Sameer Rahim tries to unravel the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians
What should we make of the ancient Egyptians? In the Bible, Pharaoh is the embodiment of tyranny, enslaving the Jews before getting what he deserves in the Red Sea. In Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, the stunted remains of a monument to Ramesses II symbolise a cruel ruler vanquished by time. In 2011, protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square taunted Hosni Mubarak with the title “Firawn,” the Arabic for pharaoh. So, broadly speaking, we think the ancient Egyptians powerful – and not a little scary.
Oddly, the archeological discoveries made in the last 200 years have done little to change our perceptions. We now know that the pyramids were definitely tombs, and not Joseph’s grain stores – whatever ex-US presidential candidate Ben Carson might think – but our image of Pharaoh is still Yul Brenner coldly sneering in The Ten Commandments or the scarab-loving maniac brought to life in The Mummy. In Norman Mailer’s atrocious 700-page novel Ancient Evenings, the pharaoh is a hyper-masculine lover: “The great force of the phallus of his ancestor, Usermare, covered his own phallus like the cloak of a God…” and so on. Turned into fodder for kitsch films or colouring projects for primary school students, it’s as if the ancient Egyptians were so much larger than life that we can’t see them as anything other than lurid cartoons.
Egyptologist John Romer does his best to complicate our view in his sober and judicious A History of Ancient Egypt. The author of 10 books and star of a score of documentaries, Romer is well placed to bridge the gap between the academic and the popular. Anyone hoping for a grand narrative, though, will be disappointed.
In the first volume, published in 2013, which took us from the earliest farmers to the building of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, Romer questioned popular assumptions about the structure of Egyptian society. Was the Pharaoh really an autocratic monarch leading an expansionist imperial empire, slave-driving his people into constructing elaborate tombs and temples? Perhaps, but the clinching evidence just isn’t there. Rather, the Europeans who first cracked the hieroglyphs and opened the tombs projected their own ideals onto ancient Egypt, argues Romer. “So kings are crowned, the past is colonised and history becomes a soap opera,” he writes, with an almost audible tut.
This second volume of a planned three covers the glorious heights of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom from 2500 BC. Monuments – the tomb chapels of Tiy, Mereruka and Ptahhotep, for instance – began to be decorated with scenes from daily life. The Great Sphinx was built. Hieroglyphs, once sparse, became commonplace. Mute buildings began to speak. By the end of the era in 1640 BC, the empire had expanded into Nubia and the Levant. This was ancient Egypt as we recognise it: a place of grandness and intimacy, of power and discernable personalities.
To marshal his argument, Romer assembles a colossal weight of detail that shows an impressive mastery of his subject. But just as the Victorians brought their own assumptions to Egyptology, Romer, too, is very much a scholar of his times. So keen is he on debunking narratives that he rarely allows his historical imagination to take flight.
What he does do is to restore the strangeness of ancient Egypt, and what he calls their “alien relics.” Take the Giza Sphinx, a 240 ft cat statue built around 2550 BC. We know it was an object of veneration because temples were later built around it and its outline was copied on to “offering stelae”. Most traditional Egyptologists tell us that it represents a pharaoh – probably one of the ones who built the nearby pyramid. But Romer says that the pyramid was built much later, in deference to the Sphinx. So what does it represent?
We have no idea and our author will not dare speculate. Instead, he imagines what an Egyptian passing up the Nile would have seen: “As you sailed into that harbour, with its busy mass of barges and stone-hauling gangs, the Sphinx’s perfect human head would have stood high and calm above the noisy dusty dock, a gentle presence in the bright blue sky lit from the surrounding pavements as if by some faint light from beneath a sea.” Wonderfully evocative, but the riddle remains unsolved.
