Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.09.17

Alessia Fassone, Enrico Ferraris, Egypt: Pharaonic Period. (Translation of 2007 edition by Jay Hyams). Dictionaries of Civilization.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2008.  Pp. 383.  ISBN 9780520256484.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Roberto B. Gozzoli, University of Siam, Thailand (
Word count: 1599 words

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Introductory books about Egypt certainly abound in any language and format. The book under review here belongs to a series titled "Dictionaries of Civilization". In the Press release, the book is defined as "Not merely a travel guide, this hand and easy-to-use guide provides an overall view of the civilization as a whole".

The book is divided into seven chapters: People, State and Society, Religion and Science, Daily Life, The World of the Dead, Sites and Monuments, The History of Egyptology.

Each chapter is divided into various entries, which are mostly in chronological and/or topographical order. Each entry presents a synthesis of the topic with bibliography, and a series of photos of statues, temples and monuments with descriptions. The iconographic material is quite canonical; a large percentage of the photos can be found in other books about ancient Egypt. The captions are detailed and informative, for which the authors should be congratulated.

The chapter 'People' deals with pharaohs and important figures of ancient Egypt from the Protodynastic period (Menes and Narmer) up to the Thirtieth Dynasty (Nectanebo I). The quality of information about each of the personages varies. For Djoser, Montuhotep II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Psamtik I (or preferably Psammetichus), just to mention a few, the information is essentially correct, and most of the relevant data are present. I find however, some oversimplifications: in the section on Menes, the equivalence with Narmer (known from the palette in the Cairo Museum) is too easily accepted. Just a few words more, offering the alternative of Aha would be welcomed. The general entry on the Fourth Dynasty, under which Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure --Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinos of the Herodotean tradition-- are treated, is insufficient. In fact, the text talks mostly about Snefru (p. 19), and his successors are mentioned only in passing. Yet the first thing a tourist visiting Giza would like to learn about is about the pharaohs who built those monuments. I acknowledge that what is known about Khufu is very little, and the same can be said about his immediate successors, since most of information comes from the Westcar Papyrus of Middle Kingdom date. But discussing the historical information in a few more lines would certainly have been possible. Moreover, their pyramids are treated in a different chapter, while for Sethi I and Ramesses II, their major buildings are treated under their entries.

For the Hyksos kings, the Palestinian rulers ruling over Egypt before the New Kingdom, the authors forget to say that Austrian excavations have uncovered their capital Avaris, one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last 40 years.

Chapter 2 "State and Society" is a review of the various important figures and offices in ancient Egyptian society (Pharaoh, Priesthood, Scribes and Officials, Soldiers, Soldiers and Artists). The chapter starts with a discussion of the figure of the pharaoh, and his names, followed by entries relative to the names of the kings and symbols of power. (There is an incorrect caption: the photo of the names of Aten and Akhenaten (p. 98) is not from a statue, but the double cartouche was possibly part of a balustrade or similar architectonic element.) The entry on Priesthood suffers of an undeclared excessive dependence on Herodotus' Book II, and the fact that the entry 'priests' is in the chapter 'Religion'. One more extensive entry might have done for both. The only major bibliographic reference absent is Donadoni's edited book.1

The chapter about 'Religion and Science' is certainly one of the best of the entire book. It includes information about the major gods of the Egyptian pantheon (Heliopolitan cosmogony up to Magic), as well as Astronomy, Calendar, Medicine, Literature and Writing. The synthesis done for them is optimal as introduction to the subject. Again, the reader may be puzzled by having an entry titled 'Ptah and the Ogdoad', followed sometime later by an entry about Ptah. As for literature, it is said that 'Setting aside the religious-funerary works, which belong to the sphere of temples and rituals, the oldest literary works are the autobiographies and moralistic teachings of the Old Kingdom [...]' (p. 179), thus excluding any religious connection. But it is the religious aspect that makes ancient Egyptian writing so valuable. As for writings, the authors do not include Herodotus' words about hieroglyphs as "sacred writings" which would set appropriately for the section.

The section 'Daily Life' deals with organizational aspects of daily life, from village to animals, women and love, glass and faience. There is an entry titled Aesthetics and Style, but what is really missing here is an entry on Egyptian art, where arts in all its expressions could be placed together. As the book deals with all aspects of ancient Egyptian world, I feel that a section describing artistic developments should have been included.

