Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
14 - 20 September 2000
Issue No. 499
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

A useful summary

Reviewed by Fayza Hassan

The Experience of Ancient Egypt, Rosalie David, London: Routledge, 2000. pp.192

Like fairy tales firing the imagination of young children, the history of Ancient Egypt has occupied the dreams of many adults for centuries. A few have gone on to investigate a civilisation so intriguing that it drove them to undertake exhausting voyages, followed by painstaking study, while others, the majority, have contented themselves with reverie, reading, or eventually playing tourist for a fortnight or so among the ruins of the ancient temples. To satisfy this category, academic and not so academic works have been available in their scores, ready to present readers with a cocktail of fact, fiction and theory on Ancient Egypt. The result of all this activity now is that, some two centuries on in the Western study of Egyptology, only the professionals have an idea of how much we actually know, how much we are guessing at and how much myth has been passed off as truth for the sake of spinning a gripping tale.

Rosalie David's The Experience of Ancient Egypt is refreshing in this respect, for she has taken on the task of surveying the corpus of evidence and interpretation we possess at present on Ancient Egypt with the aim of guiding the reader through it. She warns that the study of archaeology calls for constant revision, and that such study is a dynamic, ongoing process. There is no absolute truth and few indisputable facts or statements that cannot be questioned following new discoveries or the development of more advanced technology. "Evidence always requires interpretation," David writes, "but since it is often partial or contradictory, the experts can often only draw imprecise conclusions." Her book, she adds, "sets out to consider the ways the interpretation of the evidence can alter over time. In some cases this change in focus comes about because new facts are discovered, but it can also result from the different and sometimes controversial ideas and attitudes that, over the years, have been presented by archaeologists and scholars."

The book offers the reader both an outline of the accepted chronology of Ancient Egypt, as well as of the detailed literary sources on which this is based, taking into consideration the problems that have beset Egyptologists attempting to construct an historical framework that agrees with evidence from the histories of neighbouring countries and civilisations. David comments on the contributions to the establishment of such a chronology made by the German historian E Meyer (1855-1930) and the French archaeologist Gaston Maspero (1846-1916), for example, providing a detailed investigation and bibliography of their works.

Ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs and customs are given an entire chapter, and this includes a description of burial grounds and their evolution from unmarked graves to pyramids. Information derived from the discovery of such grounds provides striking evidence of how archaeological conclusions can change over time, David comments.

"Perhaps the Giza pyramid area provides one of the best examples of how interpretation of the archaeological evidence can vary over time," she says. "Today, it is difficult to imagine that the purpose of these monuments was ever disputed (although no intact burial has ever been found inside a pyramid), but for centuries travellers and scholars pondered their true significance. Pliny believed that they were royal burial places, but that they had been constructed with the aim of providing employment for a peasant workforce which otherwise might have become rebellious (an idea revived in recent times). Julius Honorius (pre-fifth century AD) referred to a legend that claimed they were granaries ... although a French traveller, Jean Palerne (1557-1592), refuted this idea, stating that the Pharaohs had built them as tombs."

Other theories, she writes, have suggested that the pyramids were built as places where people could seek protection against natural disasters, that they were observatories or sundials, or that magnificent treasures had been deposited inside them. The possibility that they were the repositories of arcane wisdom having mystical significance for the modern world also piques David's curiosity. Many European scholars over the past centuries, she writes, among them the British Astronomer Royal, the Scotsman Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), have believed this.


Documentation at Abu Simbel, 1905-1906 (from Sifting the Sands of Time: Historic Photographs from The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago)
Piazzi "surveyed the Great Pyramid in 1865, and published two books in which he developed the idea that the measurements of the Great Pyramid enshrined God's plan for the universe, and that this knowledge would be revealed if the measurements could be clearly understood. "Even today," David adds, "Smyth's ideas continue to influence the beliefs of pyramidologists, and they initially inspired [celebrated British archaeologist] Flinders Petrie's own interest in Egyptology."

The religion of the living, everyday life, and an examination of the sources at our disposal today make up the remainder of the first part of David's book. Part Two tackles the development of the study of Egyptology from the writings of the Egyptian priest Manetho (c.300 BC) to the present, with extensive chapters on the interpretation of hieroglyphs and on scholars' efforts to understand them before a French scholar, Champollion, finally cracked the mystery. Remaining chapters deal with site excavations that have led to discoveries of burial chambers, temples, dwellings and artefacts, and finally with the various methods used to survey the monuments.

A survey of new information derived from biomedical studies of disease, diet, living conditions and funerary customs among the Ancient Egyptians, as well as from new scientific procedures used to study mummies, is, however, by far the most interesting part of this study, opening new avenues, David foresees, for the more accurate future assessment of our knowledge of a civilisation thought by some to have possessed answers to questions that have so far evaded modern science.

Though her book offers few revelations, David does not make such a claim for it. Rather, in The Experience of Ancient Egypt she has written a straightforward, comprehensive summary of the past and present state of study in Egyptology. To the general reader, it will prove invaluable, since it gives clear, succinct information in an unaffected style. It dispels myths, provides a good list of primary and secondary sources, and gives enough details to incite the interested reader to tackle more erudite works. It is definitely a book to be highly recommended to tourist guides, aspiring Egyptologists and anyone wishing to pay more than a cursory visit to the archaeological sites.

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