"Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt" by Marie Vandenbeusch, Aude Semat and Margaret Maitland. Cleveland Museum of Art (distributed by Yale University Press), 180 pages, $60 (hardcover).
"The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs" by Morris Bierbrier. New York: American University in Cairo Press (distributed by Oxford University Press), 2016. 160 pages, $19.95 (paperback).
Ancient Egypt continues to fascinate people around the world today, almost a century after the discovery of King Tut's tomb and its collection of art objects made international headlines. One aspect of that interest concerns the unusual pantheon of Egyptian gods. They are not nearly as recognizable as are Greek and Roman gods, and they are very unusual because they are frequently represented with the body of a man or woman and the head of an animal. Robert A. Armour's summary of the Egyptian pantheon, first published in 1986, is now available in a second edition and in paperback.
Armour, a professor emeritus of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, makes it clear in his preface that although he is not a trained Egyptologist he spent a year in Egypt on a Fulbright grant and while there realized that there was no book that collected the various fragments of stories on the Egyptian gods into a clear narrative. "Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt" is the result, and Armour does an excellent job summarizing the stories from a great variety of sources.
Many tales involve the sun god Ra, who created the world and the gods and sailed across the skies daily, providing light and heat for people, animals and plants on the ground. Ra was accompanied on the boat by Horus at the rudder, while the god of wisdom Thoth and the goddess of truth and justice Maat wrote down the course for the boat. The Egyptian pharaoh would upon his death join the crew. The boat would also be attacked nightly in the waters of the underworld by the serpent Apophis and other creatures trying to disrupt the crucial journey. The daily reappearance of the boat began the journey anew and also symbolized resurrection and immortality for individuals who lived moral lives and survived trial in the underworld. The author does an excellent job summarizing the basic myths about each of the major gods and relates these to the chronology and geography of Egypt at different points in its long history.
"Pharaoh" is a catalogue of Egyptian artifacts from the British Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art that is connected to an exhibition at the latter museum. The book includes 180 marvelous color photographs of objects such as sculptures, funerary objects, jewelry and papyri. Essays accompanying the plates explore Egyptian kingship and images illustrating the pharaoh's connection with various gods. For example, in commenting on an ostracon image of a goddess suckling Ramses II (C. 1279-1213 BC), Aude Semat says that divine nursing of the king could signify his enthronement, Sed anniversary festival or rebirth after death, but in this example his hair growth seems to indicate that he is mourning his father's death and thus symbolizes Ramses' rebirth as a king. It may seem strange to see a photograph of two cuneiform tablets in a book about Egyptian kings, but Marie Vandenbeusch points out that cuneiform was "the main administrative script employed across the Near East at the time" and that despite Egyptian claims of universal dominance diplomacy was essential to develop successful relationships with other leaders. In one tablet, the king of Babylon complains that Akhenaten had "sent him gifts inferior in quality and number" and requests additional specific gifts. In the second, Amenhotep III writes to the Babylonian king describing gifts he is sending in anticipation of his marriage to a Babylonian princess. The plates throughout the book are striking and the accompanying discussion of Egyptian customs is excellent and very interesting.
"The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs" is another book that the American University in Cairo Press reissued in a paperback edition. Morris Bierbrier served as assistant keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities in the British Museum for 25 years before his retirement. The focus of this book is very different from that of most works on ancient Egyptian history. Scarcity of sources restricts most studies to the life and achievements of the pharaohs, but here we can read about daily lives of some commoners who built tombs in the Valley of the Kings. A trove of official records, literary texts, letters and even drawings found in excavations at Deir el-Medina in the ruins of a village constructed specifically for these craftsmen.
The Egyptian belief in the afterlife caused nobles to construct mud-brick tombs for their resting places. In the Third Dynasty (ca. 2660 B.C.) the step-pyramid was built for the pharaoh Djoser and in the Fourth Dynasty the great pyramids were constructed. During the annual Nile flooding citizens were expected to contribute labor service for irrigation purposes and to help build the pharaohs' tombs and most of these were peasants and not slaves. There were likely barracks built for these workmen as well, but evidence is very scarce. The author suggests that it was in the Eighteenth Dynasty (around 1500 B.C.) that the king formed a corps of workmen who became hereditary tomb-builders. These men were later called "servants in the Great Place." It is from the period after King Tut's death (ca. 1227 B.C.), in the 19th and 20th Dynasties, that most of the evidence about these workmen at Deir el-Medina dates.
One of the first acts of a new pharaoh was to arrange for the construction of his tomb. Some pharaohs took over the unfinished tombs of predecessors and King Tut's successor Ay and later Ramesses VI built over Tut's and had the unintended consequence of protecting Tut's treasures for future generations to marvel at in the 20th century. The author discusses the standard plan for the workmen's houses in their village and points out that the workmen, when not engaged in preparing the royal tomb, were often working on their own tombs built into the cliffs to the west of their village. The book is illustrated throughout with black-and-white photos of various tombs and religious images connected with them. The emphasis on the peasant class is particularly important in this volume.
All three books illuminate our knowledge and understanding of ancient Egyptian culture, a topic that continues to fascinate a wide variety of people. I recommend them very highly.
— Reviewed by Richard D. Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.