The chapter 'World of the Death' covers all aspects of the afterlife from mortuary rituals to burials; it gives the essential elements, but more information is certainly needed. The entry about embalming is a condensed version of Herodotus' information, and this should have been stated. The entry on the pyramids introduces the first pyramid built for Djoser. I expected a photo and plan of it immediately, but I wait until the entry about Memphis and Saqqara (p. 278). Moreover, the authors should have given more explanation about the different styles of royal funerary architecture during the New Kingdom, as the entry on the Valley of the Kings requires some more maps clarifying what is a "bayonet" arrangement, a "deviated" axis and so forth (p. 267). And ancient Egyptian tombs are not only royal, but private too. An entry explaining the normarchs' tombs at Bersha, or those of Thebes is missing.

The chapter "Sites and Monuments" betrays the Great Empire perspective, which is present throughout the book. The major centres of Old, Middle and New Kingdom are discussed (Memphis and Saqqara, Fayum, Thebes and Karnak, Akhetaten, Deir el Medina), but entries about the Delta in general are missing, as the book only discusses Tanis and Naukratis, but nothing about Sais for instance, one of the capitals of the period. Even the entry about Nubia and Abu Simbel at the very end is only about Abu Simbel, not Elephantine, or even Lower Nubia in general.

The section about the History of Egyptology describes the major figures of Egyptology. The organization of the chapter itself is difficult to explain. The entry on Champollion before the one on the French and English consuls Drovetti and Salt is not in the right order, as they were active before Champollion's discoveries reached the academic circles. Also introducing the historical sources so late in the book seems quite an afterthought.

As the aim is an introduction to the various topics, the book fulfils its purpose. Each chapter and its entries embrace the major aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization. The authors have made a decent effort to give as much information as possible to the reader, and I have not seen any serious shortcoming, except an excessive simplification of the information. It looks like everything about ancient Egypt has been solidly ascertained and settled, which is not the case. As a traveler's guide, the usefulness is limited by the text and the plans. The descriptions are too generic for any visitor to temples, tombs and palaces. In this respect, the interested reader should direct their attention to the Penguin Guide of Ancient Egypt, in which the archaeological locations are nicely described from an archaeological point of view.2

Since this is a dictionary, the order should have been kept strictly alphabetical. I also find very irritating that the table of contents just give the chapter title but not the entry titles. The index contains only the entries in alphabetical order. If I want to find something about Thebes I need to browse throughout the book in search for the information. In this respect, the British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, which had a new edition a year ago, has set the standard for such a genre of publications.3 In it, the alphabetical entries have one or two photos/pictures, concluded at the end by a short bibliography, giving updated references.

The chronological framework studied is between the beginnings of the fourth millennium BCE and the beginnings of the third century BCE.

Having excluded the Ptolemaic Period, this implies that Edfu, Dendera and Kom Ombo temples --major visits for any tour of ancient Egypt-- are not parts of the book itself. But the temporal limits are contradicted in the illustrations, as a Horus cippus of the Ptolemaic Period is represented (p. 166), and on the opposite page, another illustration coming from a Ptolemaic wooden coffin is present.

The bibliography suffers for lack of consistency. The choice of books is quite difficult to understand, and many suggested books are not really by Egyptologists or they are not the most up to date. A few examples: Akhetaten is better treated in Pharaohs of the Sun catalogue; Deir el Medina is better treated in McDowell's book.4 Moreover, mentioning Kitchen for a study of the Third Intermediate Period is too specialized for the general reader.5 It is possible that those books were those available to the authors, but mentioning Rachet's work for the entry relative to the Book of the Dead is not really a suitable reference for any modern traveler. 6




State and Society

Religion and Science

Daily Life

The World of Death

Sites and Monuments

The History of Egyptology

Maps of Egypt




General Index



1.   S. Donadoni, The Egyptians, translated by Robert B. Bianchi, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
2.   Murnane, William J., The Penguin Guide of Ancient Egypt, London and New York: Penguin Press, 1996.
3.   I. Shaw and P. Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, London: British Museum Press, 2008.
4.   Freed, Rita E.; Markowitz, Yvonne J.; D'Auria, Sue H.,eds, Pharaohs of the Sun, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Co., 1999; A. G. McDowell, Village life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
5.   K. A. Kitchen, The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650 B.C.), Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1973.
6.   A "normal" reference would be R. O. Faulkner and C. Andrews, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, New York: MacMilliam, 1985.

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