“N.Y.” (=Antun Zakari?)
A Neglected Pioneer of Neo-Pagan Egyptian
I write this article as long-overdue recognition of the Christian-born writer “N.Y.” (=Antun Zakari?) who around 1926 published a volume Ta’rikh Tutankhamun, Muharriru Misr al-‘Azim (“The History of Tutankhamun, Egypt’s Great Liberator”) (Cairo: Maktabat Zaydan c.1926). “N.Y.” was the acronym for the Christian Antun Zakari, then secretary of the library of the Egyptian Museum. As the possibly cynical title indicates, on one level his book was a pot boiler to profit from the immense interest aroused among literate Egyptians by the November 1922 rediscovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (reigned 1361-1352 BC), one of the last kings of Egypt’s ancient 18th Dynasty. The neo-pagan Pharaonist identification in modern Egyptian thought was to be finally debilitated by the remoteness of ancient Egypt’s gods and goddesses from the conceptual frames of reference of Islam and Christianity. In contrast, the mutation in ancient Pharaonic civilization that Tutankhamun now evoked in Egyptian print-media was relatively intelligible to the Islam of modern Arabic Egyptians. The Pharaoh Akhnaton (reigned 1379-1362 BC) had imposed a proto-monotheistic cult of the sun-disk Aton. In Tutankhamun's reign (1361-1352 BC) the priesthood restored the worship of Amun. Nonetheless, the continuous publicity about Tutankhamun throughout the 1920s occasioned much discussion of Akhnaton's fleeting proto-monotheism, as against mainstream Pharaonic cults more unintelligible and grating to the Arabo-Islamic Egyptian.
Yet N.Y.’s work on Egypt’s Great Liberator was less about that sickly teenage king too frail to liberate even himself than a tablet onto which “N.Y.” pasted ephemera that he and others had published in the Egyptian press into a coherent account of ancient Egyptian civilization overall. It is rough by our standards today, but a great stride forward for the 1920s by a pioneer of the construction of neo-pagan particularist ideologies in the Arabic world of the 1920s and 1930s. It would not say much to the credit of our judgment were we to shrug off “N.Y.” and his extensive book as just a rag-bag of press cuttings banged together by a scribbler with impaired ideals out to spin a quick gunaih Misri buck.
The Impact of the Tutankhamun Discoveries on Educated Egyptians
Egypt's limited independence was proclaimed on 28 February 1922. On 7 November of that year, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, one of the last kings of the 18th Dynasty. Among radically modernist-secularist young Muslims in the 1920s, al-Siyasah intellectuals excitedly impressed on their readers the dazzling craftsmanship and beauty of Tutankhamun's treasures and the wealth and power of the Pharaonic state that produced them. It must be stressed that the process of the bringing forth of the treasures was prolonged, which meant international and local press coverage of them unfolded over years. British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the steps leading down to the entrance gallery of the tomb in November 1922. But it took the following eight seasons (October to April) for Carter to salvage the treasures within the tomb and transfer them to the National Museum in Cairo. Every piece of the set of burial objects had to be emptied from the sepulcher and restored on the spot, a process that took six years. Thus, excavations and work within the tomb were completed only in 1928. The tomb thus provided a protracted vivid visual record of a long-vanished Pharaonic era. The in background Muslim ‘Abdallah 'Inan in 1925 published in the Tory _al-Siyasah_ a translation of an article by Carter that conveyed to Egyptians how well the art in the tomb caught, for example, minor intimate episodes in the daily life of the youthful Pharaoh and his wife, or tragic sympathy for lions killed in royal hunts: “N.Y.” could not but reprint it in his volume the following year. Coming from the outset of Egypt's life as a formally independent state, the excitement in Egypt and in the world press over the tomb and its art greatly encouraged educated Egyptians to adopt a Pharaonic national identity: it could command respect for their new state in the states of the West.
Al-Siyasah commented as Tutankhamun's mummy was slowly unwound that the precious jewels and articles successively produced from each layer “reduce men's minds to perplexity”. They showed the “advancedness” (ruqiyy) and “wealth” (ghana') of Egypt in the age of that “Great King” [“Tutankhamun: al-Juththah wal-Nafa'is allati Ma‘aha” (Tutankhamun: the Corpse and the Treasures with it), al-Siyasah 15 November 1925; amplified by N.Y., Tarikh Tutankhamun p. 194]. In the weekly al-Siyasat al-Usbu'iyyah “pictures of Pharaonic objects or scenes frequently accompanied articles dealing with Pharaonic Egypt”. The Wafdist al-Balagh al-Usbu'i and the modernist al-Majallat al-Jadidah, edited by the Fabian socialist Copt Salamah Musa, published multi-page photo-essays on Pharaonic subjects [Gershoni and Jankowski, Egypt, Islam and the Arabs p. 176]. Zakari bound into his book an opening section carrying scores of poorly reproduced photographs and sharp, interesting line drawings of the art objects of Tutankhamun's tomb and of other Pharaonic inscriptions, reliefs and statues.
