UCLA Spotlight

Egyptologist Kara Cooney

  • By Meg Sullivan
  • Published Aug 10, 2009 8:15 AM

Kara Cooney at Karnak

In 2560 BC, the ancient Egyptians built the Giza Pyramid. Nearly 2,700 years later and some 7,700 miles away, the Aztecs erected a similarly imposing pyramid.

A coincidence? Or the result of secret contact between two disparate cultures? Evidence, perhaps, of the intervention of aliens?

“Believe me, I’ve heard it all,” says Kara Cooney, laughing. Formerly with the Getty Research Institute, she recently joined UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Culture and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

But where others may break into the theme song for “The Twilight Zone,” the Egyptologist goes one step beyond and offers a more rational viewpoint. In a new six-part series scheduled to air this summer on the Discovery Channel, Cooney lays out reasonable explanations for parallels in religious and burial traditions and settlement patterns across a range of cultures with no documented previous contact with each other.

In "Out of Egypt," she expertly traces themes and variations on six traditions across 12 cultures and 10 countries. In addition to the proliferation of pyramids, Cooney looks at the prevalence of the belief in the devil, intermixing of religion and violence, burial traditions, use of religious relics and certain social repercussions of city life.

The first two episodes of "Out of Egypt" will air Monday, Aug. 24 on the Discovery Channel (Times are PST/EST) "Relics" at 9 p.m. | "Pyramids" at 10 p.m.

Discovery Channel web site

“When faced with the same materials on this Earth, the same biological matter and laws of physics, and similar societies based on inequality and the need to demonstrate dominance and power, people will come up with very similar strategies independently of one other,” Cooney explained in “Out of Egypt.” “Humanity seems to create the same patterns again and again.”

Cooney’s perspective appears to be a winning one. The June 5 issue of Entertainment Weekly counted “Out of Egypt” among the “14 TV shows we can't wait to see.” It has also gotten a thumbs-up from Daily Variety.

Now scheduled to debut on Monday, August 24, the series is the brainchild of Cooney and her screenwriter husband, Neil Crawford. Crawford created and produced “Out of Egypt,” the couple’s first jointly produced project. Meanwhile, Cooney serves as the host, lead researcher and writer for the show.


On location: John Hazard and Kara Cooney

Each episode begins in Egypt, cradle to a particularly vivid example of the tradition being explored. In Egypt, the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 B.C.) specialist serves as the episode’s authority. But once Cooney leaves the Nile Valley, she queries 40 other authorities, ranging from highly decorated academics to humble cemetery caretakers. The educator and authority clearly relishes the role.

“I’m not expected to be the expert, and that’s very liberating,” Cooney said. “I love asking stupid questions, and I love being surprised. That, for me, is the joy of learning.”

Adapted from a longer story in UCLA Today.