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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- Volume Six Issue Four -- February/March 2006

Book Reviews

Tutankhamun – Speak My Name

by Anthony Holmes

"Tutankhamun! The very name excites our imagination.

Other names associated with ancient Egypt have spread their web of allure, but it is Pharaoh Nebkheperure Tutankhamun ... who has captivated the public’s heart."

These are the opening words of Anthony Holmes’ Foreword to his compelling and spell-binding historical novel, which reflects the effect the boy-king of ancient Egypt has exerted over generations of people of all nations since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its treasures in 1922.

The boy-king, whose name was purposely removed from the historical record by later pharaohs, is now immortalised as one of the iconic figures of ancient Egypt, along with his famous gold mask and tomb treasures, which have attracted millions of visitors to Egypt.

Tutankhamun – Speak My Name is no ordinary novel – it is an epic presentation spanning three thousand years in which author Anthony Holmes has fleshed out historical characters in a living setting of a timeless Egypt.

Apart from a general appeal, this is a book that should be read by every Egyptophile – not only does it tell a remarkable personal story of a young man amidst the grandeur of ancient Egypt with temple ritual, royal life (private and public), ancient customs, religious beliefs and schisms, it is also informative, educational, powerfully descriptive of the influential priesthood, conspiracies and espionage. These ingredients are skillfully enmeshed into a massive canvas of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (c. 1400 BCE), the so-called "Golden Age" of ancient Egypt.

This period has to be one of the most challenging periods of Egyptian history for any writer to attempt to personalise and make live and the author uses his sound historical knowledge and an intimate familiarity with the country itself to meet that challenge admirably.

The book is a veritable royal pageant as the author presents the royal family and the child Tutankhamun to the reader from the time of his birth, cleverly written in the first person with his ka, (the spiritual double) scrutinizing life around the infant as the child becomes a teenage king. The story of Tutankhamun unfolds with a keen observation of the vagaries of human life and inner personal conflicts as well as fine descriptions of the eternal Nile, the awesome beauty of the desert, the mountains, hills, stars, planets and natural life – demonstrating the harmonious relationship the ancient Egyptians enjoyed with their environment.

Akhenaten created a deep fissure in the establishment and angered the powerful priesthood with his enforced worship of the Aten, and this features strongly in the book.

Memorable sections of the book include a full description and virtual tour of the great temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut known today as Deir el Bahri. There is an excellent account of the famous gold throne, exhibited today in Cairo, when it was first presented to the young pharaoh. For the connoisseur or cognoscenti of ancient Egypt, the unidentified reference to what is today called "The Erotic Papyrus" held in Turin, is extremely amusing – and other factual references and details are slipped in to the fabric of the work to colour the vast canvas with authenticity. A goose-bump moment occurs with Holmes’ version of the cause of Tutankhamun’s death. As his book was already in the hands of the publisher at the time of the CT scanning of the mummy of the king last year, one wonders whether the author had a crystal ball.

A useful facility in the book is a detailed forty-page comprehensive Glossary indicating which characters are factual and which are not, as well as a miscellany of definitions and details of deities, people, objects, locations, customs and festivals.

Additionally, there are helpful short notes at the end of each chapter.

This book is a valuable contribution to the corpus of literature on Tutankhamun and the controversial period of Egypt’s history – and is not only a "good read" but a compelling historical novel which, incidentally, would make the most superb film – it’s all there.

Keith Grenville
Keith is a member of the Egypt Exploration Society and was the Founder of The Egyptian Society of South Africa, of which he was Chairman for ten years. He is now Chief Executive of a travel company specialising in tours to Egypt, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. He is an acknowledged specialist in Egyptian history and lectures on various aspects of ancient Egypt.

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Published by Trafford Publishing, Canada, USA, Ireland & UK.
ISBN 1-4120-6325-6.
Price £26.50. Paperback.

