For Kara Cooney, Everything Is 'Out of Egypt'

Today's cuppa: decaf Mystic Monk coffee

Kara_Cooney_Out_of_Egypt2 Kara Cooney is a striking, six-foot-tall Irish/Italian-American brunette with a quick wit and an odd fascination with things that would bore the pants off of many young women.

"I love anything old and dead," she says. "I have always loved anything old and dead ... but Egypt just had this special quality. I've been doing this since 1994, when I started graduate school, and I have not been disappointed yet.

"It's an incredibly powerful culture and an incredibly innovative culture. I'm still waiting to be disappointed. There are still moments where I go, 'Oh, my God.'

"I'm not bored."

Since Dr. Cooney is an archaeologist based at UCLA, this all worked out in her favor.

On Monday, Aug. 24, Cooney begins a quest to make us understand why we should all be just as jazzed about Egypt as she is, in her new Discovery Channel series "Out of Egypt."

In each of the six episodes, Cooney begins in  Egypt , where she asks a question that then takes her on a globe-spanning quest to find connections among disparate cultures.

"Everything starts in  Egypt , right?" she says. "You bring up a question. It starts in Egypt, but the idea was to make as many connections between people, humanity, as you possibly could, and to show how, once you build up a similar system --- i.e. a complex society based on kingship or the inequality of people and rich and poor and exploitation and taxation and bureaucracy --- once you do that, then the solutions people come up with, even though they're completely unconnected, are very, very similar.

"So that was super-fun for me, to be able to go into a Hindu temple and see the connections to Ancient Egyptian polytheism. That was insane. It was wonderful."

And because she's out of her comfort zone, Cooney doesn't just have to answer questions, she can also ask them.

"The thing is," she says, "by leaving  Egypt , I'm able to ask stupid questions that I would not be able to ask in any other context.

"So, in Egypt, I can be the expert -- 'This is this, and that is that, and this is how it works' -- but when I go to Sri Lanka, I can say to my expert, 'OK, what the hell is going on here? Will you please explain it to me?'

"And it's still cool."

With so many things in modern society referring back the Classical antiquity of Greece and Rome -- from using names of their gods to using Greek and Latin in such areas as science and faith -- what is it about more ancient, more alien Egypt that appeals to the modern mind?

"But that's all influenced by Egypt ," Cooney says of the Greco-Roman world. "People forget.

"This is what I think about why it is that Egypt sparks something in people right off the bat. OK, take it from the other end. If you look at something Mayan, and you look at the artwork, you go, 'OK, where's the jaguar? OK, now, wait...and the king. OK, I see it.'

"It takes a while to understand what it is, because it's so stylized, it's so schematic.

"Egyptian art is very intuitive. The iconography and the hieroglyphic-ness of it is so mysterious to somebody who doesn't understand it, it draws you in and makes you want to know more.

"It's intuitive in that you understand the scene right off the bat. Everything's recognizable; everything's very clear. Yet, all of the little details -- 'What's he holding? What's that here? Why is she wearing that? What does that headdress mean that's different from all the other headdresses?' Then people want to decode it.

"And it doesn't hurt that a lot of it's made of gold."

Then there's the whole mummy thing.

"Automatically," Cooney says, "we, as Americans, inherently value what the Ancient Egyptians valued -- power, money. And we're attracted to the death aspect, because we completely ignore death and hide it away.

"So, how many times in a museum do you see the kids smooshing their face up against the glass to look at the dead body and get as close to it as they possibly could?"