The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt Magazine -- Volume Three Issue Four -- January/February 2003
THE REVIEW PANEL THIS ISSUE
THE ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO THE EGYPTIAN MUSEUM IN CAIRO
I will always fondly recall my
first visits as an eighteen year old to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, in 1973.
These were, to be sure, greatly exhilarating, but also a bit overwhelming at the
same time, owing to the enormous numbers of artefacts on exhibit there
(approximately 150,000). My initial trips to the Museum were, in addition,
somewhat hampered by the absence of an overall synoptic and copiously
illustrated guidebook to the vast collections, in any language, to assist the
novice student studying on his own. Only considerably later did I come to find
out that the last such complete work available in English, that of (Sir) G.
Maspero’s, Guide to the Cairo Museum 5th edition (Cairo, 1910), which to this
day still remains valuable, had gone out of print well before the beginning of
the First World War! The unavailability of a current comprehensive handbook has
been sorely missed.
Deserving special note, in
1987, there appeared the superbly illustrated and expertly written volume by
Mohamed Saleh, Hourig Sourouzian and Jürgen Liepe (photographer), Official
Catalogue: The Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Philippe von Zabern: Mainz and
Cairo), which on 268 pages, describes 270 of the most important objects on view
in the Cairo collections, along with bibliographic information cited for each
piece. It is actually in the nature of a reference work, or even a handsome
coffee table book, and is rather too large to be carried in one’s hands while
wandering through the many corridors and halls and, most regrettably, lacks an
index for the neophyte. It is probably best purchased by people on the way out,
rather than on the way into the Museum.
Nevertheless, this celebrated
study deserves a special place in the bookcases of all serious students of
ancient Egypt. I have worn out my first copy and have had to purchase a second!
These days visitors to this fabulous and unrivalled repository of ancient
Egyptian treasures have, once again, at their disposal a most convenient and
thorough guidebook. For the armchair traveller, this delightful new work enables
a sense of penetrating the breadth and depth of the Museum’s riches, while
remaining in the comfort of one’s home. This sturdily bound and handsomely
printed paperback, with foreword by Dr Zahi Hawass, is 632 pages long and
describes over 570 antiquities, all generously shown in full colour, yet will
squeeze into a spacious front trouser pocket or easily slip into a handbag. The
detailed index and thumbnail-sized pictures accompanying the ‘List of
Objects’ are very user-friendly features.
One minor carp, the
bibliography ought to have included a far greater number of readily accessible
titles in English, given the general audience to which the volume is aimed. This
type of slip routinely pops-up in books which have been translated from one
language into another.
The handbook suggests an
extremely sensible itinerary through the Museum for visitors, with excellent
floor plans, and subdivides the tour into chapters devoted to the principal ages
of Egyptian history, from the predynastic down to Graeco-Roman times.
The dazzling highlights of the
holdings, such as the splendours of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the discoveries
made at Tanis are, as one might readily imagine, well represented, but there are
also many rarely depicted and discussed treats as well. And for those who have
little time for a full survey of the Museum, there is even a section for
visitors in a hurry. In sum, The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in
Cairo is a top-notch effort, which will serve the needs of museum-goers quite
admirably. Its sensible price is the topper to an all around good deal.
Title: The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo
Editors: Alessandro Bongioanni and Maria Sole Croce. Photographs by Araldo
Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press
ISBN: 977 424 608 X (PB)
Price: US$ 29.50 / LE.120.00
PHARAOH’S PEOPLE: SCENES FROM LIFE IN IMPERIAL EGYPT
What is the truth, with regard
to the way the ancient Egyptians represented themselves in texts and images?
This is one of the underlying themes of Pharaoh’s
People by T.G.H. James, a book that has retained much of its freshness in
the two decades since first publication.
‘The desire to record great
and glorious deeds is an understandable human weakness and the ancient Egyptians
were no more reticent than others in proclaiming their victories while
disguising, or ignoring, their failures,’ writes James in the introduction.
During the years since the
first appearance of this book, the term ‘spin’ has been introduced for the
modern version of this human attribute, simply its latest description. The
victories and failures described in this book are not the prerogative of the
king or his immediate family but of ‘ordinary Egyptians’; although the
majority are perhaps extraordinary in that they were literate and sufficiently
wealthy to create – or rather, have created for them - visual and textual
The appeal of Pharaoh’s
People lies in the down-to-earth approach of the author, who uses his vast
knowledge to breathe life into a text which is fundamentally socio-economic in
approach. His consideration of the line marking the division between the
‘proclamation of victories’ versus the ‘truth’ is a necessary and
important one. For examples he uses the words of Ramesses II on Kadesh and
Amenhotep II on his athletic skills to suggest that elements of truth lie
somewhere within these embellished texts, otherwise: ‘Once confidence is
shaken the questioning of every fact, every detail, tends to follow, and the use
of the texts as source material for history is distrusted. It should not be so,
and it must not be so. The written records of an ancient culture must form the
primary source for the history of the culture. If they are held to be a tissue
of lies or, at least, a romantic account of what may have happened in the past,
then they are good for little more than the story-book.’
The content of each chapter is
clearly described in each chapter title, examples being ‘Justice for
Everybody’, ‘The Bucolic Mode’, ‘Literacy and Status’ and ‘Craftsmen
in Metal and Wood’, each examining sections of Egyptian society, with
occasional comparisons with later groups. The mysteries of the Egyptian system
for exchanging goods is dealt with practically – it worked, however strange it
appears to the modern mind – and indeed it still works for some societies and
for some groups within western society who have their own separate value system.
New and more detailed
commentaries on aspects such as the literate community at Deir-el-Medina have
superseded Pharaoh’s People, but it
would still provide an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to
understand, in particular, literacy and how this affected and reflected status.