Egyptology: the Missing Millennium
Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings

by Dr Okasha El Daly

It is often said that you should never judge a book by its cover, nor perhaps by its size. This book, which has apparently taken ten years to complete, demonstrates this theory. It is also a veritable goldmine for anyone interested in the complete history of ancient Egypt.

The author, Dr Okasha El Daly, a researcher at University College London, brings together, for the first time, the disciplines of Egyptology and Arabic Studies. The claim by the author is that this a major piece of work which clarifies "over a thousand years of Arabic scholarship and enquiry on ancient Egypt, encouraged by Islam"; hence the title.

The ethos of this work is common sense when thought of logically. Indeed it would be disrespectful to eminent Arabic scholars, who it is claimed are largely ignored by western authorities, to question it. This work then has huge potential in addressing this imbalance.

The author has taken great care in the construction of the book. The main contents include topics such as "Medieval Arab archaeological methods", "Mummification and burial practices in medieval Arab sources", "Egyptian science" and descriptions of "Arab attempts to decipher ancient Egyptian scripts". On the last point, the author demonstrates that several Arabic scholars succeeded in deciphering at least half of the Egyptian alphabetical signs.

The work of Athanasius Kircher in the mid-seventeenth century AD, based on Arabic sources, is relevant in this discussion. He questioned the orthodox beliefs of the time, and stated that the hieroglyphs might represent sounds as well as ideas. This influenced other contemporary European scholars, and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 ensured a practical use of Kircher’s ideas.

This example clearly shows that Arabic sources were not only an important link in the chain to our understanding of ancient Egypt, but that they also had a unique relevance of their own. It seems obvious that Arabic scholars must surely have had an understanding of ancient Egyptian religion as they had access to the texts written in Demotic and Coptic; many with Greek translations. However, this did not tell the whole story, as the author points out. They also made contemporary observations and gained information from earlier accounts, illustrating that ancient Arabic researchers took their studies seriously.

The book contains an extensive bibliography, which reflects its scholarly value. The appendices contain a complete biography of the main Arabic writers and a list of Arabic sources. Compiling this has been no mean feat for the author as the manuscripts are scattered world-wide and housed in both private and public collections. In compiling the biographies, he has taken into account the range of the backgrounds of the Arabic writers and this is an interesting read by itself.

However, what stands out in this book is how Islamic ideology and culture are inter-woven throughout the text. This clearly shows that Islamic scholars have long recognised the value of wisdom and science from ancient Egypt.

The illustrations in the book are contained in one section. There are twenty-seven black and white figures and eight colour illustrations which are excellent examples taken from Arabic texts and fitting well with the content.

The text within the main part of the book is interspersed with many references, which sometimes detracts from the overall readability. This is my only criticism, but as this work is of a scholarly as well as popular interest, then it is both understandable and forgiveable.

It is particularly pleasing to read the Arabic account of Cleopatra VII. In western tradition, based on Graeco-Roman narratives, she is painted as a selfseeking seductress. Arabic sources tell us she is the "Virtuous Scholar", and cite scientific works written by her. Care must be taken, however, about the authenticity of any account. History, as we know, is always written with bias by those who recount it. That said, it would be wonderful if we had Arabic information about the great or infamous pharaohs such as Snefru, Tuthmose III, Akhenaten and Rameses II.

In his conclusion, the author mentions that of further interest would be the study of medieval sources of the cult practices of earlier Egyptian kings. It may well be that he plans to research this himself or that he leaves it for others. Either way it would make a fascinating sequel.

This book is a "must-buy" for all those interested in ancient Egypt, especially those who are looking for a holistic view of the past. It could also be argued that it should be on an essential reading list for those studying formal courses on Egyptology. For its size it seems expensive, but when the full value of the research involved in the production of this book is taken into account, it is worth every penny.

Sandra Whittleston
Sandra is a committee member of the Manchester Ancient Egypt Society.

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Published by UCL Press.
ISBN 1-84472-063-2 (hardback).
Price £61.25 hardback; £35 paperback.

