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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 119 (Vol 20.5) April/May 2020

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index


Rameses III, King of Egypt: His Life and Afterlife

by Aidan Dodson

AUC, 2019

ISBN: 978-977-416-940-3

Hardback, £29.95.

This companion volume to Aidan Dodson’s study of Sethy I brings Ramesses III out of the shadow of his more famous predecessor, Ramesses II, with whom he is inevitably compared. The author has shown that the Twentieth Dynasty king, rather than assuming glory by claiming the achievements of his namesake, faced his own distinctive military and political challenges.

The reign of Ramesses III is documented in several ways, most notably on the walls of the king’s own memorial temple at Medinet Habu and in a series of highly detailed papyri such as the Great Harris Papyrus in the British Museum and the Judicial Papyrus in Turin. Using excerpts from these and other textual sources, together with some excellent photographs, Dodson charts the rise of Dynasty XX and details the building schemes, military encounters and administrative complexities faced by Ramesses III. He describes Egypt’s principal enemies at the time, in particular the Sea Peoples, tracing their origins and movements through archaeological evidence in Anatolia and the Levant. He challenges the notion that Ramesses’ claims to have campaigned in Syria and Nubia were fictitious. He deals with the officials of the period and the economic and political difficulties they faced, including the ration shortages at the tomb-builders’ village of Deir el-Medina which led to the workmen going on strike.

The role of the royal family is described through their images in temples and tombs but Dodson finds no satisfactory explanation for the anonymity of Ramesses’ wives and daughters or the uncertainties over the order of seniority of his sons. He speculates on the possibility of a succession crisis perhaps triggered by, or leading to, the assassination plot thought to have ended the king’s life.

The descriptions of the preparation of Ramesses’ tomb and the treatment of his mummy give fascinating insight into the changes in royal tomb decoration and mummification techniques.

The final chapter covers the discovery of Ramesses III’s body in the royal cache at Deir el-Bahri and the dispersal of other items from his tomb – the sarcophagus lid is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and its trough went to the Louvre – and the most recent scientific study of the mummy identified an unexpected cause of death confirming the assassination theory. Altogether this book provides a well-referenced overview of the reign, going a long way to restoring Ramesses III to his position as ‘the last great pharaoh’.

Hilary Wilson

Ancient Egyptian Warfare: Pharaonic Tactics, Weapons and Ideology (Casemate  Short History)

by Ian Shaw

Casemate, 2019

ISBN 978-1-61200-7250

Hardback, £9.99.

This pocket-sized book is an addition to the Casemate Short History series offering concise, entertaining and accessible guides in a variety of military history topics. The subject of warfare in ancient Egypt has been addressed by a number of previous authors, and this latest undertaking provides an overview of what the author states is the ‘current state of knowledge’, but also includes occasional patches of more comprehensive discussion.

A number of popular topics such as weaponry, fortresses, siege warfare and mercenaries are revisited, but other chapter headings such as “Why did wars happen and how they were experienced” takes a different approach. Shaw notes the official propagandist and religious accounts of various Egyptian conflicts while considering the underlying pragmatic notions of wealth and prestige.

In his analysis of images and narratives of battle, the author, while acknowledging that battles such as Megiddo and Kadesh took place, identifies the pictorial and textual accounts as ‘memorialisations’ of conflict rather than accurate historical records. He stresses that the wealth of evidence on warfare, although often vivid and compelling, is basically raw data and needs to be carefully interpreted.

A chapter is given over to naval vessels and battles. The section on the development of boat building notes the cross-over of styles with other Mediterranean countries, using the Gurob boat, a model of a Ramesside vessel, as an example. During the Late Bronze Age the advance in naval technology in the eastern Mediterranean seems to have involved extensive technology transfer, even between supposed rivals. Shaw notes that naval tactics being used by the Egyptians, as demonstrated in the Medinet Habu reliefs, were similar to those employed on the battlefield. Boats were being used as sea-borne chariots to encircle the enemy while releasing hails of arrows, eventually closing in to engage in hand-to-hand fighting.

Diplomacy, with a focus on the Amarna letters, together with a review of Egyptian foreign policy, are perhaps uncommon topics to be included in a book on warfare. However, they provide an insightful glimpse into the foreign relations of ancient empires and a background to conflict.