From the above, we see how (a) Egyptians of Muslim background, such as Muhammad Husayn Haykal and his dear friend ‘Abdallah ‘Inan, and (b) other Egyptians of Christian origin such as Antun Zakari and Sayfayn worked together to restore Egypt’s Pharaonic national Golden Age, through mutually-reinforcing Arabic writings, in the 1920s and 1930s.
The restoration of the Pharaonic defining history of the Egyptian nation in the 1920s was greatly aided by acculturation to the West and its languages among educated Egyptians. Much of the data and cultural specificities of Tutankhamun and his era was provided by the English-language and French papers and magazines that acculturated Egyptians constantly read. As Antun Zakari put it, “the newspapers of all the nations ... published copious descriptions ...; they reproduced in their illustrated press many photographs and sketches” [“N.Y”, Ta'rikh Tut 'Ankh Amun p. 28. The Illustrated London News provided Zakari with not just photographs of objects discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb but reproductions of earlier art of the mortuary cult of Horus that Zakari integrated into a dense discussion of Pharaonic mythology. Ibid p. 90].
Not all materials and motifs from the ancient pagan past that “N.Y.” presented worked for a self-contained Egypt in the sense of an isolationism. In regard to publicity in Arabic of movement by Semites into Egypt, the neo-Pharaonist Antun Zakari translated the young English journalist H.V. Morton's portrait of Tutankhamun's Thebes as a cosmopolitan trading city: Phoenicians, Syrians, Babylonians and desert Arabs (as well as some Cretans) rubbed shoulders in it with the autochthonous Hamitic Egyptians ["N.Y.", Tutankhamun pp. 49-51]. This imagined Pharaonic golden age set a pattern for exchanges between Egypt and the West, now to be fulfilled in modernity. Antun Zakari quoted a diffusionist British astronomer that some ancient monumental structures, probably astronomical, in Brittany and the British isles were engraved with the Pharaonic Egyptians' sacred cross with the circular head ('ankh), more evidence of inspiration from Egypt ["N.Y.", Tutankhamun pp. 137-8]. [=Now the traffic could flow the other way with Western institutions and liberalism flowing for adoption into post-1922 partly independent Egypt].
The archeological recovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its superb artifacts made vivid Egypt’s 18th Pharaonic dynasty (1550-1292 BC), fertile in its ferment of religious thought, and in which Tutankhamun was but a fleeting monarch. In reality, the 18th dynasty had long been the best-attested of all Egypt’s dynasties in regard to temple sites, inscriptions and tombs. Thus, many of the embodiments of divinity and other stage-properties of the ancestral Pharaonic civilization and golden age as “N.Y.” reconstructed it are of the 18th dynasty: for example, Hator, the cow-goddess of love, motherhood, joy, music --- and fertility, as we shall see.
The probably Christian “N.Y.” provides further evidence of the religious skepticism that neo-Paganism engendered (or ratified) in the intelligentsia that embraced it in the 1920s. His Christian origin valuably controls our tracing of the phenomena in the in origin Muslim Muhammad Husayn Haykal. Like Haykal, N.Y. sees Hebrew beliefs as derivative from ancient Pharaonic religion. The two broad causes for this new skepticism were (a) the inherent nature of some material that the West’s archaeology, in which neo-pagan particularists naturally took a close interest, presented and (b) the innate temptation of any partly West-patterned nationalism anywhere to claim the self-sufficiency of the national civilization it asserted. The continuity of the Nation down history is asserted by claiming that religions which the particularist nation later adopted had been originated in - and by - the Homeland. As with Muhammad Husayn Haykal, N.Y. is most ready to suggest the derivative nature of Hebrew belief. He notes George Smith’s expedition to Mesopotamia, financed by The Daily Telegraph, to the ruins of Ninevah to uncover in 1872 an [Assyrian? Caldanean?] version of the Flood story: “Mr George Smith predicted that the future will uncover a more ancient translation than that, which would prove a source for the inspiration preserved in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament (al-Tawrat)”. The discovery of a Sumerian version written twenty centuries before that in Ashurpanibal’s library had proven the truth of this prediction [N.Y. p. 81]. But N.Y., ever the neo-Pharaonist nationalist, then moves to argue that the Nile Valley was the original source of the story. N.Y.’s readers in 1925 may have thought that his argumentation of this thesis sounds somewhat strained. “Even though the story given in the grave of Seti I does not in narrating the story of the destruction [of mankind] mention the flood, it is clear that the Egyptian and Assyrian narratives have one origin” [p. 81]. On p. 83 N.Y. continues his argument that is growing more tortuous: an Egyptian myth of an ageing king who slew his subjects when they conspired to kill him “got mixed up… with the story of the Nile flood and the reddening of the flood of the Nile Waters with the blood of the dead: when that spread to foreign lands, it all got confused and mixed up with [other] tales until it was said that the flood caused people’s death” [NY p. 83].
