An Interview with Dorothy U. Seyler

The professor/author discusses a little-known Brit’s quest to save some of antiquity’s seminal treasures.

An Interview with Dorothy U. Seyler

Dorothy U. Seyler’s new book, The Obelisk and the Englishman, is the story of William John Bankes, a multi-talented member of 19th-century English gentry and one of the first Egyptologists. Seyler tells of his time at Cambridge as an intimate of Lord Byron, and of his daring and thorough work in Egypt and Syria.

Bankes traveled farther south along the Nile than any other European before him, and prepared more than 1,400 site plans and drawings, with details of temple sites, artifacts, and architecture. After his return to England, he was the focus of a homophobic sex scandal and spent much of the rest of his life traveling in Italy, purchasing and commissioning art to adorn his family home back in Dorset.

What first drew your attention to the story of William Bankes?

I was looking for a project — nonfiction, but not another textbook (I have 10 textbook titles, many in multiple editions). I saw Bankes’ Petra drawings at a special exhibition on Petra at the American Museum of Natural History and started to see what I could learn about him. I found his story fascinating and I discovered that apparently no one in the U.S. knew him. I traveled to Egypt and found the ancient sites spellbinding. I was hooked.

One reason Bankes’ work is so striking is that Europeans in the early 19th century really knew very little of ancient Egypt. Perhaps nobody did. What would an educated Englishman of his time have been expected to know about ancient Egypt? Would most of it have come from Roman sources?

Their knowledge would have come from both Greek and Roman sources, beginning with the travels of the Greek Herodotus. (Bankes mentions Herodotus in his Nile journal.) By 1815, when Bankes arrived in Egypt, he also had two other sources, a book on Egypt by the ambassador Hamilton and a book by one of Napoleon’s savants, Denon. Bankes commented on Hamilton’s lapses (no discussion of the rock-cut tombs at Beni Hasan) and was pleased to have corrected Denon’s site plan of the Luxor Temple.

The “obelisk” of the title is a valuable artifact from the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae in the Nile. The site is now under water from the Aswan Dam, and the Egyptians painstakingly moved the temple to an island in Lake Nasser to preserve it. Bankes took the obelisk, a prominent part of the temple’s architecture, to his home in England, where it still stands. Has the Egyptian government asked to have it back?

Bankes removed a fallen obelisk, after having calculated correctly as to the location of its base, entirely buried in mud at the site. He did not help himself to a standing obelisk, as did the Romans and then, after Bankes, the French, English, and Americans. Of course, the ruling Pasha, Mohammed Ali, gave obelisks to the three countries mentioned above, all of the obelisks still standing at their temples. But then, we need to consider that Muslims of the Ottoman Empire did not see ancient Egyptian artifacts as relevant to their culture. Ali planned to destroy the pyramids at Giza to use the stones for new buildings and was, fortunately for all of us (including contemporary Egyptians), talked out of it by a French painter who traveled with Bankes and then stayed to work for Ali. Nineteenth-century travelers — and some rulers — did things that we do not do today. To the best of my knowledge, no one has asked for the Philae obelisk to be returned.

The Egyptians are struggling mightily to maintain, in some fashion, the treasure they currently have. The old Cairo Museum was looted during the revolution — it’s right next to Tahrir Square — and the new museum, next to the pyramids, is still not finished. One Egyptian Egyptologist I know wants at least one back — the one taken from Luxor Temple and placed in the Place de la Concorde. It had a perfectly symmetrical one next to it, in front of the temple. Bankes saw that temple with the two obelisks; the picture on my book cover shows just the one there now.

You paint a vivid picture of an early escapade, when Bankes disguises himself as a laborer to sneak into the empty house of a wealthy neighbor. You indicate that the thrill from that adventure was probably replicated when he managed to get into temples and mausoleums he was forbidden to enter. Could you expand on that a little?

I do mention several other times that Bankes went where he presumably was not supposed to go. He explored rooms behind closed doors at the Citadel in Cairo while waiting for his audience with Ali. He explored rooms at St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt to discover many books after he had been told by a previous visitor that the monastery had just a few books. In Syria, he entered a mosque with Finati, both dressed as Turkish soldiers, with Bankes holding a handkerchief over his face pretending to have a toothache.

Bankes worked long hours, under extraordinarily difficult conditions, to document what he could find of Egyptian civilization. Is his discovery and scholarship on the List of Kings at Abydos an important reason we can so confidently outline who ruled Egypt as many as 5,000 years ago? And why did someone so thorough in his work, and so passionate about it, not manage to get much of it in order and published?

The Abydos King List helped to confirm much of what was known from Mantho’s earlier list. More details of the order and at least approximate dates of the rulers became clear to Egyptologists after hieroglyphs were decoded and the various messages on temple and tomb walls could then be read. More immediately, the Abydos King List aided in that decoding by providing a text for both Thomas Young and Champollion. Bankes made this available, along with his copy of the hieroglyphs on the four sides of the Philae obelisk, to both Young and Champollion — and both of these finds were published.

