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Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs

A popular History of Ancient Egypt, by Barbara Mertz
Yet another library find (type "Egypt" into a library catalog and you'll get dozens of books returned) that was an engaging and interesting history of Egypt. This book is definitely not written for serious egyptologists (which I am not), but is a well-written popular history that presents the primary theories in Egyptology without bogging down the narrative with the dozens of conflicting theories that abound in the field. This is not a bad thing, though. The book is quite dated (1964), and therefore does not take into account the latest theories and facts, but it does present a stirring history that covers the basics.

Additionally, when Mertz is presenting her own pet theories, or disagreeing with the majority of Egyptology, she is very clear to label the ideas as her own and point out that others disagree. In some cases, she even admits that she has little evidence for her position other than a "gut feel". It's refreshing to read someone who is so passionate about what she does, even if I had to take the writings with a grain of salt and compare them to later, perhaps more accurate, accounts.

For example, many of the currently voiced theories are not even mentioned -- the identification of Akhenaton's mummy, and the possibility that Nefertiti ruled after him as the pharaoh Smenkaure, etc -- but she paints the broader picture of Egyptian history very well.

I found her attitude towards Ramesses II to be absolutely in line with every guide we had in Egypt: Ramesses II decided to simply cover every open space with his name or his statues to ensure that he wasn't forgotten..since he didn't really do much else except build and sculpt. Most of our guides referred to him as "The Coca-Cola Pharaoh", since his name was as ubiquitous as the red and white Coca-Cola signs that hang everywhere.

Mertz is also the only author to directly address the odd naming conventions that we use when we discuss the pharaohs. Most books will outline the concept of five names (the Royal Titulary), but don't mention the fact that pharaohs' names were translated strangely and that our current method of naming leaves something to be desired. Thutmose, for example, is an odd conglomeration of Egyptian and Greek words (Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek word for "son", Mose) and certainly not what the Egyptians originally wrote. Her discussion of language and culture are deftly woven into the historical narrative, making this a very enjoyable book.

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