile. What can we learn about the nature of politics and society in our time by seeing the parallels between the ancient past and today?

We will explore archaeology, modern Egyptomania, repatriation, new digital visualization technologies, and international politics. What was ancient Egyptian racism? What is archaeological racism? Who owns the past? Who needs it? We will take excursions into Egyptian art, history, politics, religion, literature and language (hieroglyphs), plus the evolution of Egyptology as a discipline. Field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Peabody Museum, and the Harvard Semitic Museum are included, along with the Giza Pyramids in 3D, viewed in Harvard’s Visualization Lab classroom.

Students will gain a transformative appreciation for the outstanding monuments and intellectual traditions of ancient Egypt. And with newly broadened horizons, we will debunk the popular myths. 

Register for Gen Ed 1099