Further, interesting ‘asides’ such as a reference to Tutankhamun’s scribal
palette, with its early form of his name ‘Tutankhaten’ and a reference to
the king as ‘beloved of Thoth, lord of god’s words’, provides food for
thought. In this vein could be included the reference to an early form of
‘whiteboard’ for scribal apprentices.
However, one is left with a
feeling for the ‘voiceless’ people within ancient Egyptian society, the
non-literate and poor. These we see only through the eyes – and words - of
their overseers, as in the case of one scribe whose document James describes as
‘chilling’: ‘In the end it was the peasant, the field-worker, who bore the
brunt of ill-directed enthusiasm or plain malicious zeal [of foreman or scribal
overseer].’ A criticism might be the quality of images in this paperback, but
the line drawings are good and images are not absolutely critical to the theme,
which is securely founded in documentation and the sometimes miraculous ways
that any of it has survived at all, to be read and puzzled over by scholars and
amateurs alike so many thousands of years later.
Title: Pharaoh’s People: Scenes from Life in Imperial Egypt
Author: T.G.H. James
Publisher: I B Tauris
Price: £11.99 (PB)
EGYPTIAN ART: PRINCIPLES AND THEMES IN WALL SCENES
Here is a volume that hasn’t
received the full attention it is due. As the blurb on the rear cover explains,
the ‘book is not about the aesthetic side of art, but how we should look at
Egyptian art to understand it.’ This abundantly illustrated work, with over a
hundred in colour, is composed of twenty chapters, with the aim of providing
educated general readers and students with a readily comprehensible and sound
introduction to some of the more common themes of ‘everyday life’
encountered in the decorative programme of élite private tomb-chapels, and to
the rules and rationale which govern such varied wall scenes. One of the
chapters is devoted to an aspect of the religious iconography of a New Kingdom
royal sepulchre. This is the only contribution to have brief accompanying notes
because it was previously published as a scholarly article in The Bulletin of
The Australian Centre for Egyptology.
The publication is the product
of a collaboration between a group of researchers at Macquarie University in
Sydney, Australia, where the study of ancient Egyptian art receives special
emphasis, under the direction of Professor. Naguib Kanawati. The book makes for
a most handy survey. It goes a long way in filling the gap in the literature
perceived by the editors. However, having commended this engaging and attractive
publication, I would be remiss if I didn’t address two items which could have
facilitated its use and value. Firstly, it ought to have had an index. Secondly,
in the absence of citing references in the text, each respective chapter should
have had a separate bibliography for further study or, better yet, an annotated
one. For example, the chapter entitled ‘The Tomb Owner Fishing and Fowling’
should have certainly made mention of Erika Feucht’s important paper
‘Fishing and Fowling with the Spear and the Throw-stick Reconsidered,’ in
Intellectual Heritage of Egypt: Studies Presented to László Kákosy by Friends
and Colleagues on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday (Budapest, 1992) Studia
Aegyptiaca XIV, pp. 157-169, but alas. The bibliography at the rear of the
volume is also rather basic in my judgement, given the wide-scope of the
subjects dealt with between the two covers. To be fair, these minor criticisms
may be the result of restrictions of the book’s publisher.
The work consists of three
parts. In the first section, ‘Principles of Egyptian Art’ are discussed with
contributions on the Old and Middle Kingdom by Kim McCorquodale and on the New
Kingdom by Juliette Bentley.
Materials and techniques are
covered by David Bussman and the relation of art to the physical world by
Susanne Binder, who also contributes later in the volume.
June Anderson addresses
‘Spatial Distribution’ and Leonie Donovan the interesting ‘Canon of
proportions’ along with guidelines and the grid system. The second part looks
at wide-ranging themes within private tombs with contributions by the
aforementioned scholars plus Rodna Siebels, Linda Evans, Barbara Scanlan,
Akkadia Ford, Lesley Kinney, Anna Cordin, Sheila Brown, Julie Ivery and Geoff
McKergow. Finally, in part 3, Susanne Binder addresses ‘The Hereafter: Ancient
Egyptian Beliefs with Special Reference to the Amduat’.
Title: Egyptian Art: Principles and Themes in Wall Scenes
Editors: Leonie Donovan and Kim McCorquodale
Publisher: Foreign Cultural Information Department.
Prism Archaeological Series 6.
Price: £39.50. (PB)
EGYPT AND THE AFTERLIFE:
This (genuinely) pocket-sized
book was a bit of a mystery at first, since it did not seem to contain much in
the way of new material, although it was appealingly illustrated and presented.
It is worth making a comment on
so-called pocket-sized volumes, since most of these do not live up to their
description unless one has flexible pockets, one sports a useful craftsman’s
apron as part of everyday attire or is a kangaroo.
The illustrations come
principally from the Luxor and Cairo Museums and the resolutions of the images
are excellent as is the individual page design and layout in this book. A
curiously lateral approach has been taken to production, since the majority of
the pages fold out either horizontally or vertically.
Some care is needed while
unfolding them for the first time since it would be easy to manipulate them the
The captions are brief and
pithy and some of the artefacts used are relatively unusual ones belonging to
lesser-known ancient Egyptians. There is, for instance, a useful foldout page of
a coffin illustrating a number of points relating to the afterlife. The whole
would appeal, it seems to the reviewer, to an older child wanting an
introduction to the subject although it is does not seem to be specifically
targeted at this market.
After unfolding and examining
the contents, and folding everything back the right way (one useful thing that
the study of Geography provides is the ability to fold and unfold items
correctly), the little volume revealed its true strength and secret. Its appeal
is the ability to pack information normally needing a large page format into the
bookish equivalent of a knapsack.
Title: Ancient Egypt and the Afterlife
Publisher: Scala Publishers
ISBN: 1 85759 293 X
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