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Ancient Egypt Magazine --Volume One Issue Six (April/May 2001)

Book Reviews

Cleopatra's Face: Fatal Beauty

by Michelle Lovric

This is one of a number of publications to accompany a major British Museum exhibition all about Egypt's most famous queen. Were it Christmas, I would suggest that this would be an ideal stocking filler, particularly if the stocking was of the sheer black silk variety and accompanied by a pearl-handled revolver as per standard issue for Philip Marlow vamps.

The anthology includes some interesting images of the Cleopatra myth as portrayed on stage and screen. The good, the bad and the downright weird are included. Vivienne Leigh and Claudette

Colbert make believable Cleopatras, while the makeup provided for 1920's actress Theda Bara's performance is more suggestive of a version of The Mummy. The publicity blurb provided by the studio "invented" an Egyptian past for the performer in which she was "born in the shade of the pyramids and nourished with crocodile milk". Frankly, she looks it, and on reading this, the immortal lines (uttered by Frankie Howard): "they've milked those poor asses to a standstill" came unbidden to mind. It has to be said that Sid James and Amanda Barrie (Carry on Cleo) make as credible a Caesar and Cleopatra pairing as any.

The nadir of the dramatic Cleopatra came with the critical reviews of Tallulah Bankhead's performance: "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra - and sank." Some interpretations incorporated other elements of Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril or Regan - "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" - or concentrated only on the tragic elements of the Cleopatra story. Descriptions of Sarah Bernhardt's performance, in particular, are completely cringe-worthy.

The anthology inevitably focuses on the dramatic, romantic, erotic aspects of Cleopatra and not on her political or regal functions. This is the Cleopatra of poets and artists, drawn by the magnetism of character, and it has its own unquestionable reality.

Interpreters of the Cleopatra/Antony story still prefer to emphasise the doomed lovers element rather than to suggest that controlling the Roman Empire was a worthy of a gamble by the astute queen of a country still weighted with ancient power and authority and a reasonably competent Roman general. Other not dissimilar protagonists had gambled and won, and would, in future, gamble and win, the prize. There is the ring of truth about the theory that the Roman world's interpretation of the story - the subtle oriental "serpent" causing otherwise good, plain honest Romans to lose their heads - provided the foundation for all subsequent telling of the tale.

Nothing anyone could write will undermine this myth of Cleopatra's fatal beauty. Those in search of the best-known recent interpretation of this will seek in vain. "Unfortunately it has not been possible to use pictures or text about Elizabeth Taylor in this book," writes the author, and unfortunately this means that the sometimes ludicrously lavish, but indubitably sexually charged, Burton-Taylor epic is conspicuous in its absence.


Cleopatra's Face: fatal beauty by Michelle Lovric is published by the British Museum Press at £8.99. ISBN 0-7141-1937-7

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Ancient Egypt:

The Great Discoveries

by Nicholas Reeves

Since AD 1799, treasure hunters, explorers and archaeologists have made significant and dramatic discoveries in the sands of Egypt. Temples, tombs and treasure have been revealed to a modern world fascinated by the ancient culture.

Many of the archaeological finds have been truly spectacular and most in the last century have been well reported and publicised. Earlier discoveries were, however, often badly recorded and whilst today we can look at many splendid objects on display in museums around the world, all to often the circumstances surrounding their discovery were unreported, or have been long forgotten.

Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, is, therefore a revelation.

Nicholas Reeves in his preface, describes the book as one "for the incurable romantic rather than the jaded ^professional", and that it "...makes little claim to originality". This really does the book a great dis-service... it is a fascinating story of exploration and discovery, recounting tales which may be new to many. As for originality, well, the format of the book is original in that it looks at the discoveries from 1799, year by year right up to the present day. It brings together a wealth of information, previously available only to a few people, if, in fact, they knew where to look!

Profusely illustrated, as one would expect from a Thames and Hudson volume, the pages are full of facts and information. For example, here you will find a list of the objects surrendered by the French to the British in 1801 and now in the British Museum, which includes the Rosetta Stone and a number of Sekhmet statues.

Familiar objects appear in the pages, the famous statues of Rahotep and Nofret for example, discovered in 1871 at Meidum, the same year as the tomb of Ti at Sakkara.

The 1880's were particularly successful for the archaeologists. Discoveries included the royal caches of mummies, many of the Faioum mummy portraits, the city of Akhetaten and the intact tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el Medineh, the contents of which are now scattered in museum collections in Egypt, Europe and America.

The discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922 of course, features as one of the major finds, but what will be perhaps surprising to some, is the number of significant finds made since then. These include the royal tombs at Tanis, with an amazing amount of precious objects surviving, and the great boat of Khufu, found at Giza.

Most recently, we have the discovery of major and important New Kingdom tombs at Sakkara, the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II in the Valley of the Kings, the Luxor temple cache of statues, the village and tombs of the workmen at Giza and the huge tombs of the Roman period found at Bahariya.

