By Kathleen Cohrs

As a person living in 1998, when I think of Egypt images of pyramids automatically pop into my mind. I think of pharaohs, gods and goddesses. I picture vast deserts with a pyramid built here or there and maybe a camel or two sillowhetted against the background of the sky. I do not think of Egypt having any sort of connection to anything modern whatsoever. Now this image of Egypt could be called ignorant by some or just simply the fact that my image of Egypt could be the product of
stereotypical beliefs that have developed over time. Either way, my picture of Egyptian life is a bit misguided. These are the thoughts of an individual living in the twentieth century, just imagine what an individual who lived during the year 1876 might have believed about Egypt.

In essence, part of the meaning behind the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was to change these stereotypical beliefs. Of course another big reason behind the exhibition was to produce economic benefits by all involved; but many countries chose to participate in the Exhibition with hopes to bring knowledge of their culture to others throughout the world. Robert C. Frost, author of A Centennial Exhibition, wrote, "Countries little known to Americans took the opportunity to introduce their culture as well as their products to the United States."(1)  Egypt was one of the countries who decided to partake in the alluring presentation of the Centennial Exhibition. Egypt is an interesting country to examine due to the fact that the culture is one that is rooted in an ancient belief of immortality and values traditions and ancient customs greatly. At the same time though, Egyptian culture was making definite strides at attempting to be a part of the ever growing "modern world" (2)

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A number of books have been written on the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. In these pages very brief descriptions of Egyptian artifacts and the presentation of the culture is offered. There is also a limited amount of pictures available. But if one takes this information and combine this data with historical data about Egypt during this time period, a story of what Egypt was like during 1876 can be told. In analyzing the pictures, the descriptions and historical information, the image of Egypt of 1876 is one of mixed desires.  egypt pic
 Print and Picture Collection. The Free Library of Philadelphia 

James McCabe closes his description of Egypt by stating "Altogether the Egyptian display is a bewildering blending of the ancient and modern civilization..."(3) I like to think of this "bewildering blending" that McCabe speaks of as more of a pull between desires. In analyzing the different aspects of the pictures, it is apparent that Egyptian culture of 1876 wanted to be a part of the modern world, yet at the same time did not want to turn away from the ancient beliefs and customs that the country was built upon.
If I were just to look at the picture of the Main Entrance of the Egyptian building, I might think that my stereotypical beliefs about Egypt were correct. The appearance of the doorway of this building is built to look like an entrance to a pyramid or a temple. There are thick stone blocks that have been placed to form the entrance of the doorway. The bottom of the structure is wider than the top, resembling the image of a rhombus. There are two separate layers to the top part of the structure. The lower layer has a pattern of Hieroglyphics. The higher layer has carved eagle wings that are spread out and in the middle of these wings is a picture of the globe. There is a ledge on each side of the structure. On each side a bust of a sphinx has been placed. This structure allows an observer a wonderful insight into Egyptian culture. The image of the sphinxes, the hieroglyphics and even the shape of the building portrays the image of ancient Egyptian civilization. These images emphasize the importance of ancient tradition and heritage in Egyptian culture. When McCabe described the Egyptian entrance he illustrated the fact that the entrance was a "structure resembling an ancient temple of the land of the Nile and the facade is massive and attractive."(4) The images of pyramids and temples have been ones that are portrayed as massive structures created during the time of ancient Egyptian civilization. Thus by building this type of entrance to the Egyptian exhibit, the desire to keep the old image of ancient Egypt alive is quite apparent.

Another aspect of ancient civilization is found in the symbol of the eagle wings. According to McCabe, the wings are an Egyptian symbol of eternity.(5) Eternity and immortality are elements of life that were a strong belief in ancient Egyptian civilization. Author of the book, The World of the Pharaohs, Christine Hobson stated, "The Egyptians believed that human life comprised several different elements, the survival of all of which ensured immortality"(6) By depicting the image of the eagle wings, the creators of this exhibit were illustrating their belief in this ancient belief. The globe in the midst of the wings is a very interesting aspect of this structure. The message portrayed in this image could vary greatly. One way to look at this image is that the Egyptian gods, goddesses, and pharaohs who have past this life and have entered into the next will rain over globe for all eternity. However one might view this image, the elements of ancient civilization are illustrated through this picture.

