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Back to the Future

Harvard’s first Egyptologist since 1942 revives an ancient field of study

By James K. McAuley, Crimson Staff Writer

It was in his fourth grade history class that Peter Der Manuelian ’81—Harvard’s first Egyptology professor in over 60 years—first became enamored with the splendor of ancient Egypt.

“You know how you battle against school all your youth?” he asked, sitting in his office in the Semitic Museum.“I remember that being the first time I was actively interested in something—the scale of Egypt, the monuments, the beauty of the language, the art styles.”

Raised in the Boston area, Der Manuelian says he feels lucky to have grown up in a city with a museum whose ancient Egyptian collection is as extensive as the Museum of Fine Arts’s. When he matriculated at Harvard, he ended up concentrating in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, the same department in which he currently teaches. His thesis was on Amenhotep II, an athletic New Kingdom pharaoh he describes as “the world’s first super jock.”

This fall, Der Manuelian, who had been teaching at Tufts University, is offering a new General Education course, Societies of the World 38, “Pyramid Schemes: The Archaeological History of Egypt.” So far, 165 students have enrolled in the course. Der Manuelian said he expects to teach the course, along with several other more specialized classes, for the next few years.


Der Manuelian says that what makes Egyptology most exciting today is the technological innovation that now drives its progress.

“If anything, in the last several decades, Egyptology has grown with the vast interest in technology and the internet,” he said. “There are elaborate coffee table books, spectacular color photographs—and all of this has really brought ancient Egypt alive in the ways that it wasn’t 40, 50, or 60 years ago.”

Der Manuelian said that the General Education course will show off the Giza Archives Project, an international initiative assembling all archaeological activities at the famous Giza pyramids past, present, and future. The Project, a collaboration that incorporates the Harvard-MFA Expedition, includes a 3D reconstruction of the tombs, pyramids, and temples on the Giza plateau.

“You can get the tomb’s-eye view, which is something I couldn’t do in 1977,” Der Manuelian said.

When they are not exploring virtual Giza, students in the General Education course will make two iMovies. Der Manuelian says the assignments will help students to think visually about a visual civilization.

For Amy Y. Tai ’13, the iMovie projects were initially a cause for concern.

“That was actually one of the questions I had about taking the course,” she said. “But...he made it seem really cool. After that, I felt really comfortable.”

Der Manuelian, Harvard’s first Egyptologist in 68 years, is following in the footsteps of Harvard’s last Egyptologist, the late George A. Reisner, a titan in the field who died mid-excavation in Giza in 1942.


According to Der Manuelian, Reisner, technically a Harvard professor, never owned any property in Cambridge and only returned to teach four or five semesters over the course of his career. Throughout this period, Reisner also maintained his position as a curator in absentia at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Like Reisner, Der Manuelian has spent much of his professional life in Giza, in his own version of “Harvard Camp.” The first time he went to Egypt was in 1977, the summer after high school, but he has returned numerous times since and spent 1984-7 in Luxor as an epigrapher on a University of Chicago project.

Egypt has changed between Reisner’s time there and his own. But, Der Manuelian says, “fortunately, the pyramids are still there.”


Despite the 68-year gap between Harvard Egyptologists—and also the long gaps between the College’s sporadic offerings in the field of ancient Egypt—Der Manuelian says that there was not a “dark time” when his field failed to generate interest in the postwar American academy.

“Maybe Harvard looked around and said, ‘Well, [Egyptology] is taught really well at some other places,’” he said. “But I’m delighted and grateful that [this department] was able to come through.”

Even though Egyptologists study the distant past, Der Manuelian says that his field can nevertheless provide important insights into the world of today.

“I think that any time you have a civilization that’s lasted three or four millennia, there’s something worth studying there,” he said. “A belief system, an  ideology that exists for that long—there’s definitely something there to study and to learn. These are all ways of making sense of the world around you.”

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at

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