The Great Discoveries, really is a fascinating book and one which readers will find hard to actually put down. It has an extensive bibliography for those who wish to find out more about some of the discoveries mentioned.

Covering just 200 years of discoveries, the tale is still unfolding. As Nicholas Reeves concludes, "The unveiling of this miraculous land and its breathtaking civilisation has barely begun". This is an excellent account of the story… so far.

Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, is published by Thames and Hudson, priced £24.95

ISBN: 0500051054

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Nofret in "Kiya" 

by Sussi Bech

I wasn't going to review this, but unfortunately it proved irresistible. Womankind cannot live on the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt alone. This is one of an astonishing number of comic strip books produced by Danish illustrator Sussi Bech about Nofret, a sort of Mata Hari figure lurching from bad hair day to bad hair day in the ancient world. One day she's bedding a humble fisherman; the next in the arms of the most powerful monarch on earth, Akhenaten. I blame Ancient Cosmopolitan magazine myself: "A single girl in ancient Egypt, Nofret often finds a hard time (sic) to adapt to the rules of the male dominated society."

Strewth. I thought relationships within the Amarna period were convoluted enough without the following additions to our knowledge: "The two Cretan prinsesses (sic -OK, so we all make mistakes) Nofret and Kiya are abducted by Syrian pirates....years later they are reunited in Egypt - Nofret is now a high priestess at the Temple of Amun and Kiya is Pharaoh Akhe-naten's second wife and mother of Tutankhaten, Pharaoh's only son... during their stay Kiya is murdered by an assassin hired by chief advisor Ay...Kiya's loyal servants keep the murder a secret [and] Nofret is talked into playing the role of her dead sister..."

We're firmly in the realm of the Charlie's Angels school of history here. Girl power! There's lots of cutesy wigs, bottom waggling, green eyeshadow (and that's just Ay) and lolling by poolsides in see-through frocks that keep slipping off at embarrassing moments (but it's all done in the best POSSIBLE taste). And here's a flouncy bit of dialogue: "If your highness has hopes of getting Pharao's (sic) attention, we really need to clean up these cuticles!" "What do you take me for? A cheap concubine bought at the local flea market? I am of royal minoan (sic) lineage! If Pharao wants to see me, HE can come here!"

I learned such a lot about ancient Egypt from this well-illustrated history. Things I've needed to know for a long, long time. Like the ancient Egyptian preference for the missionary position (the god Amun in ram-mode excepted), the fact that we've been spelling the name "pharaoh" wrong for ever, that Crete exported silly fillies (page 41) and the right way to harness up horses to a chariot. (Oh no, it isn't.) And what nice folks Akhenaten and Nefertiti were, murders, incest and iconoclasm apart. And today's tip for success and still the best way to get on in the ancient world: marry a god.

What is really weird is that the translator has stuck strictly to the subjunctive form, where required, throughout, giving such classics as "Piece of cake! I made them believe, that I once were Pharaoh's wife's faithful servant." Yes, once I were the Queen of Sheba. But the soft furnishings are fabulous, darling.

So, just a load of Apis bull, then? Are you kidding? Would that I had thought of it.


Nofret: Kiya by Sussi Bech is published by Eudor Comics. ISBN 87987796. No price available at time of going to press.

The Trumpets of Tutankhamun
- Adventures of a radio pioneer in the Middle East

by Rex Keating

Don't let the title mislead you, there is very little about the actual trumpets themselves in this book. However, don't let that put you off, this book is stuffed with little gems and anecdotes not all necessarily related to events in Egypt. The book begins with the broadcasting of the trumpets over the airwaves in the 1930's, spookily enough just six months before the outbreak of WW2 (A sign of the Curse?).

Following the life of the author, from growing up in the Suez region and learning his craft in radio, to witnessing events that change his life, as well as that of the world around him. The reader is taken from the Suez, to Cairo in the 1920's right through the War Years, taking in appointments in Jerusalem and Cyprus, ending up based in Paris as part of UNESCO's English language division. The author is one of the fortunate few to have traveled extensively in the Middle  East, visiting cities and the smallest of villages each one with its own tale to tell.

The broadcast from the Great Pyramid is described first hand, along with all the accompanying mistakes that were never noticed by the public. Evacuation from Jerusalem, terrorist bombings, marriage and war broadcasts are all events included in the book.