The last image that I believe portrays the pull towards holding on to ancient customs is the image of the Sphinx. The origin of the word sphinx is unknown, although there is a belief that the word is derived from the Egyptian words "shesp ankh' which means "living image".(7) If this is the case than here is just one more image that is illustrating the ancient belief of immortality and eternity. If this is not the case, the presence of the sphinxes still portrays the image of the ancient due to the fact that they are replicas of ancient art meant to capture the faces of ancient gods or goddesses.

The other picture that I chose to examine is a picture of a room with various pieces of furniture. There are chairs, peacock feather feather dusters, tables, and even a cabinet. All of these items appear to be only of the finest quality. McCAbe's description of this room is as follows:

                                  "A fine exhibit is made of oriental and
                                  drawing-room furniture, a prominent object
                                  of which is a cabinet of ebony beautifully
                                  inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, the
                                  designs being in imitation of those in ancient
                                  mosques. It is valued at $5500, and is for sale."(8)

Donald G. Larson Collection on International Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1940, Sanoian Special
Collections Library, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno.
Even in the patterns of Egyptian furniture, the qualities and characteristics of the ancient civilization of Egypt is portrayed. The pictures of the exhibit that have been taken portray a culture of people very interested in holding onto their past. The characteristics of the ancient civilization are portrayed throughout the entire presentation in various aspects. What the pictures do not show you is described by McCabe in the following paragraph:

                                    "The Khedive makes a collective exhibit of
                                    over two thousand samples of native cotton,
                                     representing the crops of eight years.
                                    Egypt has since 1860 become largely engaged
                                    in the culture of cotton, and the samples thus
                                    displayed are of the highest importance to us,
                                    as they are the announcement that we have a
                                    determined rival in this branch of our own
                                    industry. Each sample is ticketed with the name
                                    of the buyer, the place of sale, and the price
                                     in Egypt and England." (9)
 The representation of the cotton illustrates how Egypt is trying to jump on the band wagon in the economic competition of trade that exists in the modern world. Historically during this time period, Egypt was making great strides in aspects of modernization. The successful production of cotton was just one of Egypt's achievements.(10) By providing a prospective consumer with the comparative prices of two countries' cotton they are illustrating the fact that Egypt is ready to compete in the open market for trade. This is the pull towards modernization that I was referring to in the beginning of this paper. It is evident through the written descriptions of the Egyptian exhibit as well as where Egypt was moving historically during this time period that the civilization was definitely attempting to modernize itself. Even though there is an attempt to achieve modernization, there still lies a great importance in the customs and traditions of the ancient Egyptian civilization illustrated through the art work, furniture and overall appearance of the exhibit. If you were to look at the pictures alone, you might even say that there is no conflict of desires, but rather just a strong reverence for the roots of ancient civilization; but when combining written as well as visual data, there is a definite illustration of conflict of desires portrayed in the Egyptian culture of 1876.

snake climbing

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Cohrs
"Egypt at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876" 23 November 1998


1. Robert C. Post, ed., A Centennial Exhibition (Smithsonian Institution: The Natural Museum of History and Technology., 1976), 181.

2. P.J. Vatikotis, The Modern History of Egypt (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publishers., 1969), 74-80.

3. James D. McCabe, Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia, Pa: The National Publishing Company., 1876), 414.

4. Ibid., 411.

5. Ibid.

6. Christine Hobson, The World of the Pharaohs (New York: The Paul Press Limited., 1987), 152.

7. Jaromir Malek, Egypt Cradles of Civilization (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press., 1993), 104.

8. McCabe, Centennial, 412.

9. Ibid., 414.

10. Vatikotis, 80-84.


Hobson, Christine. The World of the Pharaohs. New York: The Paul Press Limited. 1987.

Malek, Jaromir. Egypt Cradles of Civilization. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 1993.

McCabe, James D. Centennial Exhibition. Philadelphia, Pa: The National Publishing Company. 1876.

Post, Robert C. A Centennial Exhibition. Smithsonian Institution: The Natural Museum of History and Technology. 1976.

Vatikotis, P.J. The Modern History of Egypt. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publishers. 1969.