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More than 20K people take Penn online course on ancient Egypt

Dr. David Silverman, the Eckley Brinton Coxe Jr. Professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania and curator-in-charge of the Egyptian section at the Penn Museum, with a sphinx  from Memphis, Egypt.
Dr. David Silverman, the Eckley Brinton Coxe Jr. Professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania and curator-in-charge of the Egyptian section at the Penn Museum, with a sphinx from Memphis, Egypt.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

What if they gave a course on ancient Egypt  ...  and everybody came?

OK, not everybody. But how about 23,487 people?

That's how many are enrolled, as of this writing, in the University of Pennsylvania's online course  Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization. For those enrolled -- and everyone else -- there will be an Ancient Egypt Open House at the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Lectures, tours, mummification -- an ideal way to get your Egyptian on. Like those 23,487 people.

Learning on their own time about HorusOsirisNefertitiKing Tutankhamuncartouchespyramidsankhs, and kohl, these folks are from all over -- France, Brazil, Russia, China -- even a few in Egypt. Not bad for a course that launched on Oct. 31. When the next session of the course opens -- on Dec. 26 -- it's likely many more will sign on. Such is the enduring fascination with those who really walked like Egyptians.

One person who has made that fascination his life is the teacher of the course (and host of the open house), David P. Silverman, the Eckley Brinton Coxe Jr. Professor of Egyptology at Penn and also curator of the Penn Museum's Egyptian section. Did you see the King Tut exhibit that's been traveling the world since 2005? He was the curator. In fact, if you saw the King Tut traveling show in the 1970s, he was involved.

Silverman was even invited to the premiere party for the 1999 film The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser. The star cornered him, anxious: "How did we do?" (Silverman gives The Mummy credit -- many, if not all, of the hieroglyphics are right, and Princess Anck-Su-Namun talks to Imhotep in authentic Old Egyptian. "But flesh-eating scarabs? No," he says.)

Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization is given through Coursera, a company (cofounded in 2012 by Penn, Princeton University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan) that offers massively open online courses, or MOOCs. You can enroll free, or pay $49 if you want a certificate. According to Lauren Owens, associate director of the Online Learning Initiative at Penn, the school offers 111 courses (via both Coursera and another organization, EdX) given by 117 faculty members at all 12 schools at the university -- to a total enrollment of 5.52 million people.

In Intro to Ancient Egypt, you, the student, are given readings, watch video lectures by Silverman, and behold a rich array of images of ancient Egyptian art, artifacts, and architecture. "Students tell me that's one of the greatest strengths of the course," Silverman says. "We have such great resources at Penn, and the students can't seem to believe there's so much of ancient Egypt to see." You go at your own speed. There are quizzes at the end to take and pass, and students have frequent email contact with course assistants. The course has rolling enrollments that start up again each month.

Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization

More than 23,000 people around the world have enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's free online course that launched on Oct. 31. The map shows the countries with the highest percentages of enrolled learners, based on IP addresses.
Staff Graphic

Elaine Coombs, 58, lives in Wednesbury, in England's West Midlands, and is enrolled. "I have felt a connection with ancient Egypt ever since I was a child," she writes, "and always wanted to be a historian in some direction of the field." She's a true veteran of online courses (she's taking a second course at the same time and is signed up for two more), and likes the freedom and self-directedness of it all.

It was the flick The Ten Commandments that got Rick Wood, 59, of the Washington area, started on Egypt. He has just finished the Penn course. "Human interaction is always nice," he writes, "but the convenience of being able to take a class at your own pace outweighs it, in my opinion." And the appeal of ancient Egypt? It's that "over a 3,500-year period, the civilization had the chance to do everything wrong and everything right that a nation can do." With all the online courses available, Wood thinks "you really have to work to stay ignorant."

Leslie Palleria, 53, of Meriden, Conn., was intrigued by the Egyptian scarab symbol the band Journey adopted in the 1980s.

From there, she followed her interest to the Penn/Coursera course. "I love this way of taking classes," she says, preferring a "calm pace" of learning. "I find the visuals of the actual artifacts along with the lecture interesting and intriguing," she says. "I am hoping to see these items again, in person."

Talk about an MOOC veteran, Rául Simón, 66, of Santiago, Chile, says he has taken more than 20 such courses -- and this is his third on ancient Egypt. The ancient world continues to attract us, he says, "because the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans constitute the immediate antecedent to our culture (which is altogether a different one)."

And Xavier Mayot, 42, of Paris, makes sure to incorporate a "balanced" approach to life that includes work and lifelong learning. (And writing novels: His first one comes out next year.) "I personally would like to thank Professor David P. Silverman for the high quality of the courses presented," Mayot writes. Long passionate about the history of ancient Egypt, he says that "when I realized that the University of Pennsylvania was offering a course on the subject, I immediately enrolled myself.  ...  I am proud to have obtained the certificate and in doing so to be a small part of the family of the University of Pennsylvania."

Hanging out next to the Sphinx of Ramesses II (about 1293-1185 B.C.) in the Penn museum's Egyptian section, Silverman is as comfortable as anyone could be -- perhaps because he knows this particular friend so well. "This sphinx bears inscriptions of both Ramesses and his son," Silverman remarks, "and we're pretty sure Ramesses recycled it, that it was originally created for an earlier pharaoh." In this video, Silverman talks about Ramesses, and about how he got started in Egyptology:

What got him started? "My aunt in Long Island used to take us to the museum," he says. "And also I saw the [1954] movie The Egyptian. I've seen it since, and it really isn't a very good movie, but it was enough to get my imagination going." These days, that little boy is teaching thousands about Egypt -- and working in the field, on numerous Egyptian sites, including, since 1990, in Saqqara, in southern Egypt, focusing on officials of the Middle Kingdom (2130-1630 B.C.). "My job," Silverman says, "is to make this culture not seem so foreign, make it seem like a culture we can be in touch with." He's also been involved since the 1970s in TV-mediated and (these days) online courses. "I miss being there when the lightbulb goes on and people get it," he says, "but I also like the feeling of bringing this to so many people."

Big changes are coming for the Lower Egyptian Gallery. "We are planning to reinstall all the artifacts for the first time since the museum was built," Silverman says, "almost a century for this room." That's huge. Surrounding old Ramesses are the gateway, columns, doorways, and windows from a royal palace built for pharaoh Merenptah (who ruled between 1213-1204 B.C.) at Memphis. "Originally, it was feared the floor upstairs could not hold the weight of this structure," Silverman says, "but now we know it can, so we will move the entire palace upstairs and assemble everything into a close facsimile of an Egyptian royal palace."

We had to ask: Does he ever get far-out questions? Magic pyramids, etc.? He smiles, all toleration. "Everyone keeps talking about the 'mystery of the pyramids,' but what's mysterious? We know how they were built, and by whom -- and most of them were not slaves. But, yes, I do have to field questions about the alien astronauts of Egypt."

Sounds like a title for an online course.

Ancient Egypt Open House. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St. Free with admission. Information: 215-898-4000,

The next session of Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization begins on Dec. 26.