Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 132 (Vol 22.6) July/August 2022
Needles from the Nile: Obelisks and the Past as Property
by Chris Elliot.
Liverpool University Press, 2022
The author of this new study has explored a whole range of elements which make up the complex tapestry of the subject. Obelisks represented the core concepts and beliefs of their creators in pharaonic Egypt, reflecting their cultural values. Each succeeding generation developed their own interpretations over many centuries and amidst many changes of culture. The author examines in detail the differing attitudes of each, starting with the pharaonic period, up until the political involvement of western Europeans. At this point the study becomes much more detailed, as politics and military priorities became the focus of attention.
Around 32 centuries elapsed before proposals were made to transport huge objects from Egypt to distant countries and it took many decades to achieve this objective. The long conflict between France and Britain fuelled early interest in such matters, and activities of adventurers such as Belzoni, men like Henry Salt, and scholars such as Champollion, all contributed to the new interest in the subject in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Political considerations and the views of the factions involved are covered here in detail. It was important that the Egyptian authorities should not be offended, lest it upset the complex political balance in the region. Egypt at this time was still a vassal of the Turkish Empire, which was always of concern to Western powers.
One issue which caused great concern was the question of who owned the antiquities. The French, who had originally acquired a number of important items, were forced to hand these items over to the British, who retained them instead of handing them over to the Ottoman Empire, the official rulers of Egypt who, it was argued at the time, were not particularly interested.
The complicated diplomatic manoeuvrings are covered in detail in the book, including the offer made by the Egyptians to the Prince Regent of one of the obelisks in Alexandria known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’. There were logistical problems hindering the transport to London and controversy over who would pay. Even when it eventually arrived in Britain there was further trouble regarding where it was to be sited. The author has researched this whole story thoroughly. A shorter section towards the end of the text deals with the acquisition of another ‘needle’ by America – some say simply because the English now had one! The reader might be well-advised to read the last chapter first in order to get some idea of the scope of the topic which has been painstakingly researched and recorded.
AE readers can buy this book with a 30% discount at www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk using the code EGYPT30. And you can win a copy in our competition on page 47.
Tombs of the South Asasif Necropolis: Art and Archaeology 2015-18.
Edited by Elena Pischikova et al.
AUC Press, 2021.
Most tourists visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut on the Theban West Bank will be familiar with the weathered mud brick remains of several tomb pylons to the left of the approach causeway. These are visible landmarks of a Twenty-fifth to Twenty-sixth Dynasty burial ground that was mostly concealed underground. Since 2006 the Egyptian-American South Asasif Conservation Project has been working to excavate and reconstruct the shattered remains of three major tombs – those of Karabasken (TT391), Karakhamun (TT223) and Irtieru (TT390) – long obscured by local village houses and other, natural, debris.
With painstaking persistence, the excavation teams revealed, collected and pieced back together smashed columns, crumbled wall plaster and broken artefacts in all three tombs, which has allowed for a reasonable assessment of Kushite and Saite ‘antiquarianism’ in funerary decoration and led to these important monuments being opened for public viewing.
This book, the third and final publication of the Project’s work [see reviews of the previous volumes in AE87 and AE106], presents a series of chapters by eighteen participants, covering not merely the reconstruction of various tomb areas but, crucially, expanding their studies into explorations of artistic evolution by considering such matters as dado friezes and how colour combinations might signify deeper religious meanings. Many of the short chapters in fact continue this investigative commentary, making the book much more than a mere excavation report. A new, 21-square grid for drafting wall drawings is examined; variations in iconographic elements of bull-legged chairs, folded cushions and the portrayal of oil jars are discussed in terms of the Archaic style revival in the Late Period; while all the usual topics – human and animal remains, stelae, inscriptions, pottery, sarcophagus and coffin styles, tomb layout and so forth – are of course thoroughly covered, each chapter followed by an extensive bibliography.
Like its predecessors, this volume resembles a well-ordered omnibus of papers collected from academic journals rather than a straight narrative, in which topics of interest are explored as they present themselves, all fully illustrated with a lavish collection of photographs and line drawings. In this reviewer’s opinion, it would have been good to include some colour illustrations to support discussion of colour use in iconography. Also, some of the reduced line drawings are reproduced too faintly to be useful. Lack of an index is likewise to be regretted.
However, this book encapsulates everything one would want to know about the South Asasif tombs, highlighting how excavation demands interpretation. Both topics are well covered here, and despite the technical nature of some sections, all are easy to read. These important tombs represent the first monumental decorated mausoleums at Thebes after the end of the New Kingdom, so provide a window into the thought processes of the Kushite Renaissance artists.
That is their legacy. Visits to the sites will be greatly enhanced after reading this series of essays, while serving as a swan song to Elena Pischikova’s almost twenty years of loving care and attention to this neglected necropolis.
Alan L. Jeffreys
The Nile: History’s Greatest River
by Terje Tvedt, translated by Kerri Pierce.
I.B. Taurus, 2021
The Nile, originally published in Norwegian in 2012, combines history and a travelogue along the Nile with “a study of modern hydropolitics and African development”. Geographer Tevdt follows the Nile from mouth to source through eleven countries, and selectively covers five thousand years of history, politics, and ecology. The journey is a composite of visits over the years for research and filming. He examines local topics that support the book’s objectives in eight geographical chapters. Prof. Tvedt argues that “…it is not possible to understand European colonialism’s rise and fall, Ethiopia’s central role in the prelude to the Second World War, South Sudan’s fate and current position, or Egypt’s past and future without bringing the hydrology of the Nile into the story.” Tevdt does not define ‘hydrology’, but he provides a description of the Nile and its tributaries as they go through their seasonal variations.
The author’s explanation of Egyptian mythology and selective accounts of players and events in Egyptian history through to the time of Napoleon are informed by various primary and secondary sources. In more modern times Britain established a ‘Nile Empire’ from Egypt to Uganda, which was the only period when the entire river came under the control of one power. Following their takeover of the Suez Canal in 1882, the British realised that stable development of Egypt’s economy required control of the Nile to improve agriculture.
Britain built the 1902 Aswan Dam to expand irrigated agriculture, including cotton production for export. After the Revolution of 1952, Nasser planned the Aswan High Dam to protect Egypt from flood and drought, further expand the agricultural land, increase the number of harvests and generate electricity. In Ethiopia, the 2010 Tekeze Dam and the 2021 Renaissance Dam demonstrate that power relationships on the Nile have changed. Tvedt concludes that Egypt will have to abandon its legal right to veto future upstream Nile development projects.
Prospective readers should be aware that the history is separated between geographical chapters, and not followed as a chronological thread.
Tvedt’s main focus is on history and ‘hydropolitics’ from the mainly British colonial period to the present.
Densely factual but not comprehensive, the translation could have profited from thorough editing. There is no general index, only one of names, which limits use of the book as a serious reference. It is illustrated by 24 plates.
Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive
edited by Richard Parkinson.
Bodleian Library, 2022
This is a beautifully produced and sensitively written volume to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Bodleian Library in Oxford marking the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Nowhere outside Egypt is quite as well-placed to stage such an exhibition, since the majority of Howard Carter’s known papers – and copies of the iconic photographs of the tomb and its objects by Harry Burton – were donated to the University of Oxford’s Griffith Institute.
The book takes the form of fifty highlights, with an introductory essay from the eloquent pen of Richard Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford, setting the scene with both flair and humility, touching on the power of the archive, but also its limitations and biases, and the significance of Tutankhamun in modern popular culture. Well known and technically very accomplished images of Burton’s are interrogated, the presence of an often-unnamed Egyptian workforce is highlighted, and the personality of Carter and his (Western) collaborators is often possible to discern.
Although rightly contextualised within a broader history of Egyptian archaeology, and not merely a catalogue of ‘treasures’, the book contains sumptuous images that you could gaze at for ages. The whole book mediates well between critical and decolonising approaches to the archive and more conventionally celebratory histories, a difficult trick for museums to pull off these days.
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