Some Reader Reviews of Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo

From Waterstones:

Matthew Ismail’s entertaining biography of Wallis Budge portrays him from childhood until death and aftermath. Scholarly research and excerpts from original sources clarify some of the controversies which still surround Budge. To me the book understates Budge’s legacy in the interest of fair coverage. But the portrait speaks for itself telling of a talented man of great ambition, an underprivileged boy who grew up to be a scholar, a prolific writer and consumer of books. I can’t help but compare him to Howard Carter whose learning and accomplishments belie his common beginnings but who never quite overcame his lack of nobility in the class conscious British society of the early twentieth century. Magic and Mummies’ afterword by a contemporary museum insider leaves a strange impression, reminiscent of scholars in Budge’s day who seem tainted by small mindedness, perhaps jealousy, anachronistic judgement, I can’t put my finger on it but it’s definitely counter to professionalism. The look at human nature complexities alone makes this a good read. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

From Amazon:

I like to read memoirs about accomplished people, especially those who weren’t born with the silver spoon. This is the next best thing to a memoir because original letters to and from Budge take us back to the late 19th and early 20th century events of a commoner who rose to success in Assyriology and Egyptology through sheer talent and drive. Unlike contemporary specialist scholars, Ernest Budge was not singular in his vision. He learned multiple languages both living and dead, worked full time for the British Museum, yet wrote over a hundred books, and maintained a social life soliciting the upper crust all the while honoring his marriage to a fine lady.

Magic and Mummies reveals Budge’s life via archived documents to paint a kaleidoscopic image of an extraordinary man, no genius but talented and driven to exploit his own abilities for the benefit of the rest of us, judging by his texts and priceless acquisitions for the Museum. He was a friend of Lord Carnarvon, of King Tut fame, and was on good terms with Maspero of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, as well as native antiquities sellers who provided ancient grave goods to all the collectors of the day, like Petrie and Amelia Edwards. Experiences in Egypt, the Middle East, as well as London during the Great War all the way up to Budge’s death overlay a context on this complex man who told stories of a haunted mummy, a spirit experience and a prophetic dream. Not your typical Doctor of Literature. Prepare to be enlightened.


[Ismail’s] research offers an informed perspective for sifting through the opinions about Budge that pop up online. Budge came alive for me as a highly dedicated servant to the British Museum, even when in the line of fire. I enjoyed being privy to his personal ethics and friendships with rich patrons. Considering his humble beginnings, I admire his rags to riches success that he thoroughly earned. I expect I will reread “Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo” for the fun of it; this book stays in my collection.

Tower Books:

Apparently in the days before email & cell phones people sent letters back and forth even locally the paper trails to and from Budge are fascinating. Seeing how he reported to the Museums trustees and how he related to society gave me insight into what made him tick… He cant be summed up simply, as his varied book topics suggest: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Coptic dialect, Assyriology, Christianity, Hebrew history, fetishes, mummies and a cat named Mike, to cite a few. He must have been fun to talk with because he sure is entertaining to read about!


1. The inside story, more than I bargained forWhat this book is not: this isn’t a watered down life story with every esoteric word defined like in The Millionaire and the Mummies, another recent biography of an early Egyptologist. Mummies and Magic… is a compelling immersion into EA Wallis Budge’s genealogy, Middle Eastern expeditions, personal relationships and his controversial professional accomplishments. I knew he attracted readers of the occult with his titles on gods and magic but who knew he was a devout Christian? I had noticed that the title pages in his books list a master’s and three doctor degrees, but how could anyone accomplish all that, let alone an underprivileged child? I confess curiosity because of my Egyptophile leanings and a slew of his books, some which transcribe hieroglyphs otherwise unavailable to compare against more modern interpretations; yes, I am mindful that some contemporary scholars deride Budge’s work. What is their grudge against him, I wondered.

Reading Mummies and Magic answered many questions via a romp through arcane British archives that unmasked museum politics directly from original letters. Matthew’s cultural and historical sketches gave me a sense of Victorian and Edwardian England and Egyptologists’ and Assyriologists’ views. I was surprised that Budge’s voracious ambition encompassed academia, the British Museum and knighthood and yet he honored the love of his life even after both their deaths. These dimensions only begin to detail his larger than life scope–this read delivers right to the end, actually even afterwards as an afterword by a professor tries to revive some old feuds. Anyone who has an opinion about EATW Budge is in for some surprises from an insider’s view.