The point is that N.Y. implicitly regards the Hebrew religion as having transmitted at third hand a garbled, degenerate version of what had originally been a Pharaonic myth. Being of Christian origin, however, N.Y. does not simply (as Haykal did) question the truth of Judaism by ascribing what it claimed were God-inspired narratives of historical realities to the ancient Pharaonic religion, and thereby through Judaism also casting a shadow of doubt upon Christianity and Islam where they both endorsed the factuality of those events whether more or less. N.Y. also questions Christianity at its heart and core. He ironically hints, as we have seen, that the “story” (sic!) of Osiris rising from the dead to judge human beings after death is the origin and inspiration for the “life” of the Messiah [N.Y. p. 184]. N.Y. also prints material about a set of four scenes in the temple of Luxor in which the Queen Mutemwia, mother of Amenhotep III (18th dynasty: born c. 1388 BC) is represented as “the Virgin Mother who has become pregnant without any man, and she the mother of the Eternal One”. Without directly claiming anything, N.Y. interprets these four scenes of the Luxor temple in such a way as to suggest that Pharaonic beliefs inspired Christian concepts of the nature and birth of the Christ: “the first scene… shows the god Thot, that is Mars or the Divine Word, as he gives the Virgin Queen the glad tidings that she shall beget a son. In the second scene the god Kenef is shown with Hator breathing life into her: this is the Holy Ghost… The fourth scene shows the scene of the Adoration. Here the child sits on the throne and receives honor from the gods and gifts from people. Behind the god Kenef to the right are seen three men offering gifts with their right hands and life with their left” [N.Y. p. 141]. Although the consequence down the line might be the designation of Islam as derivative from Pharaonic tradition in some narratives where it parallels Hebrew and Christian narratives to some extent, what N.Y. is more directly and consciously claiming here is the derivative nature of Christianity. The implied parallel with the three Magi is a Christian tradition since no notice of them is to be found in the Qur’an; N.Y.’s account of the first scene where Thot the Divine Word gives the glad tidings to the Virgin Queen obviously is phrased to echo Luke 1:26-34.
Despite his obvious belief that Judaism is a garbled version of neighboring Middle Eastern pagan mythologies, which would seem to be a standard feature of much neo-pagan particularist thought in both Egypt and Lebanon, “N.Y.” does not - any more than Haykal when he claimed that other-worldly mysticism and consecration to the Hereafter were of the very essence of Egyptians national character - regard the religious outlook as harmful or anti-rational. But the 1920s, with its atmosphere of a new start in Egypt, at times could open up into a quest for religious truth located in Pharaonic Egypt that would be independent. Whatever doubts he harbored about both the OT and NT, N.Y. claims that he is a man of religious faith, and believes that ancient Egypt has a religious revelation to offer for all mankind. Endorsing the efforts of modern Western spiritualists to make contact with the unseen, N.Y. mused that “it would be no exaggeration if we stated that the ancient Egyptians who were outstanding in Philosophy, the spiritual sciences, magic and chemistry and things divine knew about the spirits that which we do not know now, and that the spiritual scholars of today are nothing but children [compared with] the remarkable spiritual school [patterned by Pharaonic Egypt] that will rock the world one day”.
The neo-Pharaonist writings of Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, in the 1920s came at the culmination of the thinning of data about literate Islam and literate Christianity among a generation that had been educated in French and (more and more) English under a British colonial rule that harbored no love for classical Arabic. Many of them had lacked much full-time formal Christian or Islamic education. Islamic-educated writers like the ex-Azharite Taha Husayn were not too eager to attack the classical Arabs in the name of an immemorial and continuous Egyptian nationhood in the 1920s. Such radical neo-Pharaonists as Muhammad Husayn Haykal and “N.Y.” knew little about the literate forms of Islam and Christianity so that their critiques often veered widely off the mark.
“N.Y.” used razor-sharp innuendo towards the Christianity of his parents. He played ironically with the word “inspiration” to imply that the inspiration for the central events and beliefs asserted by the writers of Christianity came not from God but from constantly mutating stories that had done the rounds of the Middle East, and which had been originally set off by the narratives of the Pharaonic Egypt much further back in antiquity. The question then arises if the assertions and figures of Pharaonic religion are to be regarded as myths as (in the particularist imagination) were the lines of stories they set off in the Middle East, or if they might be truth that died in being transferred to other figures. Many Egyptian intellectuals, both Christian and Muslim, considered spiritualism in the 1920s and 1930s, and that seems to run against the rationalism of the modernist West. “N.Y.” implied that, although they were still at a childish stage in the quest, modern Westerners were groping to contact spirits that actually existed. He equated the magic and spiritual sciences of the ancient Egyptians with their chemistry and philosophy as all valid. Egyptian concepts would enable Westerners to make their breakthroughs to the spirits and their realm. It then becomes a matter if N.Y. could then convert to a higher stage in which he would come to see the ancient Egyptian gods as not emanations of the classical Nation’s genius, but real beings to be worshipped, to be sure in the context of a proud nationalist polity, as giants towering over the assemblage of the spirits.
“N.Y.” could veer off into some excesses. But, overall, he presented sober data from the Pharaonic golden age. Here he points us today to the New Age and the new religious movements and neo-paganisms to which many Americans and Australians have fled from the West’s secularist-ameliorism and the bigoted old religions that in tandem threaten the survival of humanity today even more gravely than in the 20th century.