Alongside a close analysis of the monuments, Romer offers a history of their discovery. In 1906 the Harvard archaeologist, George Andrew Reisner entered the smallest of the three Giza pyramids, where the pharaoh Menkaure was buried. Reisner found it incomplete, with colossal blocks still standing on granite rollers and red builder’s paint still marking the walls. Reisner pieced together a smashed alabaster statue of Menkaure, a charming work whose “friendly face,” says Romer, “was set upon a torso and a pair of shoulders so improbably wide as to give the king the appearance of an American football player”.
The pyramids were far from untouched until the Europeans came along. Reisner’s team found a Roman cemetery dating from the first century, with 20 bodies carefully interred with charms and amulets. They also picked up medieval Arab coins, probably belonging to treasure hunters. (The Arabs called the Sphinx “the father of fear” and made periodic attempts to destroy it.)
In the 20th century, western intervention led to a gold rush for the Egyptians. Recently, an Alexandran artist told me that villagers near Abydos have dug tunnels leading from their front rooms to the nearby temple of Osiris. Every night they hope to strike lucky. Apparently, their grandparents used to strip the mummies of gold and throw the corpses into the river – until they realised that white men would pay for the dead bodies as well.
We know little about the inner lives of those mummies, let alone the people who enbalmed them. But there are glimpses. Two chapels in Giza contain royal letters sent to the courtier Inti from the king Isesi. “You have performed innumerable deeds so that your king should love you, and you know full well that I love you.” Evidently, Inti was so proud of this praise that he had it carved on his tomb.
Other letters were written by living courtiers to dead pharaohs, complaining of the work they had left them. Some could be surprisingly direct: “I, your humble servant, have to spend six days at the Residence with this work gang before it gets its clothing. This is what obstructs the work in your humble servant’s charge…” Was the writer on particularly intimate terms with the pharaoh or was he just at his wits’ end?
The idea that one could communicate with a dead pharaoh raises the vexed question of the afterlife – if afterlife is the right word. Or was it simply progress to another realm – like moving to Australia? Certainly, the ancient Egyptians packed properly for the journey. Remains of bread loaves have been found in tombs, to sustain the revived body on its journey to meet the jackal-headed god Anubis. In the Egypt museum in Turin, you can see a spectacular collection of small statues – or shabtis – grinding flour, riding in boats and cooking meals. Some tombs had 365 shabtis, a helper for each day of the year; these servants needed organising, and rather sweetly, for every 10, there is an overseer.
In his introduction to An Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: the Papyrus of Sobekmose, Paul O’Rourke writes that these funeral rites were designed for the “re-creation of the deceased”. The Book of the Dead (not in fact a single text but a looser genre), was not designed to be read. Rather, O’Rourke tells us, it was an instruction manual for navigating the next world. Just to have it would be enough to defeat the demons on your path and lead you to success with Anubis.
To a modern reader, the papyrus of Sobekmose is essentially unreadable, full of symbols and mystical allusions that nonetheless have a strange beauty: “O cobra, I am the flame that shines upon the brow of millions, the standard of the divine years.” More evocative to modern ears is the Tale of Sinuhe, a verse narrative about the afterlife of Amenemhat I. The narrator warns repeatedly that the worst possible fate is to be taken to another country: “Your death shall not be in a foreign land… You shall not be buried by foreigners.” (Next time I see a teenager taking a selfie with a mummy in the British Museum, I shall silently mouth an apology.)
But despite our domestication of the ancient Egyptians – the Tutankhamun pencil cases, the Cleopatra keyrings – they still have the power to unsettle us. Think of a long-dead pharaoh lying in a polished glass cabinet in a corner of a strange land, his sarcophagus lovingly cleaned, his servant statues reassembled and displayed, his inscriptions read by thousands of admirers. It amounts to an astonishing journey back to life, as spectacular as the one imagined in The Book of the Dead. Maybe they guessed all along that this would be their fate. Look on their works, ye mighty, and rejoice!
A History of Ancient Egypt, Volume II by John Romer
672pp, Allen Lane, £30.00, ebook £12.99. To order a copy for £25 with free p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
An Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead tr Paul F O'Rourke
216pp, Thames & Hudson, £24.95. To order a copy for £20 with free p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk