BMCR 2011.04.08

City of the Ram-man: The Story of Ancient Mendes

, City of the Ram-man: The Story of Ancient Mendes. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xxii, 240. ISBN 9780691142265. $35.00.

This book by Redford is a synthesis of the author’s fieldwork at the site of Mendes, in the northeastern Nile Delta, from 1990 onward, supplemented with a history of the site itself. In fact, the book is a general introduction to the site, as each of the 13 chapters has an initial historical introduction followed by a discussion of the archaeological discoveries of the period. There are numerous textual boxes throughout, giving biographies of ancient Egyptian officials, royal texts or other relevant material. Previously, books for the general public have appeared only for major sites such as Amarna and Thebes; now there is a third: this book describes the entire history of a capital of a Delta nome, which grew to become Egypt’s capital during the first millennium BC. While the idea is certainly lauda-ble, the end result is not entirely smooth.

Chapters one and two deal with the origins of Egypt. Prehistoric Egyptian to later Mendes is described, introducing the reader to the geographical and historical setting. Redford takes pains to describe the growth from the primitive community to chiefdom, led by the Big Man (“Great Man”) and the extension of the settlement, with mudbrick houses and buildings imitating Asiatic prototypes. The integration of the Delta region into the southern kingdom through military conquest is then narrated. The foundation of the White Fort is briefly described, as well as the implications of a unified kingdom over the country, which also brought the development of writing.

From a reader’s point of view, the Big Man theory should be explained better, as it is not part of the usual Egyptological perspective and Redford does not give any citations for it. When talking about the Land of Flood, he should have mentioned that such a term means Egypt’s alluvial plain. The first capital, Memphis, is called the White Fort, but this is not a normal designation, and no plan clarifies where it is. In the final index, the White Fort is just a name of the residence, and only under Memphis is there a cross reference to White Fort.

Chapter three is the first part of the book fully dealing with the history and archaeology of Mendes. The material of the Protodynastic Period is described in detail, and the earliest history of Mendes temple is explained on the basis of the discoveries there, such as silos and bread ovens, almost completely destroyed by the later buildings. The history of the city is linked with the history of Egypt itself. A defensive bastion was discovered there that is chronologically consistent with the end of the Sixth Dynasty. Human and animal skeletons found in excavation trenches seems to confirm the existence of troubles; in addition the smashing of funerary stelae and the reuse of masonry coming from private tombs prove the activity of tomb robbers. The temple was destroyed and the skeletons of the period show the existence of famine.

The book continues in chronological order. As archaeological remains of the Middle Kingdom are quite limited at Mendes, one of the cores of the book is the description of the city during the New Kingdom Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (chapter six). This certainly forms a major contribution by Red-ford to the subject. Thutmose III built an extensive temple there, partially disturbing the Old Kingdom cemetery, which was completely rebuilt under Sethi I and Ramesses II, and finally completed by Merenptah. By that time, it reached its largest dimensions (165 m long) and a new limestone pylon was built.

In the three chapters describing the Late Period, when Mendes became of international relevance, historical sources dominate and the archaeological material is slighted. For example, in chapter eight, the description of Tefnakht’s rule over the Nile Delta, the starting point of a war against the Nubian pharaoh Piankhy, occupies too much space, while the archaeological description is essentially confined to mentioning the destruction caused by the Assyrian invasion at the end of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, when Mendes was burned. Chapter ten is essentially a list of Saite officials linked to Mendes, but there is no description of the city itself. This is quite strange, as some of the buildings discussed in the following chapter were started or built during the Saite Period itself. Still, there are interesting notes, for example that the temple followed the model of the processional temple of the Theban tradition instead of being similar to those at Sais and Buto. (Yet, even here some plans highlighting those differ-ences would be welcome, as the temple of Sais was completely destroyed.)

