In the 16th and 17th centuries, Holland was the most important trading nation of the world. Inevitably, this led to an increased interest in foreign and exotic cultures. Thus it was only logical that Dutch scholars played some part in the early development of Egyptology. This was the age of the first collections of aegyptiaca. Both Amsterdam and Leiden (where the first university of the Netherlands was founded in 1575) also became important centres for the publication of books on the subject.
In 1621, the Cabinet of Anatomy of Leiden University received an Egyptian mummy and coffin. This was donated by David Le Leu de Wilhem, a Dutch merchant residing in the Near East. In de following years the Cabinet obtained several other mummies, as well some shabtis and other objects. Among the other Dutch travellers of the time was the painter Cornelis de Bruyn, who visited Egypt in 1681. In 1698 he published a description, illustrated by his own drawings, of what he had seen and experienced. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries such travel-accounts remained very popular, and those by foreigners such as R. Pococke and F.L. Norden received numerous editions and translations. In 1785, Ĳsbrand van Hamelsveld wrote a Dissertation on the pyramids of Egypt which can be considered a first step towards a more scientific analysis of the evidence.
In the early 19th century, the publication of the Description de l'Égypte by the scholars and artists of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt (1798-1801) did much to propagate the interest in Ancient Egypt. Unlike some other European countries, the Netherlands hardly knew a phase of 'Egyptomania' in contemporary art and design. On the other hand, Dutch scholars certainly took part in the development of Egyptology as a science. A pioneer in this field was Caspar Reuvens (1793-1835). In 1818, he was appointed in Leiden as the first professor of archaeology in the world and as director of the newly founded National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. Starting with the meagre collections of the University, Reuvens managed to purchase three major collections of Egyptian art: those of Jean de Lescluze (1826-1828), Maria Cimba (1827), and Giovanni d'Anastasi (1828). Together, these acquisitions established the museum's reputation as one of the best Egyptian collections in the world. At the same time, Reuvens was one of the first advocates of Champollion's decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. He himself did some research on bilingual texts from the Leiden museum and started preparations for an ambitious publication project of the collections.
Reuvens untimely death in 1835 meant that he never saw the fruition of his manifold projects. This was left to his successor Conrad Leemans (1809-1893), museum director from 1839 to 1891. Leemans produced the first catalogue for the museum's Egyptian collection (Description raisonnée, 1840). The concomitant plates appeared in instalments as folio-sized lithographs (Aegyptische monumenten, 1839-1899), thereby enabling a wider audience to obtain knowledge of Ancient Egypt. Leemans was also able to house the vastly increased collections in a proper building where they were accessible for visitors. Apart from managing the collections, Leemans corresponded with the whole scholarly world and quite dominated Dutch Egyptology at the time.
This rather frustrated the career of Willem Pleyte (1836-1903), from 1869 curator at the Leiden Museum. Pleyte was mainly concerned with the study of hieratic texts, not just in Leiden but also in the Turin Museum. This latter accomplishment made him well known among scholars around the world. When he succeeded Leemans as director in 1891, he appointed Pieter Boeser (1858-1935) in the curatorship. In 1902 Boeser also became the first teacher in Egyptology at the University of Leiden. From 1905 he published the well-known Beschreibung der Aegyptischen Sammlung in the new medium of photography. In 1907 Boeser produced a useful catalogue for the museum, with its objects in chronological order. He was also a very able demoticist and Coptologue and took care of the collections when they moved to the present-day building in 1920. The publication of the Beschreibung continued under Willem van Wijngaarden (1893-1980), museum director from 1939 to 1959 and mainly known for his care of the collections during the Second World War and the reinstallation afterwards. He also started the first activities abroad of the museum.
Modern Egyptology in the Netherlands is characterised by the continuous expansion and coordination of many initiatives which started in the formative period. From the first half of the twentieth century, Egyptology was taught in Utrecht, Groningen, and Amsterdam as well, although since recently the main activities are concentrated in Leiden again. Apart from Leiden, other public collections of Egyptian antiquities are present in Amsterdam and The Hague. The National Museum of Antiquities started excavations at Abu Roash from 1957 to 1959 under the direction of Adolf Klasens . Klasens became the museum's director in 1959; from 1960 onwards he was also professor of Egyptology at Leiden University. The Leiden Museum also took part in the international rescue campaign in Nubia from 1962-1964. The excavations were resumed at Saqqara from 1971, first as a joint mission of the museum and the Egypt Exploration Society, from 1999 till present as a cooperation of the museum and Leiden University. At the same time, the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam has been excavating an early dynastic and Middle Kingdom site at Tell Ibrahim Awad from 1986-2004. A partly Dutch mission also excavated the Hellenistic-Roman town at Berenike, and there are more Dutch Egyptologists who are active in the field. Other long-running research projects at Leiden University are the Leiden Mastaba Project (MastaBase), and the Deir el Medina Database.