The British Museum Concise Introduction : 
Ancient Egypt

by TGH James

This book is exactly what it says on the cover: an introduction to ancient Egypt, and an excellent one at that, and it is concise.

The author (former Keeper in the Department of Ancient Egypt at the British Museum) is one of the most respected and well-known Egyptologists in the UK and the writer of many books on Egypt. This new book is aimed at the non-specialist who may be encountering the ancient civilization of Egypt for the first time.

Themed chapters cover the geography of Egypt, and a history, dynasty by dynasty. Reading and writing is covered in detail, and what we can learn from the official records. Religion and the Egyptians' belief in the afterlife and the provisions they made for it are examined as well as the skills of the craftsmen and the builders of Egypt’s monuments.

With a list of dynasties, the names (in hieroglyphs) of the principal kings of Egypt, a list of museums with Egyptian collections and Bibliographies for further reading on the general chapter headings, as well as a more detailed list, this book really does contain everything a beginner, or indeed a more knowledgeable reader, could want from one book.

The author draws on his long and extensive knowledge of the subject matter but also includes information from the latest discoveries and the results of fieldwork and excavation in Egypt.

It is well-written , both concise and precise, and superbly illustrated, with the majority of the objects shown coming form the British Museum’s own extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities. This in itself is good, for far too many books include the same familiar objects; it is refreshing to find a book that does not include a view of Tutankhamun’s gold mask. It also means that some of the British Museum’s superb pieces are given the prominence they deserve, but often do not receive.

This book really is ideal for anyone new to the subject, young or old but is also good for anyone studying the subject in more detail who needs to find accurate and readable information in one volume.

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Published by British Museum Press.
ISBN 0 7141 1966 0.
Price, papercover, £14.99.

The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Ancient Egypt

by Toby Wilkinson

The idea of a Dictionary of Ancient Egypt is not new, but any new title on this theme, especially one which is from Thames and Hudson, who publish many excellent books on ancient Egypt, is to be welcomed.

It is well-produced with entries covering every subject one could perhaps think of for ancient Egypt and a few more that perhaps one would not have thought of. (Tutankhamun is there, but so is Khababash, an "ephemeral king who ruled briefly over Lower Egypt during the 31st Dynasty").

Starting with a king-list and chronology, the bulk of this book is, perhaps not surprisingly given its title, an alphabetical list of entries.

Comparison with other "dictionaries" is almost inevitable and I initially tried hard not to do this, but it can both highlight the strengths and weaknesses of this publication. In fact the king-list is the first thing I looked at and compared with other publications in detail, and immediately noticed that the spelling of names and the dates given often differ from many other books. (This is always a problem with ancient Egypt, and a source of great confusion to readers. Would that Egyptologists could agree on these subjects, but the author does point this problem out, and Thames and Hudson are at least consistent across their own publications!)

With two hundred and seventy-two pages it is shorter than the British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (with three hundred and twenty-eight pages) and it has a smaller page format; as a consequence it has to have less space for information. The decision to include or not include entries in such a book has to be fairly arbitrary, and I suspect it was most difficult to decide which ones to exclude.

Interestingly Khababash is not in the BM Dictionary, but the T&H Dictionary states that one of its aims was to include a separate entry for every king who ruled Egypt, which is good. Because of a smaller publication, individual entries for all the subjects are all much shorter than in the BM Dictionary, but interestingly the T&H Dictionary has one hundred and ten entries under "A" whilst the BM Dictionary has just seventy-five. (As I didn’t get any further than "A" counting entries, it is of course possible that this may not be valid for all letters of the alphabet.)

The book’s stated aim is to be "the most comprehensive, single-volume dictionary of ancient Egypt currently available in the English language". The author makes the distinction between "dictionary" and "encyclopedia". It could be argued perhaps that the BM Dictionary is verging on the "encyclopediaic", with longer extended essays on some subjects, so the T&H Dictionary may well have achieved its aim in this respect.