The last three chapters cover the history of the city from the Persian period up to late antiquity. The chronological digression at the beginning serves quite well to frame the historical situation, reaching the beginnings of the Thirtieth Dynasty (chapter eleven). The chapter is the longest and describes the archaeological discoveries of recent years: a warehouse where Greek and Phoenician amphorae were found, a new temenos wall built by Nectanebo I to protect the city against invasions, a new sancta sanctorum and a naos court with four monolithic shrines devoted to the four avatars of the ram god: Re, Shu, Geb and Osiris. The naos court was started in the Saite Period, as the surviving naos can be dated to Amasis. Mendes had a new mausoleum of the rams, which lasted until mid-fourth century BC, and a second complex was the burial place of the mothers of the rams.

One of Redford’s major fieldwork activities was the excavation of Neferites’ mastaba tomb, with wall reliefs representing the deceased in front of Ba-neb-djed. Those reliefs are represented in some of the book illustrations. A reconstruction of Neferites’ tomb, the major discovery of the recent excava-tions, would have been helpful.1

The final two chapters of the book deal rapidly with the history of the site, the destructions at the be-ginnings of the Second Persian Period and its general decline following the first Ptolemies.

During the Ptolemaic period, Mendes and its sister city Thmuis were important, in particular during the third century BC, as Greeks also resided there. At the beginning of the second century BC, however, Mendes suffered a decline, mostly coincident with rebellions in the Delta region. The Mendesian branch of the Nile also lost strength and meandered east; therefore Thmuis supplanted Mendes, and in the second century CE the city was almost deserted, with the temple and cemeteries completely in ruins.

The book suffers from two weaknesses. First, the part that includes the historical overview is extremely long. The entire history of Egypt and Mendes could have been compressed into two initial chapters, leaving the rest of the book devoted to the archaeological discussion. Secondly, the book seems to be based solely on the excavations led by Redford, with the previous excavations almost unmentioned in the chronicle of the accounts.2 Amongst the discoveries earlier than Redford’s, only the Mendes stela receives attention, but any reader would have benefited from having the standing Amasis naos described, for instance, as it is the major monument still on site.

For the most part, the quality of photos, plans or illustrations is what you would expect from a scholarly publication, but in few cases the quality of a map or drawing is poor (figs. 2.5; 3.13 for in-stance). Also, some modern expressions enter into the book: “The managerial qualities of the head of state in Ancient Egypt were a decisive factor in the successful running of both government and the economy: Pharaoh was in fact a divine CEO. And if Egypt was to avert disaster it could scarcely afford a century of the same incompetent manager, divine or otherwise” (p. 42). Yet a modern CEO does not have any moral responsibility toward his workers, while a pharaoh had the wellbeing of his subjects as one of his duties.3 Moreover, the use of modern terms, while useful in introducing certain concepts, gives the (wrong) impression that it is possible to parallel ancient and modern institutions.

Despite these complaints, the book has certainly to be praised for giving a view – although not complete – of an ancient Egyptian city, its history and its excavations.


1. As found in Redford, D.B., Excavations at Mendes. Volume 1. The Royal Necropolis, Leiden, Brill, 2004.

2. Holz, R. K., Swan Hall, E. and Bothmer, B. V, Mendes I, Cairo, American Research Center in Egypt, 1980; de Meulenaere, H., MacKay, P. A., Mendes II, Warminster : Aris & Phillips 1976 are the two other major publication of the site. Sadly, the first is not mentioned in the notes to chapters and further readings at the end of the volume.

3. There were complaints about the language in Redford’s Akhenaten. The Heretic Pharaoh, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984), see Eaton-Krauss, M., “Akhenaten versus Akhenaten”, Bibliotheca Orientalis 47 (1990), 541-559. I am certainly one who favors modern theoretical frameworks in ancient studies, cf. Gozzoli, R. The Writing of History in Ancient Egypt during the First Millennium BC (ca. 1070-180 BC). Trends and Perspectives, London, Goldenhouse, 2006. But I am against excessively simplistic views.