2. From his photos I picture EA WAllis Budge as the entertaining grandfather I wish I had, easily enticed into telling rollicking tales of Middle Eastern expeditions and a connoisseur of ancient artifacts since, from reading his By Nile and Tigris, I knew he was a bold and driven young man of the Indiana Jones type, or maybe Joshua Bernstein. I never imagined the extent of his scholarship or ambitions until I read Wallis Budge, Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo. I can still relate to him on one level because of his lowly birth but his drive and accomplishments leave me in awe.Magic and Mummies opened my eyes to religion in the late 19th and early 20th century England as the lens through which Budge viewed eastern religions both modern and ancient. Rather than constricting his beliefs, Christianity opened his view to some kind of universal spirituality. He even flirted with the occult. Reading his own words in archival letters paints a real personality into his nearly unbelievable context as ancient and modern polyglot and author of over a hundred books. His professional rise never deterred his faithfulness to his wife and friends or loyalty to his employer, the British Museum. Looking under the hood at the Museum’s political workings reminds me how ethics in archaeology have changed, at least ostensibly. The petty conflicts revealed in the book are a study in human nature, like reading the online comments below a news article rife with non sequitur posturing. Sometimes I had to laugh. I hated to put the book down yet was sorry when it ended. And then I was shocked by an afterword that stirred up the dear man’s demons. Budge inspires opinion and the book challenges mine.

An excerpt from Wallis Budge: Mummies and Magic in London and Cairo, “Budge and the Brother Ghosts, 1899-1911”

An excerpt from Wallis Budge: Mummies and Magic in London and Cairo, Chapter 25, “Budge and the Brother Ghosts, 1899-1911.”

Budge Cover

See original for sources:

In the notes to Alex Owen’s book on the occult world of  the late 19th century, The Place of Enchantment, the author comments, without citing any source, that the author Edith Nesbit Bland dedicated her book The Amulet to “E.A. Wallis Budge, Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, a man who was rumoured to be more than sympathetic to the Golden Dawn.” Though there is no evidence that Budge was a member of the Golden Dawn, it is hardly surprising that he was associated with the Golden Dawn in people’s minds. It is obvious that Budge was not only interested in the occult himself, but his works on Egyptology were also a very important source of information for many English people who were engaged either in escaping or reforming their relation to the Christian past or constructing their pagan present.

Furthermore, Budge’s views concerning things such as curses, amulets, and other occult phenomena were far from sceptical. H. Rider Haggard reported that when he asked Budge if he believed in the efficacy of curses, “He hesitated to answer. At length he said that in the East men believed that curses took effect, and that he had always avoided driving a native to curse him. A curse launched into the air was bound to have an effect if coupled with the name of God, either on the person cursed or on the curser. Budge mentioned the case of Palmer, who cursed an Arab of Sinai, and the natives turned the curse on him by throwing him and his companions down a precipice, and they were dashed to pieces. Budge added, ‘I have cursed the fathers and female ancestors of many a man, but I have always feared to curse a man himself.’” As for amulets, Budge wrote to Lady Stanhope describing the magical qualities of the amulet he had given to one of her military sons with every appearance of sincerity.

Indeed, it seems quite apparent that one reason Budge got on so well with the Brother Ghosts was that he was in some sympathy with them and their view of the world. Budge’s friend Violet Markham said that Budge’s “really blood-curdling ghost stories” were in great demand “for he spoke from personal experience and with personal conviction that was impressive.” Budge may have had his conventional scholarly side, she said, and it “was difficult to associate psychic gifts with that robust frame, but Budge had undoubtedly that sixth sense which reaches out to the fringes of consciousness and touches phenomena beyond the normal range. He was a truthful man and some of his experiences were certainly very strange.”

Violet Markham related one of Budge’s ghost stories to give a flavour of his style. She said that Budge was once trying to convince a “wealthy lady” (probably Lady Meux)to buy an Ethiopic version of the Gospels to present to the British Museum. On a winter day he set out for the lady’s distant country house in the West Country, and when he arrived he discovered “a large and riotous company of guests already assembled at dinner.” The company was more inclined to the pleasures of the table than they were to discussions of manuscripts, so Budge entered into the spirit of things. The evening grew wilder and wilder after dinner, and at 2:00 AM the hostess finally called out, “’Ring the bell, Budgie, and tell the butler we want ham fried in champagne.’” Budge was tired by this time, so rang the bell and made his escape. Having left the assembled company in the dining room, Budge discovered that the rest of the house was dark and he had to grope his way upstairs in the pitch black:

“The staircase was built round the well of a large hall and halfway up he became conscious of a chase on the upper landing: the footsteps of a flying woman followed by the heavier tread of a no less swift pursuer. Hunter and hunted seemed to pass him as he shrank in terror against the wall of the broad staircase. Then came a desperate cry, a crash as of a body falling into the hall below followed by utter silence. Budgie in telling the tale never minimised his own demoralisation at this experience. ‘I was covered with sweat. My manhood had been drained out of me and I crawled up those stairs on all fours to my room like a beast.’ He fled from the house early the following morning but back in London informed himself about its history. Enquiry revealed that the house was originally monastic property. The story attached to it was that on one occasion a priest who had gone mad had attacked a nun with a large knife. She fled from him down the staircase and as he overtook her she threw herself over the balustrade into the hall below.”

Such experiences, Budge believed, were the result of his particular nature. “’Some things that happen,’ he said, ‘stamp themselves on their surroundings like an invisible gramophone record. A few people for some unknown reason act like needles and set the record going. I am a needle.” Given his belief that he was somehow a conduit to the supernatural, it is not surprising that Budge regarded supernatural phenomena as able to be explained rationally. Ms. Markham thought it odd to associate “spooks and fantasies and fraud with this bulky and down-right man whose hatred of humbug was proverbial. He would describe his experiences in matter-of-fact terms as though there was nothing surprising about them . . . His experience and knowledge were both unusual and clearly there are many phenomena in the Universe which lie beyond the interpretation of our five senses.”

Violet Markham’s memories would confirm that Budge was a believer in the reality of occult phenomena and was involved in the occult world of his day. We can see that his works on Egyptology were read avidly by some sections of the public because they were believed to expose the “bright centre of spiritual truth” which was at the core of all of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Whether the reading public was Theosophical, mystical, magical or Broad Church in orientation, it was evident that Budge’s works appealed to them because they were speaking, at least in part, in a shared language. The fact that Budge published popular English editions of the religious texts of ancient Egypt, or large extracts of them along with commentaries, meant that he was providing for those who did not read the languages of the texts themselves the raw material for their studies. These religious folk among Budge’s readers probably also had translations of the Bhagavad Gita on their shelves, collections of world mythology, editions of Gnostic and mystical texts, collections of Renaissance magic, and discussions of the true spiritual nature of Christianity; but they may also have had collections of ghost stories, Theosophical tracts, or a book by Aleister Crowley. It was a time of experiment and spiritual seeking, and Budge’s works were very important for many people in their various quests.

Background to Budge

How did I come to write Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo? There’s some back story to this…

Budge Cover

By the time I decided that I no longer wanted to be an academic, in 1993, I had already spent eight years in graduate study. I had completed MA degrees in Islamic and Middle Eastern History, Humanities, and Modern European Intellectual History. I had written an MA thesis at Ohio State University on the Mahdi Muhammad Ibn Tumart; I had written a seminar paper at the University of Chicago on 17th century coffeehouses in England as an import of a Middle Eastern institution and its own peculiar sociability, I had gone through a phase of reading everything written by Michel Foucault and Edward Said. My overriding interest had always been the interactions between the Middle East and the West, but I was also interested in the relationship between British India and England. And then again, I also loved what is sometimes called Country Blues—the music recorded by such musicians as Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis, or Blind Willie McTell in the 1920s to the 1940s—but this interest had no real place in my academic pursuits.

Now, I’ve always loved to write, but I had almost come to hate writing in an academic environment. I left the academic world because I wanted the freedom to choose my topics, to chose my approach, and to chose whether I wanted to write fiction or non-fiction. If I wanted to write non-fiction, then I wanted no pressure to conform to academic fashions, no pressure from overbearing advisers or colleagues, and no more struggle in the fetid swamp of academic politics. If I wanted to write fiction, for that matter, I would write whatever I wanted to write, whether that would be adventure stories or mysteries or historical fiction—or anything else!

So, as soon as I was free I set about writing a variety of things. In the middle 1990s, I wrote Blues Discovery: Reaching Across the Divide, which was an oral history of the experiences of young white Americans who’d discovered the blues in the 1930s to the 1960s. I had interviewed old family friend Roger Brown, who’d turned me onto the blues when I was a kid, as well as blues and jazz writer Samuel Charters, the photographer Raeburn Flerlage, Fred Mendelsohn of Savoy Records, and Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records.