Why did he fail to write a book on Egyptian architecture? We can’t ask him and at least see what his explanation would be. But we do know that, early on, he told Byron that he did not like to write letters. And soon after his return from seven-plus years of travels, he was once again a Member of Parliament, with much to distract him. He also faced a libel trial, as well as a trial for intent to commit sodomy.

He did complete the two-volume Finati account, filled with his scholarly notes and partially written by him, translated from Italian to English by William and published by John Murray II in 1830. Then he became the owner of Kingston Lacy and started a major remodeling project of several years. And, finally, he was separated from his carefully stored cabinet of drawings and notes when he had to spend the last 15 years of his life abroad.

I think we also have to recognize that some people are writers while others are not. Hemingway assured us that it was important for a writer to sit still and get his work done, and he accused F. Scott Fitzgerald of failing to do that. Sitting alone and staring at a blank sheet of paper (or blank computer screen) is not easy for everyone.

His paintings and drawings presented in your book are fresh and vivid, and appear to be painstaking. Do you think he was more of an artist or a field illustrator?

We have to remember that some of the temple drawings in my book were painted by artists Bankes hired to go with him on his second journey up the Nile. But I do like his painting of the single column remaining of a small Egyptian temple and his lovely painting of the circle of columns at Jerash. What I also cherish are his site plans, which are amazingly accurate, especially when we realize that they were prepared without modern surveying equipment.

Bankes had been taught perspective drawing, but he is always better with “places” than with people. When we look at his drawing of the Khasneh at Petra, we see the building in its courtyard superbly rendered. However, the man on horseback is useful only to provide us with a sense of the immense size of the rock-cut temple or tomb. He will also painstakingly render fancy ironwork on a window in Venice, but there are no drawings of the people with whom he traveled. He used the skills he had to do the job he wanted to do. What more can we ask of anyone?

There are several important differences in moral codes between his time and ours. One is that homosexual activity was a crime punishable by execution, and another is that the purchase of looted art was hardly given a second thought. Not only does Bankes take the obelisk, but when he discovers that the French have looted many paintings by the Spanish masters from convents and churches, he urges his father to keep an eye on the market for them. He also bought paintings that he knew had been stolen. Would you care to speculate on how his life might have been different if those conditions had been different?

I generally prefer to stick to the “small” inferences we can perhaps draw about character and motivation after many years of “living” with the works of the man. And we cannot remove Bankes from conditions of his time; there is no way to know what Bankes would have done with his life if he lived today. Certainly he stayed away an incredibly long time — longer than other well-known travelers such as Columbus or Darwin on the Beagle.

Surely we can conclude that Bankes was happy with what he described as the “free and vagrant life” he was living away from the expectations and constraints of London. He did not want to serve in parliament and he did not want to satisfy his mother and marry. Because he stayed away, we have the wonderful site plans and drawings and Abydos King List from his second journey up the Nile, as well as his Petra drawings.

By the standards of the time, Bankes cannot be viewed as a serious “looter.” He was not looking for artifacts to put in cabinets in the family home, and actually returned with very little from Egypt — if we can disregard the size of the fallen obelisk. He appears to have paid for the few artifacts he brought home from Egypt. He was admired by other Europeans there for the way he interacted with his workmen.

Presumably, part of his success came from paying them well for their services, but I suspect that part also came from his excitement and enthusiasm that inspired others. (He paid for many temples to be excavated and cleared of rubbish so that they could be explored.) He also paid for the paintings he purchased, both in Spain and later in Italy and back in London. But he was no fool. He understood that, in troubled times, artwork will become available and he certainly negotiated for each piece — as he assured his father who was still horrified by how much he had paid for some of the art.

There is no question that the Venus de Milo was saved by its being brought “home.” There is less certainty about the Elgin Marbles. If you have been in some museums even today (note: the old Cairo Museum and the art museum in Naples for just two examples — no air conditioning, windows open, poor security, few modern conservation-designed cases, etc.), you may well conclude that Western travelers saved many wonderful works from likely destruction. Sadly, today we see less looting but more wanton destruction by people in control of ancient sites they do not value.

If there is one thing you hope students of the future know about William Bankes, what would it be?

I would hope that readers are inspired by recognizing in William Bankes that it is possible to alter the presumed course of their lives. We can reshape ourselves rather than accepting the expectations of others when those don’t feel right. And I hope that readers also see that travel can transform us in important ways. William could have traveled leisurely around the Mediterranean and then returned to Dorset to ride and hunt and sit by the fire until his father died and he inherited the estate.

But William was inspired to travel “seriously,” to use his word, and these travels gave meaning and purpose to his life. We also see in William a man who would seem to have “everything,” and yet he was constrained by his times and forced to live part of his life away from his beloved Kingston Lacy. He carried a burden that he would not have to carry today, but he did not let it destroy him. William Bankes is indeed a man worth getting to know.

Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a former radio and television journalist, and, since retiring from the federal government, has completed her first novel, set in the urban turbulence of 19th-century America, and is at work on her second, the fictionalized life of a slave captured by Francis Drake in 1580. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. She and her husband, Rich, recently moved to the Seattle area, where they are remodeling an old farmhouse.

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