Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ancient temples and dictionaries


The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, Richard H. Wilkinson, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005. pp255;

Temples of Ancient Egypt, ed. Byron E. Shafer, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005. pp335

When two substantial books with similar titles featuring images on the cover that are almost the same are published by the same press in the space of a single year, one feels almost challenged to discover the difference between them, if only in order to guide potential readers.

The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, published by AUC Press by arrangement with Thames and Hudson of London, is part of a series of book put out by the latter publisher. Already on the market are The Complete Gods and Goddesses, The Complete Royal Families, The Complete Tutankhamun, and The Complete Valley of the Kings. This new addition is of the same excellent quality as the rest of the series, and it includes the most famous monuments in Luxor and every temple along the Nile. It covers temple construction and decoration, explains the function and meaning of each part of the temple, as well as the religious rites and roles of pharaohs and priests. Fact files, tables, newly commissioned perspective views, and a guide to visiting the major sites are included.

The author, Richard Wilkinson, is professor and director of the University of Arizona Egyptian expedition, and he traces the development of Pharaonic temples from the earliest times to the Roman period, looking at every aspect of their construction, decoration, symbolism and function. He reveals the secret rites and architectural wonders of these buildings, and his book is enhanced by quality photographs, 173 of which are in colour. The book is also very up to date, with an epilogue on "Exploration and Conservation Today".

What more could one want? What more is there to write about? Does the second book under review here, Temples of Ancient Egypt edited by Byron Shafer, have anything new to offer? Only slightly smaller than The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, but thicker, the difference in price is a trifling US$2. Faced with the two publications, which should a potential buyer choose?

Byron Shafer is a professor of religious studies at Fordham University in New York, and he has also published Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. His new book, therefore, as one might expect from an author specialising in ancient Egyptian religion, has less to do with the construction, function, and meaning of each part of a temple, main areas of emphasis in The Complete Temples, and more to do with current views of Egyptian religion. It provides a new perspective on the temples, has been written by five well-established scholars, and the book makes exciting, if not always convincing reading.

Perhaps Shafer's book, including only a quarter of the number of illustrations contained in The Complete Temples volume, should have been published in a smaller format, if only to indicate that the two books, despite their similarity, are, in fact, quite different in emphasis.

I offer the following words of advice: if you are looking for a comprehensive survey of all Egypt's ancient temples to add to your library, using it as a guide and research tool, then you could do worse than to choose Wilkinson's The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. If, on the other hand, you want, like the authors of Temples of Ancient Egypt, to perceive these massive monuments as loci for the creative interplay of sacred space and time, then the book edited by Shafer is the one to go for.

Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson, London: Thames and Hudson, 2005. pp271

When the British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson (London: British Museum Publications, 1995) was published, it seemed certain that it would become a classic. Yet, ten years on another equally large and well-produced volume, the Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, has come on to the market. Both are prominently displayed in book shops and libraries. What is the difference between them?

The British Museum Dictionary was the first reliable dictionary of ancient Egypt in English. Compiled by the department of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum in London, the book contains more than 600 extensively cross- referenced and comprehensively-indexed entries, together with clear explanations and descriptions of the major ideas, events and personalities that shaped 4,000 years of ancient civilisation in the Nile Valley. There is also a short bibliography, enabling readers to pursue topics in greater detail, and the book has useful appendices giving the names and dates of the Egyptologists mentioned in the text and the standard numbering system of the Theban tombs (designated TT) and those in the Valley of the Kings (designated KV) along with their occupants.

The Thames and Hudson Dictionary, compiled by Toby Wilkinson, a Cambridge Egyptologist, is lively, readable, and it is described by John Ray of Cambridge University as an "awesomely up-to-date work of reference". Wilkinson has traveled extensively in the Nile Valley and the Egyptian deserts, lectures widely on ancient Egypt, and has extensive experience of the archaeological sites of the area. His book assumes no previous knowledge of ancient Egypt or of Egyptology, and the entries in it are as self-sufficient as possible. He has also provided site maps and plans at the end of the book, along with suggestions for further reading.

Both of these excellent publications provide a mine of information on all aspects of the ancient Egyptian world, from how the ancient Egyptians brewed beer to what games their children played, from their literature and deities to their knowledge of medicine. Each is well-produced and lavishly illustrated. However, while the British Museum publication is perhaps aimed at students and researchers, as well as the general public, each entry being followed by a short bibliographical notice enabling readers to pursue topics in greater detail, the Thames and Hudson Dictionary is aimed more at the general reader and will perhaps be of most appeal to tourists, museum visitors, and armchair travelers.

Both books, however, are well worth considering. While it would be impractical perhaps to buy both, it really is quite difficult to make a choice.

Reviewed by Jill Kamil

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