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Ancient Egypt has been an object of fascination to Westerners ever since the French invasion in 1798. Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from his victory in Italy, raided Egypt with an armada of 400 ships, carrying an army of 54,000 soldiers and about 150 scholars, scientists, engineers, artists and mapmakers to study and capture the culture of that mysterious land. The French `savants' gathered an enormous body of data and sketches, which they organized and published, from1809 to 1828, in 23 volumes entitled "Description de l'Egypte". Since then, hundreds of books have been published about Ancient Egypt; scholarly academic treatises, popular illustrated atlases and histories; the majority was based on the interpretation of archeological discoveries, translation of hieroglyphics, secondary sources, even conjecture and assumption. Speculative theories filled the timeline gaps and were later interpreted as fact. Realistically, Egyptology has come a long way since the 1960's, when Sir Alan Gardiner published his magnum opus "Egypt of the Pharaohs". More new discoveries have been made in the past thirty years than in all the previous centuries, begining from the times of Champollion, Maspero, Mariette and Flanders.
In this book, by John L. Romer, a British Egyptologist, well known for his many TV documentaries on ancient history, has presented a largely neglected and unknown period of ancient history; the pre-dynastic period of Egypt before there were massive monuments and before hieroglyphics adorned the walls of buildings. Romer began his career with the epigraphic study of paintings and sketches, and eventually immersed himself in archeology when he participated in the University of Chicago's Epigraphic Study of the temples of Thebes in 1966. He has a keen eye for detail, as reflected in this book.
Romer has written an authoritative compendium, 475 pages long, divided into 31 chapters within five parts. It is organized sequentially and chronologically into a readable and comprehensive narrative, devoid of unsubstantiated speculation of previous historians and fantasies about alien engineering and the drivel from Hancock, Bauval or Van Daniken.
Part one covers the first millennium from 5000 to 4000 BCE, when a Neolithic predynastic cultures arose independently in southern and northern Egypt, where the first settlers around Lake Fayoum and the farming community around the oasis. The discovery of a sickle in a pit, estimated to be 7000 years old, is used as a prop to tell the story of its people. Weaved baskets, pottery and shards from Merinda and el-Omari excavations show the gradual evolution of the Badarin culture, the rising of the Naqada and their artwork and burial sites, transitioning into the rule of Narmer/Menes, the first pharaoh to unite Upper and Lower Egypt, around 3150 BCE. Romer describes objects and graphic art at excavations in exquisite detail, that sometimes tends to be overwhelming.
Part two deals with `Making Pharaoh', the rise of King Narmer/Menes while the next part explains the flourishing of the culture, religion, art, language and hieroglyphs under the rule of the subsequent dynasties over two millennia in what was to become the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BCE). Romer explains the evolution of tombs to mastabas to pyramids, keeping the sequence of the kings in close parallel. Part four covers the time of King Djoser and his architect, physician and philosopher, "the Leonardo of ancient Egypt" Imhotep. Many pyramids were constructed, by the first four dynasties, from the step pyramid of Saqqara to the magnificent wonder of the ancient world, the great pyramid of Khufu in Giza.
Part five begins with the reign of Senefru, Khufu's father, who was a prolific pyramid builder, but also a statesman. The building of monuments was made possible by the organization of the state, the vast bureaucracy, underpinned by religion and the army subordinate to a deified Pharaoh. "The real fascination of this most ancient Egypt is in tracing the slow development of pharaoh's court and the idea of state."
The author is meticulous about his descriptions and portrayals of kings from Djoser to Senefru to, ultimately, Khufu. He eschews hyperbole and conjecture; the book is factual and insightful. Romer does not try to `fill-in the blanks' when there is no data available, he relies solely on concrete evidence and findings; he remains "on the ground and in reality."
The book would have rated 5 stars were it not for the author's frequent disparaging of his predecessors from Herodotus, to Manetho and ultimately to his modern contemporaries. I found it distracting, from an otherwise interesting book.
Hopefully his promised next installment, from Khufu to Nectanebo ll, shall be as enjoyable as this volume but less critical of his peers.