A minor criticism is that references to the more unfamiliar evidence presented would have been helpful, although there is a chapter by chapter list of further reading. A short read, an overview, not a complete study of ancient Egyptian warfare, but within the pages there is some interesting discussion and cogent observations – probably the outcome that the author set out to achieve.

Roger Forshaw

Analyzing Collapse: The Rise and Fall of the Old Kingdom

by Miroslav Bárta

AUC Press, 2020

ISBN 978-977-416-838-3

Hardback, £49.95.

The civilisation of the Old Kingdom may have existed some 4500 years ago, but as Miroslav Bárta states in his preface, it was created by people “with minds like ours”, who were faced with many of the issues that other world civilisations, past and present, had to grapple with: increasing complexity, expanding bureaucracy, the role of the state and the élites, competition for and control of resources, and changing climate. In this volume the author takes a comparative and longue durée approach, analysing the historical processes, trends and patterns that led to the emergence, rise and decline of Egypt’s first great civilisation.

Bárta first defines seven “laws” for his study, which include: “every civilisation develops … in a non-linear, leap-like manner” (periods of stasis punctuated by sudden major change); societies tend to consume more energy than they produce, eventually causing that society to “implode”; and “the factors that promote the rise of civilisations are, more often than not, identical with those that usher in their collapse”. The concept and misconceptions of “collapse” are discussed, including the disaster myths attached to the end of many different cultures (such as Gilgamesh, Noah’s ark and Sekhmet’s attempt to destroy humanity), and the cycles of peaks and “intermediate periods” in pharaonic history.

Five chapters then focus on major turning points or “leaps” that transformed society during the Old Kingdom, beginning with the unification of Egypt by Narmer, through to the gradual disintegration of the Egyptian state at the end of the reign of Pepy II, demonstrating how the fall of the Old Kingdom was the consequence of several interacting trends (slow decline in centralised control, steady growth of bureaucracy, rise in power of provincial families, loss of royal power, economic decline and social instability) exacerbated by climatic factors such as low Nile floods.

But although unifying power and monumental architecture disappeared, the ancient Egyptian civilisation continued under a more fragmented system of local control into the First Intermediate Period. As Bárta points out in his final law, the “collapse” of a civilisation can be seen as positive where a new civilisation rises from the ashes of the old. The decline of the Old Kingdom would eventually see the rise of the kings from the south, leading to a new civilisation – a golden era for arts and literature: the Middle Kingdom.

A highly readable volume full of notes and references to satisfy the academics but equally appealing to anyone with an interest in Egypt’s great founding civilisation.


The Fayum Landscape: Ten Thousand Years of Archaeology, Texts, and Traditions in Egypt

by Clare J. Malleson

AUC, 2019

ISBN 978-977-416-883-3

Hardback, £39.95.

The area known as the Fayum, like the rest of Egypt, has had a long and complex history. Because of its geographical position, its story is particularly varied and worthy of study. Clare Malleson’s thorough and detailed piece is a tour de force, covering, as it does, the whole sweep of its history from the Palaeolithic period right up to modern times.

The first section of the book is devoted to a discussion of the theory of landscape. A contrast is made between the real and the imaginary perceptions of landscape over time and the distinction between the sacred and secular landscapes. Each era in Egyptian history is explored in detail.

In earlier times, conclusions could only be drawn from remaining evidence found, for example, in tombs or other archaeological remains, or from written material. Items such as the Wilbour Papyrus dating from the Ramesside period and the Book of the Fayum for example provide much information regarding the organisation of the area, but gaps or contradictions in the text create much speculation.

There are several mysteries, many the results of later historians having their own sources and understanding of what they discovered. Herodotus is perhaps the most prominent of the early classical writers. His description of the ‘wonders’ of the Fayum – which included the great Lake Moeris, two huge pyramids, each topped by a statue of a seated figure, and the great labyrinth near Crocodilopolis – have continued to provoke much debate to this day.

In the Islamic period of the Middle Ages, the Fayum was perceived purely in terms of the visible landscape.

Crocodiles no longer played a large part and efforts were sometimes made to associate the area with characters from the Qur’an. One of the earliest contains a version of the creation of the area by the biblical Joseph, whose activities figure frequently in stories relating to this era; he is often credited with irrigation work that was in fact carried out in the Ptolemaic Period.

The book provides a comprehensive coverage of the works of Islamic scholars and academic groups, ranging over the whole Islamic world and the various periods of Islamic rule.