My main criticism is the relatively short "Further Reading" list The BM Dictionary has bibliographical details after each individual entry, and this is far more useful and practical for those who use a dictionary as a first port of call and then want to find out where to read more.

This new publication does stand on its own merits. The entries included are clear, accurate and concise and it is easy to use the book, as there are cross-references between entries. It is extremely well illustrated (as is to be expected of Thames and Hudson books) in both colour and black-and- white.

It is useful as a reference book for general readership as well as for those with a more academic interest in the subject. It can be dipped into from time to time and/or actually read from cover to cover, a rewarding exercise for anyone who attempts this.

If you do not already have a "Dictionary of Ancient Egypt" then this could be the one to get, but be aware that there are alternatives available, so you may wish to "compare and contrast" yourself before you decide which one will suit your needs the best.

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Published by Thames & Hudson.
ISBN 0 500 05137 2.
Price £24.95, Hardcover.


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Francis Frith’s
Egypt and the Holy Land

In the pages of ANCIENT EGYPT, I have always been keen to include archive photographic images of Egypt. Early photographs show Egypt as it appeared to the many nineteenth century travellers; understandably these views were very popular when they were published, as, for the first time, people could see what Egypt and the biblical sites really looked like.

The photos are of great importance to us today. Taken at a time when many of the monuments were being cleared without proper record-keeping, these views are critical to our understanding of some of the sites. Much of the information available in the mid-nineteenth century was simply swept away when the temples were "dug out", discarding much valuable later material, which often formed a major part of that building’s history. In some instances the sites have changed out of all recognition, and some buildings have even been lost completely in the intervening years.

One of the earliest and best-known photographers to visit Egypt was Francis Frith, who in the late 1850s produced a large portfolio of superb photographs.

Not surprisingly, therefore, this new book is full of stunning images. Many will be familiar to people today, for they are still reproduced in new books on Egypt, but there will be many views that have not been seen by readers before, and they are really fascinating.

If anyone is familiar with the antiquities sites today, then the "then" and "now" differences will be obvious, but to help readers who have perhaps not yet had the opportunity to visit Egypt, the inclusion of recent photos of the sites and a good commentary and description (by Richard Lunn) highlights the changes over the intervening one hundred and fifty years.

Chapters include the technical aspects of Frith’s photography and also his own account of his travels, which were far from easy as he had to contend with obtaining permissions from local rulers to visit sites, attacks from bandits and the incredible heat, which taxed his skills to the limit. Photography was still in the pioneering stages and the fact that Frith produced such good photos in such difficult conditions is remarkable.

This is a well-produced book full of wonderful images that will keep readers engrossed for hours.

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Published by the Francis Frith Collection.
ISBN 1 85937 793 9.
Price £24.99, Hardback.

Mereruka and his Family: Part I – The Tomb of Meryteti

by N. Kanawati and M. Abder-Raziq and others.

Amenemone the Chief Goldsmith: a New Kingdom Tomb in the Teti Cemetery at Saqqara

by Boyo G. Ockinga with contributions from others.


These two volumes are the results of the detailed study and recording of two tombs at Saqqara.

Meryteti was the son of Mereruka, a vizier of the Old Kingdom, whose huge tomb is near that of his pharaoh, Teti.

The tomb is one of the most visited at Saqqara and whilst it is the suite of rooms decorated for Mereruka that often get the attention, the area to the rear of the tomb is dedicated to his son. (Mereruka’s wife also has a suite of rooms, so it is to be expected that at some stage further volumes will cover these).

The tomb of Amenemone is one of many New Kingdom tombs built in the same area, but one which had not fully been excavated and which is not visited by tourists. Built of mudbrick lined with limestone, many of its superb reliefs and some pieces of sculpture have, perhaps not surprisingly, been removed from the site and are now scattered in various museums. Amenemone worked as a goldsmith and Overseer of Craftsmen during the reign of Horemheb. The tomb was also used for other members of Amenemone’s family.

