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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 24, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 8
JHU Course Catalog:
Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll in Ancient Egypt

Betsy Bryan, chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department, introduces freshmen to the ancient Egyptian notions of divine experience.

By Amy Cowles

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's eight academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll in Ancient Egypt. 3 credits. Freshmen only. Offered by the Department of Near Eastern Studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Cross-listed with Women, Gender and Sexuality.

The instructor: Betsy Bryan, Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology and chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department. Bryan specializes in the Egyptian New Kingdom (18th to 20th dynasties), spanning the time from 1567 B.C.E. to 1085 B.C.E. Her many publications include The Quest for Immortality: Hidden Treasures of Egypt, which she co-edited; the book was published in conjunction with a National Gallery of Art exhibition by the same name for which Bryan was guest curator. A Web site that chronicles her excavation each January at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, garners thousands of hits each winter.

To see a day-to-day account of the 2005 excavation and to find links to digs dating back to 2001, go to

Meeting time: 2 to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fall 2005.

Syllabus: This course explores the ancient Egyptian notions of divine experience and the ritual magic that assisted with it. The means of experiencing the gods in ancient Egypt often involved rituals that included drunkenness and music, Bryan says. Sexuality helped to guarantee the maintenance of world order and was important to all notions of life and death.

Photos from Bryan's excavations and her related travels throughout Egypt are important teaching tools in this course. Using her laptop computer and a projector, Bryan lights up one wall of the classroom with slides of tomb art. Parsing the images, she helps her students see that the paintings are rich with sexual symbolism. For example, students learn that lettuce is featured in several scenes depicting feasts because the vegetable was considered an aphrodisiac. Figs appear in the paintings to echo love poems of the day, when the fruit was often shared between lovers. Actions associated with amorous behavior are also all over the tomb walls; women fixing their hair, beds being made and wives handing arrows to their husbands are all considered to be sexual gestures, Bryan says.

Course work: Class participation and a class presentation are each worth 25 percent of a student's grade. Two short essays are each worth 15 percent, and a final essay makes up the remaining 20 percent of the overall grade.

Required reading: There are many articles on electronic reserve and posted online through the course's WebCT site, which requires a user name and password in order to protect the copyrighted materials. They include "Sexuality, Statuary and the Afterlife: Scenes in the Tomb-chapel of Pepyankh (Heny the Black)"; "An Interpretive Essay," by David O'Connor; "Ancient Egyptian Sexuality," by Gay Robins; "Some Graffiti From the Reign of Hatshepsut," by Edward F. Wente; "Wine for Pouring and Purification in Ancient Egypt," by Peter Dils; "From Prehistory to History: Beer in Egypt," by Jeremy Geller; "The Earliest History of Wine and Its Importance in Ancient Egypt," by T.G.H. James.

Overheard in class: "In the first dynasty, there is evidence that people were ritually killed at the time when the king died. After the first dynasty, this practice seems to disappear. ... In general, the tombs in Egypt were family tombs. The chapel areas were always open to friends and family of the tomb owner to visit. The tomb area was sealed and reopened when the wife and kids died. People had to pay for their own tombs. Peasants were buried but probably very simply in small cemeteries. One of the big problems for archaeologists in Egypt is to locate those cemeteries because the bodies haven't survived [because they weren't as well preserved as the bodies of the wealthy people]."
Betsy Bryan

Students say: "I'm a freshman Near Eastern studies major, and I have to say that Dr. Bryan is now definitely one of my role models. Not only is she extremely knowledgeable and masterful when speaking about Egyptology, but she is also very passionate about this topic, and for someone like me who was never taught anything ancient Egypt-related in high school, it's fantastic to find someone who shares my passion. I also respect her down-to-earth and open-minded attitude toward learning about new things, even if the ideas come from her freshman students. I am really enjoying the class discussions, and I consider myself very lucky that I was able to start off my experience at Hopkins with one of her classes."
Jessica Popkin, 18, Near Eastern Studies major, East Windsor, N.J.

"I'm not gonna lie — what grabbed my attention about this seminar was the name. I thought it sounded incredibly interesting, so I came to class ready for a good time. It's a lot of reading, but it's interesting, so you breeze right by it. Professor Bryan is great; she's really funny in class and always makes sure the class discussions are really interesting."
Chad Williams, 19, international relations major, Berwyn, Pa.

"The course caught my eye because it had 'sex' and 'drugs' in the title. Not too many college courses cover those topics, especially ones offered to freshmen. Ancient Egypt and ancient Egyptians have always been an interest to me, ever since I was 5 or 6. I thought it would be pretty interesting to see what a college course about my childhood passion would be like. Also, since I'm a neuroscience major, I thought this class would be a fascinating change from all of my science courses. Dr. Bryan wants us to form our own opinions on the topics we learn about and not always agree with the authors of our readings. Of course, laughter is commonplace in the class, as are awkward moments, but those are what make the class fun and hilarious."
Dorothy Knutsen, 18, neuroscience major, Lakewood, Ohio


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