While I was writing Blues Discovery I was also writing short stories (never published and now lost) and reading about British India, particularly about those 18th and 19th century European adventurers who threw themselves into the expanding empire for a thousand different reasons. I read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game and Quest for Kim, both of them wonderful and exciting books about the British Raj, as well as George MacDonald Fraser’s wild books Flashman and Flashman in the Great Game. I also read the classic accounts of some of the imperial adventurers, themselves, such as Charles Masson’s Narrative Of Various Journeys In Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab, and Kalat (1844), Alexander Burnes’ Travels into Bokhara, Being an Account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia (1834), and the rather different Sir John Malcolm’s Memoir of Central India (1823). The account of the career of the Irish mercenary George Thomas, by Lt. William Francklin, explains itself quite well:  Military Memoirs of Mr. George Thomas; Who, by Extraordinary Talents and Enterprise, Rose from an Obscure Situation to the Rank of a General, In the Service of the Native Powers in the North-West of India (1803).

It was after this (and much other) reading in the mid to late 1990s that I decided to write what eventually became the first novel I ever completed: Trevelyan: A Rogue in Cairo.


This novel reflects much of what I had been reading at the time, from the Flashman books, to the accounts of British adventurers, to the stories about Shepherd’s Hotel as a central address for the British in Egypt. Trevelyan is an adventure story, and it reflects something of the randy roguishness of Flashman, but the book also reflects something of my studies of Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the stories about the Egyptians who sold counterfeit mummies to Europeans.

When I moved overseas in 1999, I put Trevelyan and Blues Discovery aside and, needless to say, everything changed. I lived in al-Ain and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates from 1999 to 2006 and found this a transformative experience. Living in the Emirates exposes a person, not only to Emiratis (indeed, least of all to Emiratis!), but to all the people of the Arab world who work in the Emirates, as well as to Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iranians, and all manner of Europeans and North Americans. I met my Syrian cousins and aunt for the first time in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul, and my working days and social life were a United Nations of Arabs, Africans, Indians, Europeans, Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders…It was a remarkable experience which also included many months of traveling to places such as India, Thailand, Athens and Rhodes in Greece, Istanbul, Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia (where my great grandfather was born), Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic, and so on.

When I moved to Cairo in 2006 it was similarly amazing. Living in Cairo is very different from living in the Emirates for many reasons, but one thing both experiences had in common was being very international. I knew Egyptians, Tunisians, Indians, Africans, Englishmen, Americans, and so on, a wonderful mixture of cultures and experiences, and not only did I enjoy daily life in Cairo, but the trips to the sites of Ancient and medieval Egypt were wonderful. Whether it was the Valley of the Kings, Siwa Oasis, Tell al-Amarna, Islamic Cairo, or the remains of the ancient city of Alexandria, I enjoyed each and every trip. During this time I was also able to travel to Morocco, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Germany, and France, among other places. We left Egypt after the Revolution of 2011 and I have missed it ever since.

Now, back to Budge. This very sketchy and hurried background provides a sort of context for why I wrote about E. A. Wallis Budge as I did. My academic background, after all,  was in Middle Eastern History and European Intellectual History, not in Egyptology, and my interest was never in the latter subject. Indeed, the idea for the Budge book came to me from an Indian friend in Sharjah who was interested in comparative religions and the occult. I was considering writing a book about Sir John Malcolm, the British soldier and writer in British India, but my friend made a face and said, “Don’t write about him. Why don’t you write about E. A. Wallis Budge?”

And that was that. The idea struck me as brilliant, somehow. Yet, the fact is that I new little about Budge, with whom I was mostly familiar from having leafed through The Egyptian Book of the Dead or Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection many years before in used bookstores. I knew that Budge was an Englishman working in the British Museum who had published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I knew that the imperial context in which Budge lived and worked was of great interest to me, I knew that I wanted to write about an Englishman whose life was embedded in the Middle East in the age of empire. Not surprisingly, then, once I began to dig into the archives at the British Museum, the British Library, Oxford University, The University of Durham, and the Centre for Kentish Studies, I found in the assembled letters and papers a story that was a treasure trove of remarkable narrative and anecdote concerning an Englishman who was deeply engaged, not only with the British Empire, but also with the Ottoman Empire. I was most certainly hooked.

When time permits, I’ll add some more background to Budge…

Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo, by Matthew Ismail

After years of research, writing, and re-writing, I am pleased that my book, Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo, is now available from The book is published by Hardinge Simpole Publishing in Glasgow, Scotland.

I’ve created a web page for the Budge book that has more information: Sir E.A. Wallis Budge.