Both volumes are detailed reports on the structure and decoration of the tombs, with a wall-by-wall, scene-by-scene, study, recording the scenes in black-and-white photographs and also detailed line drawings.

The nature of both publications is such that they will probably only appeal to the serious student. Having said that, the prices are not unreasonable, and for anyone wanting to understand the decoration in tombs from these two periods, they provide a wealth of information and detail, with sections on their architecture, the subterranean areas of the tomb as well as the decoration and finds from the tombs.

One bonus feature with both volumes is that all the plates (in black-and-white) and the excellent line drawings are included on a CDRom, so they can be viewed and studied on your PC. The quality of the photographic plates is much better when viewed on a PC than reproduced in the volumes.

The information in these volumes is fascinating, especially considering that it is sometimes difficult to see some of the scenes when in tombs such as that of Mereruka, and even more so in the case of Amenemone, where the original material is not all now in one place.

These volumes are important, for they are detailed records of fragile monuments. It was reassuring to note that, in the case of the Mereruka volume, reference was made to previous publications and it was possible to determine that the condition of the tomb has not deteriorated, despite the huge number of visitors.

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The Australian Centre for Egyptology: Reports 21.
Published by Aris and Philips, Oxford.
ISBN 0 85668 816 9. Price £40.

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The Australian Centre for Egyptology: Reports 22.
Published by Aris and Philips, Oxford.
ISBN 0 85668 817 7. Price £40.


Two Books from the British Museum Press, aimed at younger readers:

Pocket Dictionary: Pharaohs and Queens

by Marcel Maree

The Pocket Timeline of Ancient Egypt

by Helen Strudwick


Visit any museum with an Egyptian collection and the galleries will always be filled with excited and enthralled children, and it is good that books are being published for them, which contain accurate information at a price which is reasonable.

Pharaohs and Queens gives an A-Z list of the names included in the book, which then, in its forty-eight pages, deals with them in chronological order.

All the well-known names one would expect to see are included, although of necessity because of lack of space, there are some omissions; but perhaps these are only obvious to the more knowledgeable reader.

Most names are given one full page in a brief but concise entry, although the Hyksos and the Ptolemies, for example, are allocated one page each for the whole period. Again, given the space constraints, this is understandable.

Each biographical entry has a photo, for the most part of the person concerned, although Djoser, Sneferu, Khufu and Khafra are illustrated by their monuments rather than a statues of them, which I think is disappointing, especially as there are good surviving sculptures.

For the young reader this is well-written and a good introduction to some of the famous names from ancient Egypt. It certainly doesn’t look like many books written for children, which have modern reconstructions of scenes and a very simple text. The author includes many facts, presents the information well and doesn’t "talk down" to the intended readership.

If AE readers know of any youngsters who have a potential interest in the subject (for many children study Egypt at school, when they are eight or nine) then this is an excellent book to buy them.

My one criticism is the lack of a list of books for further reading; this is a shame, for, having inspired the young reader, it would be nice to have given some indication as to where to go next for more information.

The Pocket Timeline is equally well-written and illustrated with a great deal of information presented in a small volume; it does have a short "Further Reading" list for both younger and older readers, which is really useful.

The book is essentially a short history of ancient Egypt, with the main feature being a pull-out timeline, which extends to over five feet. If nothing else, this will emphasise the incredible timespan of the ancient civilization. What perhaps might have been even more useful would have been the inclusion on the time line of what other cultures were doing at the time (the rise and fall of the Cretans and Greeks for example, the emergence of Rome and maybe even what was happening on our own fair island at this time. This would have helped to put the ancient Egyptians in their historical context, rather than looking at the culture in isolation).

Again this book will undoubtedly appeal, and be of use to, young students, and both books would also be of use and value to teachers who have to teach ancient Egypt.

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ISBN 0 7141 3109 1. 
Price £6.99 

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ISBN 0 7141 3107 5.
Price £7.99


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