Ten years ago, in 2011, after years of research and writing, I published Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo with the Scottish publisher, Hardinge Simpole. I had spent many long weeks in the archives of the British Museum, British Library, and at the University of Oxford digging through old letters and reports; and many more years reading, writing, and thinking about E. A. Wallis Budge, the British Museum, British social and intellectual history, and about the Ottoman Empire and modern Egypt. It was a long process that kept me in my study many early mornings and late nights. The publisher affixed a hostile afterword by Julian Reade, a distinguished scholar of the Ancient Near East (and very good-natured gentleman), rather against my wishes.
It was odd how this book came about. I had taken MA degrees in Islamic History, Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society, and Modern European Intellectual History between 1985 and 1993. Each of those degrees was one in which I had intended to take a PhD in order to teach in a university. But being an academic wasn't working for me. I didn't like the department politics and couldn't abide the demand to specialize or the tyranny of the graduate advisor. I decided to jump ship after my last degree from the Department of History at the University of Chicago and to find a job and that would allow me the freedom to write without the bureaucratic and academic aggravations of the university.
After first writing a book called Blues Discovery, based mostly on interviews with an old family friend, Roger Brown, who had discovered blues while growing up in Atlanta in the 1950s, I mostly read and thought for years afterward. Then, while I was working as a librarian at the American University in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) in around 2002, I was talking to a friend of mine who taught Islamic Studies at AUS, Saiyad Ahmad. I mentioned to Saiyad that I was interested in British India and studies of imperialism and that I was thinking of writing about a prolific early 19th century author and administrator named Sir John Malcolm. Saiyad shrugged and said something like, "That doesn't sound like a great topic to me. Why don't you write about someone really interesting, like E. A. Wallis Budge?"
The idea was immediately interesting to me. I knew almost nothing about Budge, but in all of my years digging around in used bookstores in various university towns in the US and England I had flipped through tattered reprints of Budge's books like The Egyptian Book of the Dead (1895), The Gods of Egypt (1904), and An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (1920) and had always been fascinated by them. Especially after I moved to Cairo in 2006, I was even more intrigued by Egyptology and Ancient Egypt and wanted to know still more. Since I was interested in both European Intellectual History and the history of the Middle East, studying the life of a Victorian and Edwardian Egyptologist would allow me to study a modern European scholar who was engaged with the Middle East, thus combining my passions.
And thus I began to read about the History of Egyptology, the British Museum, Modern British Social and Intellectual History, the History of the Ottoman Empire, Modern Egyptian History, the occult in modern England, and so on, and while I found the topics very interesting, I was astonished to read in various sources on the History of Egyptology extremely hostile, often vicious and highly personal attacks on the topic of my research--E. A. Wallis Budge. It was quite odd since Budge had been dead since 1934 and yet the authors loosed bitter tirades against him, often filled with nasty gossip and brutal insults, as if Budge was their bitterest enemy sitting down the hall in the staff lounge.
It was quite puzzling! Here was a topic, the History of Egyptology, that held fascinating promise for someone interested in British Intellectual History and the History of European Imperialism in the Middle East, and people were spending their time instead trashing this long-dead man! It was peculiar and rather disappointing.
And there was another thing...Every time they trashed Budge, these same authors would launch into raptures about another Egyptologist, a contemporary of Budge's named Flinders Petrie. Having poured bile all over Budge, these authors suddenly and uniformly began to rhapsodize about Petrie. The contrast in how the authors assaulted Budge and fawned over Petrie was very personal, very emotional and highly subjective. They wrote about Petrie as if they had all fallen in love with him, gushing about what they characterized as his great genius, his quirky and fascinating personality, his charm, his unique contributions to Egyptology and archaeology, his status as the "Father of Egyptology" who had founded modern Egyptology as a "science" almost singlehanded.
Yet, the more I read about Petrie the more disturbing it was. The "Father of Egyptology" was a far rightwing idealogue, a Social Darwinist and supporter of eugenics, whose books and articles on history and Egyptology were suffused with a dogmatic biological determinism and a northern European nativism. Indeed, there is a proto-fascist quality about Petrie's writings. And this was the hero of the Egyptology establishment? For the new edition of Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo (Dost Publishing, 2021), I have written a new Afterword called "Wallis Budge and the Petrie Claque" to discuss just how odd this Flinders Fetish is...
All of this weird energy around Budge and Petrie was disturbing enough, but when I began my research about Budge in the archives, the story became more and more strange. Budge was a fascinating character--a man who started life as the illegitimate child of a country girl in Bodmin, Cornwall and ended life as Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, famous Egyptologist and Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum. His life (1857-1934) spanned an age of great social, political, and intellectual transformation and offers to anyone who is interested an opportunity to uncover fascinating stories and insights into subjects such as Egyptology and European imperialism, religious change and the occult in England, European archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, and class prejudice and social mobility in Victorian England. Writing about Budge offered an intellectual feast and I enjoyed the work tremendously.
So, when I finally traveled to England to do my primary research in the archives, imagine my disappointment when almost everyone to whom I talked about Budge began to fulminate against him in the same manner I had seen in the written sources. Very kind, generous, and accomplished people suddenly turned red in the face and hurled insults against Budge that left me speechless. No one stood in my way or sought to sabotage my research--they were wonderful people to deal with in every way. But when it came to Budge...
And that was the peculiar context in which the book was written and published. It was absolutely not what I had expected when Saiyid Ahmad and I began to discuss writing about Budge ten years before. I had expected a wonderful experience writing about a fascinating man and having fascinating conversations about him with smart and interesting people. Instead, the Egyptology establishment just hurled insults at Budge (but never at me!) and completely ignored the book.
It was not the same with non-academics. People to whom I spoke from outside the Egyptology establishment found Wallis Budge fascinating. They enjoyed the opportunity Budge's story affords to weave together the drama of his own fascinating life and dynamic history of his era. Budge's rags-to-riches story is filled with struggles and triumphs, a bevy of fascinating characters, personal conflicts and generosity, unlucky mummies and ghosts, and the great story of how Egyptology emerged in the bosom of European imperialism. Indeed, Budge's life would make a great series on the BBC!
In the context of such riches people have often asked me whether I am "for or against" Budge--a question that leaves me puzzled and surprised. I am neither for nor against Budge. Wallis Budge was biography in the context of social and intellectual history, not an attempt to glorify Budge or to vilify him. I hope that readers will engage with the new edition of the book in that spirit. Enjoy the wonderful narrative and the insights into his age that E. A. Wallis Budge's life provides. Enjoy the ride, and leave the insults and character assassination behind.