The many characters invoked during the period in Cairo help to bring to life a period of recent history that is not often considered by many scholars. The "action" outside Cairo is also filled with lively tales helping to bring the field of radio broadcasting into a wider audience, with just enough technical information to help understand the limitations and difficulties of broad casting. Whilst not for everyone, the book provides light relief along with food-for-thought. A pleasant diversion from other more "typical" egyptological books. ELS

The Trumpets of Tutankhamun, by Rex Keating, is published by Fisher Miller Publishing ISBN: 1-899077-08-1

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The Art of Ancient Egypt

by Gay Robins

To read this book is a very pleasant experience; the feeling is that you are looking at the art described with a friendly, knowledgeable companion. I do not mean to say it is "chatty" -far from it, but in comparison with some other art books, such as the well-known and valued Egyptian Art by Cyril Aldred, it does not give the impression that it is best read before or after a visit to the places concerned. Aldred's book has an impressive number of photographs, which are mostly black and white. His art emerges out of each era demonstrating its cultural ideals. Gay Robins, however, focuses on the painting or artefact in question more as an entity in itself. She is as much concerned with the spirit of the period as the history.

The Art of Ancient Egypt is a superlative guide book including a well-put, comprehensive view of the economic, political and historical situation of Egypt in each period of time. The book is easy to follow, extremely informative and well written. It is excellent for the enthusiastic visitor and enjoyable to the knowledgeable.

The author states that one of the major aims of the book was to explore the reasons why art was so important to the Egyptians. The book pays note to the patronage of the king, and art's contribution to the social established order. There is an emphasis on how art helped relationships between human beings (dead and alive) and deities. It was almost a form of conversation.

Understanding the Egyptian psyche and origins of the early Dynastic Period gives a good base to enter into the first flowering of the Old Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom is divided into two sections with the second part being "Change and Collapse" after the extension of Egypt's borders. An interesting angle about the artistic element of the Middle Kingdom is that the difference

between the 11th and 12th Dynasties is discussed.

The New Kingdom is responsible for Egypt's equivalent of India's Taj Mahal, that is the tomb of Nefertari, and there is emphasis on the decoration of the tombs. You walk through Nefertari's tomb with the author.

I found that the Third Intermediate Period, so often a little difficult to follow (like the Wars of the Roses) is very clearly discussed, explaining the power spread. Also monitored in the book is how, in times of trouble, Egypt looked to its past. The late period has a second part, with the Ptolemies, showing how Greek, and later, Roman art came to have an influence.

This is a glossy paperback with very many superlative full colour photographs. The chapter headings designate clearly the view taken in the commentary of each section. For example: "Diversity in Disunity - the First Intermediate Period" and "Return to the Heights -Middle Kingdom" mean that the book portrays a verbal graph of Egyptian art through the ages. I personally found it a very good read.


The Art of Ancient Egypt by Gay Robins is published by the British Museum Press at £14.99.

ISBN: 0714109886

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Conversations with Mummies:
New Light on the Ancient Egyptians

by Rosalie David and Rick Archbold

The combination of a pioneering palaeopathologist and a non-specialist has produced an enthralling read. Conversations with Mummies traces the evolution of scientific applications in Egyptology, with great depth. The book succinctly chronicles the adventures of early European travellers and the ensuing fascination with Ancient Egyptian culture. Rosalie David introduces the characters of that time, and those who broke new ground in the youthful discipline of Egyptology.

It would seem palaepathology grew from the work of three scientists, who took up professorships at the Government School of Medicine in Cairo at the start of the last century. Whence they worked with medical specialists, conducting autopsies on mummies. The ball was set rolling, and back in England, Margaret Murray, the then Keeper of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, lead an autopsy of the two brothers, Nekht-Ankh and Khnum-Ankh. Conversations with Mummies gives a thorough and enlightening account of the continuation of Mummy Science at Manchester - the Manchester Mummy Project- and the work of Professor David and her colleagues.

Conversations with Mummies successfully combines Mummy Science and other interdisciplinary work with the more traditional realms of Egyptology. Fulsome photography and text help illustrate our knowledge of death in Ancient Egypt in the chapter, The Making of Mummies. This part nicely leads on to the more chilling experimental work of Ronn Wade and Bob Brier who mummified a 76-year-old American (deceased). A thorough account of Canadian and French Scientists work provides a story of the movement from destructive mummy autopsies to the growth of non-destructive methods such as The Royal Ontario Museum's use of CAT scan and Manchester pioneering the use of medical endoscopes on mummies.

Two mummies, who both bore the title "chantress of Amun", have made excellent scientific specimens. Scientists discovered disease within both mummies and the most probable cause of death. Little was known about the two of them before they became object of scientific research, and Professor David attentively puts all the scientific results into context, and assembles what we have learnt into more comprehensible human terms. It is this marriage of science and Egyptology that makes Conversations with Mummies such a rewarding read.

Conversations with Mummies is heavily illustrated and contains some stunning photography. The contents cover a wide range of recent and ongoing research, and brings together a wide corpus of work. The selected Bibliography provides a useful starting place for those who wish to further their knowledge in this subject, and contains many recent and accessible publications. This is indeed a very enjoyable and stimulating read.


Conversations with Mummies is published by HarperCollins ISBN: 0 00 220181 X £24.99

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The review panel this issue


Bob Partridge,

Kay Bellinger

Miriam Bibby,

Ella Louise Sutherland

and Ashley Cooke


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