In the last main section of the book, writers of the Christian era are explored, showing how the presentation of the writers’ perceptions changed, or reverted to relying on earlier, mainly classical, writers. From the eighteenth century, concepts of natural beauty, and the ancient remains which could be explored, contributed to the admiration for the picturesque and the concept of romanticism. The grand tour and the enthusiasm for collecting curiosities are covered in detail.

The author completes the chronological survey of sources with the work of Petrie in the Gurob and Kahun, and the attempts by the American Cope Whitehouse to identify biblical sites in the Fayum, which he thought was the land of Goshen.

This wealth of information is supported by a thorough set of footnotes, suggestions for further reading and a twenty page bibliography.

Hilary Forrest

The Tentmakers Of Cairo

by Seif El Rashidi and Sam Bowker

AUC Press, 2019

ISBN 978-977-416-802-4

Paperback, £19.95.

 Walk through Cairo and there is a good chance you will see a large, colourful tent filled with chairs and men and women. These tents have traditionally been used to celebrate weddings, commemorate the birthday of a saint, or remember the recently deceased. Because Egyptian extended families can run into the hundreds, and such events can’t be held a home, these tents are rented and have become an integral part of Egyptian society. The Tentmakers of Cairo chronicles the history of these tents from the Mamelukes, through the Ottoman Empire, and up to the present.

In their early history, tents housed armies on the move and their size could be a demonstration of power.

Some tents were so large that they required one hundred camels to carry the panels, ropes, and poles. This early history is an interesting aspect of the tents, but the real meat of the book focusses on the craft (khayamiya) of making these tents and of the men (khaiamiyya) who made them. There is still today, near Bab Zuwayla, a street named Shari Al Khiyamiyya – the ‘Street of the Tentmakers’.

For centuries these craftsmen created massive tents for emirs, pashas, and khedives. When those days were gone, they prepared the tents we see today.

Stitching colourful pieces of fabric of various shapes on a canvas background, they created works of art of striking beauty. These craftsmen, more recently forced to change with the times, also created wall hangings for the tourist trade, pillow cases, and other incarnations of their trade.

Today the large applique tent panels are being replaced by printed fabric and it is possible that one day the craft will cease to exist.

This book is an homage to this craft and details all its aspects. We hear of legendary patternmakers, who drew the designs that were carried out by the stitchers. We hear of apprenticeships and of the years of serving tea and fetching fabric before one was allowed to sew. The book is full of wonderful vignettes of what took place in the shade of Bab Zuwayla, and it is a bittersweet story because the craft is dying. There is an insightful discussion of how Henri Matisse was influenced by the art of the tentmakers and there are beautifully told descriptions of the men who practised the craft. The authors have done a great service by telling this story which is an intricate part of the history of Cairo. They tell it well and tell it in detail. There is only one thing I wish they had added. There might have been a short section about tents in ancient Egypt.

When Ramesses the Great rode out to the Battle of Kadesh, his army camped in tents. These tents are depicted on the walls of Ramesses’ temples, and I wonder what the authors could have said about them.

On the second floor of the Egyptian Museum is a leather funerary tent of an ancient Egyptian queen (see article in AE66). Look closely and you will see small colourful pieces of leather stitched to the background to form the decoration – something any modern tentmaker would recognise.

Bob Brier

Roads in the Deserts of Roman Egypt: Analysis, Atlas, Commentary

by Maciej Paprocki

Oxbow Books, 2019

ISBN 978-1-7892-5156-2

Paperback, £38.

Egypt’s vast deserts were a vital part of the ancient civilisation, acting as both barrier and link to neighbouring countries, criss-crossed with roads, tracks and trails. These routes were frequented by trading caravans, quarrying expeditions and soldiers, supported on their journey by intermittent wells and watering stations, small forts and road stations. Such routes were in use from earliest times, but under the Romans the deserts were transformed by a ‘flurry’ of road-building activity: new trails were marked out, old ones reopened and extended, and a huge number of road installations (‘nodes’) established for activities including quarrying, trade, military control and agriculture.

This fascinating book, based on the author’s doctoral thesis, presents a consolidation of current knowledge about these desert roads during the Roman Period (based on satellite imaging and landscape studies), demonstrating how successfully the Romans adapted to desert travel. The author discusses the geographical and social factors affecting road use, the role of pack animals in desert transport (and how the adoption of the camel changed the nature of desert travel), and surveys all known trails linking deserts, oases and coastal towns, with numerous maps, tables, notes and further reading.


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