A.S.H. Smyth

The spell of the pharaohs

Three recent books explore the abiding allure of Ancient Egypt — that has entranced millions, from Alexander the Great onwards

Here’s a book to make an Egyptologist of everyone. A compendium of accepted gen on the gift of the Nile, Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen’s (updated and reissued) Egypt: People, Gods, Pharaohs ‘aims to answer some basic questions about life in Ancient Egypt and whet your appetite to find out more’, and achieves both in appropriate abundance. It looks great, reads well, even smells nice — and is positively jam-packed with wonderful things.

Citing the fundamental continuity of 3,000-plus years of pharaonic culture, the Hagens tuck away a (very) concise chronology at the back of the book, and then get on with the business of showing us what Ancient Egypt looked like, and who/why/how/when/where. The Valley of the Kings; mummification; daily life: the structure is, perforce, not particularly original. But between all the statues, scrolls, amulets and 19th-century collapsing-temple illustrations, there is still room to be surprised by more unusual bits: the dream-analyses of Kenherchepeshef (‘drinking warm beer = bad’), the pornographic Turin Papyrus, and the life of Paneb, foreman, drunk and womaniser, who may or may not have been executed by impaling. (We will not inquire too closely into ‘the Scribe with Illegible Handwriting’.)

The authors conclude with a section on ‘Egypt and the Western World’ that incorporates some unabashed remarks about the level of scholarly and financial support the Egyptians now receive to protect the cash-cow of their national heritage. All the same, though, they lament that these days Ancient Egypt is only ever in our thoughts when a restorer breaks the beard off Tutankhamun’s mask.

This is not the way that Ronald Fritze sees it. Early talk of ‘Cleopatra chairs’, Katy Perry videos and Highgate cemetery in his Egyptomania laid the groundwork, I thought, for a promisingly unorthodox investigation into what, exactly, it is about Ancient Egypt that has obsessed the outside world since before Herodotus.

I was wrong, alas.

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