Czech Egyptology – from humble beginnings to international renown

Photo: Czech Institute of Egyptology

Czech Egyptologists have an impressive international reputation, so much so that a new exhibition opened in Cairo this week charting the work Czechs have been doing in the field over the past five decades. The opening, which has received plenty of coverage here in the Czech press, was even attended by President Václav Klaus. Away from the pyramids and back in Prague, I paid a visit to the Czech Institute of Egyptology to meet research fellow Hana Navrátilová. She told me about the history of Czech Egyptology and its main proponents:

Photo: Czech Institute of Egyptology
“Where we are now sitting is in the main room of the former library of Jaroslav Černý. Jaroslav Černý was an Egyptologist born in what was then Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, but who spent most of his working life abroad. First he was in Egypt, working for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology there, and then he went to University College, London, and then he spent the rest of his life, from about the 1950s to the 1970s in Oxford. So, these are actually his bookcases and pieces of furniture from his house in Oxford.”

Let’s go back to the very beginning of Egyptology, were Czechs involved in Egyptology at the very beginning, or did they get involved only later?

“In the 19th century, Egyptology was as exotic and alluring for people in Bohemia as it was for all other Europeans. Europe was suddenly exposed to Oriental cultures, both contemporary and historic, in a very particular way, and Czechs were no exception. But it didn’t go quite the same way here as it did say in Britain. Because the British had an empire, which of course, the Czechs didn’t. But nonetheless, in Czech or Bohemian culture during the second half of the 19th century, there was a considerable interest in ancient Egyptian culture, and even ancient Egyptian texts got translated into Czech – but not directly from the Egyptian – they were translated from existing French translations of the texts. Egyptology at Charles University in Prague was founded much later, in the 20th century.”

But what about this institute – because this is much newer. Am I right in thinking that it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year?

“Yes, this year is the 50th anniversary of the Czech Institute of Egyptology. But the professor who founded it, Doctor František Lexa, opened a workshop and research group into Egyptology much earlier. It was actually in 1925 that Dr. Lexa started his regular lectures on Egyptology and related subjects at Charles University in Prague. And later, with the support of his pupils – among them, the aforementioned Jaroslav Černý – he succeeded in establishing the Czech Institute of Egyptology.

“He was, however, helped also by particular conditions. Because the 1950s were and era in which the then Czechoslovak Republic was searching for new contacts in the Middle East. So, as is quite often the case, the Czech Institute of Egyptology started off as an institution supported not only by a long scholarly tradition, but also by contemporary political interest.”

Photo: CTK
Can you tell me a bit about the work that Czechs have actually been doing in Egypt since Czech Egyptology started out, because I know that president Václav Klaus is currently in Egypt, among other things, to commemorate all that Czech Egyptologists have achieved?

“Well, the start was a bit harsh, maybe even from Indiana Jones’s point of view! The Czech Institute of Egyptology started its work in Nubia when the area was feeling the effects of the Aswan Dam, which was being built. This was the late 1950s, early 1960s. This dam was actually endangering a lot of archaeological sites, which it actually covered with its rising waters later on. Czech Egyptologists were among those who were asked to help, and so they went to do some rescue archaeology in Nubia. They traveled on a catamaran, a very simple sort of ship, which the members of the institute actually built for themselves. So, it was a pioneering expedition in a way – members of the expedition actually lived on this ship, in a tent which they pitched on board.”

Czech Egyptologists are most famous for the work they have done in Abusir, a pyramid field close to Cairo. They have been working on the site for nearly the last fifty years, ever since those two big names – yes, Jaroslav Černý and František Lexa – secured a concession allowing them to dig. Hana Navrátilová describes some of the objects the Czech team has since found:

“There are interesting finds such as the sarcophagus and burial chamber of an important dignitary called Jufa from the Saiite-Persian period, which is around the 6th century BC. He has a number of important texts in his chamber which tell us not only what the Egyptians thought was waiting for them in the next world, but also that the Egyptians drew upon a lot of tradition in their religious texts. This means that in the texts found in this tomb, which dates from the 6th century BC, we find influences coming from the 3rd millennium BC. Therefore, these finds have enabled us to understand more about Egyptian historical tradition in religious texts.”

It doesn’t maybe seem the most natural of things for Czechs to excel at and for Czechs to be so interested in. Why do you, personally, think that Egyptology captured the Czech imagination so much?

“Well, Egyptology, or better, ancient Egypt, captured almost every imagination in Europe, and even beyond the boundaries of this continent, as can be seen in the history of world Egyptology, so I would say that it is not just a Czech thing. But, it may be noted that it started to captivate people at a time when this state was not even a state, because the very roots of Czech Egyptology come from even before the First World War. Czech Egyptology starts out as Oriental studies in Austria-Hungary – so maybe it is because these roots run so deep.

“And maybe, in recent times – it is really hard to say if we are in any way specific. I would say that ancient Egypt is just so captivating that it enchants people from all over the world!”