Monday, September 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Salima Ikram, Ancient Egypt: An Introduction. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xxiii, 330. ISBN 9780521675987. $27.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Peter C. Nadig, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin

It is not easy to write an introduction to ancient Egypt, since so many details, past and present, need to be covered for this fascinating and extremely variant culture. A great deal of this fascination can be attributed to the aesthetic quality of Egyptian art which had left its mark over a period of 3000 years as well as the good preservation of many monuments and objects. Salima Ikram (American University Cairo) provides an excellent introduction – lavishly illustrated with photos and drawings. In nine chapters, the book aims at a general readership not familiar with Egypt by "setting the stage for their further study and investigation". The focus is not only the various aspects of ancient Egypt's history and culture, but also their reception as well as rediscovery through the ages.

The book starts with a detailed chronological chart of the periods of Egyptian history from 5000 BC till 30 BC. Kings' names are given with their Horus and throne names as well as personal names and regnal years where possible (pp. xiii-xxiii). Chapter One ("The Black and the Red") brings an outline of Egypt's geography and environment. The author makes it clear that the country's wealth not only lay in the annual inundation of the Nile, but also in its natural borders. The different regions of Egypt, such as the Nile River and the Nile Valley, the Delta, the Western Desert with its oases, and the Sinai Peninsula along with the Eastern Desert and The Red Sea are explained. The second chapter ("Travellers, Thieves, and Scholars") deals with the history of Egyptology and Egyptomania. It began during the New Kingdom when Egyptians themselves began to reflect on the monuments of their past. Among these Prince Khaemwese, a son of Ramesses II stands out, whose restoration inscription can still be seen on a pyramid in Saqqara.

A separate section covers Greek and Roman visitors as well as scholars who wrote about Egypt such as Solon, Pythagoras, Herodotus, Manetho, Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Septimius Severus, and the fourth-century nun Egeria. A short section sums up the interest of Arab scholars in Egypt, some of which studied the ancient monuments or tried to decipher the hieroglyphs. Two of them, al-Idrisi and al-Qalqashandi, saw the Coptic language as the possible link to the decoding of the lost language. The early stages of the modern rediscovery of Egypt, its exploration as well as the establishment of Egyptology proper are outlined in the following subchapters. Several summaries of the work of explorers and scholars such as Champollion, Lepsius, Mariette, Petrie and Reisner are included; special attention is also given to Egyptian scholars.

The sources and methodologies of re-creating ancient Egypt are summed up in the intriguing Chapter Three ("Re-creating Ancient Egypt: Sources and Methodologies"). Here Ikram introduces the primary sources, which include landscapes, monuments, artefacts as well as ancient texts themselves in more detail. She points out that depictions of Egyptian daily life in tomb chapels do not show every step of certain processes, but only the highlights. While the ancient viewers would have been able to fill the gaps easily, ethnoarchaeology can nowadays help for a better understanding of certain processes and objects. Also important are the secondary sources, i.e. the travellers' accounts from ancient times onward. Here a short mention of Arabic travellers in the Middle Ages might have been added. They sometimes provided valuable information about lost or destroyed monuments. Most noteworthy is the Mecca pilgrim Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) who recorded the huge temple at Akhmim. A section on new technologies in archaeological and scholarly research concludes this chapter.

The next chapter is a concise overview of ancient Egypt from the Predynastic Period to Cleopatra ("Shadows in the Sand: Egypt's Past"). The various aspects of Egyptian religion are dealt with in "Maintaining Egypt: Religion". Alongside subjects such as state religion and the pantheon of gods a major focus is on the various temples, their development, architecture, and decoration as well as rituals, festivals and the priesthood. An own subchapter is on the private religion and personal piety. Here it is interesting to note that the gods revered in private scenarios were often different from those worshipped in the state religion. An introduction to funerary beliefs and – texts is included here.

Chapter Six ("Kings and Commoners: Egyptian Society and Government") presents the different groups in Egyptian society from the king down to non-elites in Egyptian society, slaves and foreigners. The quintessential elements of pharaonic kingship and the role of the queen are aptly summarized.

The theme of the following chapter ("Town Life and Country Life") takes a closer look at the structure of settlements. Ikram points out the limitations of our knowledge since only a few of them have been excavated so far, while many others are beyond our reach due to overbuilding. A lengthy chapter follows on the daily life of the ancient Egyptians ("From Sunrise to Sunset"). The topics here are the Egyptian language and literature (here a chart of the hieroglyphic alphabet is added; figure 108, p. 223), judiciary, police, military, food production, body care, medicine and healthcare, clothing and footwear production, metalworkers, carpentry and shipbuilding, production of containers, Egyptian art, and entertainment. The last chapter is about the Egyptian funerary practises ranging from mummification, funerals and funerary equipment to tombs and cemeteries ("The Living Dead: Mummies, Tombs, and Mortuary Cults").

Among the innumerous photos in the book, many are by the author herself, which also add a personal touch. Even though some images may seem familiar, their selection is sometimes rather unconventional and provides a refreshing change. One may (gladly) look in vain for a typical photo from the treasures of Tutankhamun.1 Also many historical pictures are included to highlight the text. Singled out may be a photo from the early 20th century (figure 4, p. 7) showing the inundation of the village of Dashur. It aptly illustrates the fact that towns and villages of Egypt were built on high parcels of ground which became islands during the annual flood. This phenomenon happened until the 20th century, but has since ceased after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The most unusual object shown here is that of a limestone toilet seat from Amarna (figure 103, p. 206).

Many text boxes in different sizes are included throughout the book to provide an isolated outlook on selected topics. Among these are, to mention a few, "Egypt's Name", "Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt", "The Mummy Trade", "Deciphering Hieroglyphs", "Working in Egypt" (i.e. on an archaeological mission), "Choosing a Sarcophagus", "The Pharaoh with a Passport", "A Selection of Gods", "Royal Iconography" and "Egyptian Art". A glossary, a detailed list of further recommended readings as well as Egyptological resources, and an index complete "Ancient Egypt".

An introduction to Ancient Egypt of this size cannot surely include every relevant detail, however intriguing or interesting it may be.2 Each of the nine chapters in Ikram's book can easily be turned in a single monograph. The author has made a very competent as well as thorough choice on what to include and what not. Many details mentioned in the book reflect the current state of research in scholarship. This book provides an interesting as well as comprehensive read from which even the expert may benefit. It is therefore highly recommended as a starting point for the uninitiated.


1.   In fact only one item is depicted (figure 53; p. 104).
2.   An inclusion for a future edition might be a reference to the Amarna correspondence or other cuneiform texts relating to Egypt. A few typos: p. 2: BC instead of BP; p. 26: Eusebius instead of Eusebiaus.

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