Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Miroslav Verner - The Pyramids - Their Archaeology and History

For thousands of years people have travelled to Egypt to see the pyramids. Even when first built they must have attracted visitors from far and wide. These gigantic monuments that were thousands of years old when the ancient Greeks and Romans went to Egypt still have an unbelievable power to impress.

It seems that there is no end to the interest that the Pyramids, and ancient Egyptian society can generate - is there ever a day when the History channel doesn't have a programme about their mysteries? How many DVDs, books and films have been made?

Miroslav Verner is at the cutting edge of archaeological research into the Pyramids. For many years he has headed up the Czech research team at Abu Sir, a pyramid site 30 or so kilometres south of Cairo. His book is an attempt to bring together everything that we know about these monuments and the society that built them.

This is a massive task and credit should be due to Verner for making it so readable. Given the limited knowledge we can have about a civilisation that existed 5000 years ago, Verner lets us know precisely what is known, and were there is doubt, he explains the theories and ideas that exist.

Khafre's pyramid at Giza

While nothing can prepare anyone for the first time they see the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, or the Great Pyramid rising above Cairo's outskirts, Verner certainly creates an exciting read though - even when describing an empty tomb, you can smell the musty air! If there is one criticism of this book, there is too much detail about the number of rooms and corridors in some of the monuments - but this isn't a book aimed at the amateur - this is a text book and that needs to be taken into account by the reader. Saying that, Verner isn't above the odd bit of humour - like when he points out that while previous arcaheologists used dynamite and slave labour to enter the tombs, this isn't standard practice these days.

The Pyramids - Miroslav VernerIt's perhaps unfortunate that Verner has to spend the last chapter of this work dismissing the lunatic ideas and theories that abound about the pyramids - but he does it with the same care and humour that he uses when telling us about burial procedures and discussing the methods that Egyptian builders may have used.

If you ever go to Egypt, take this book with you. There's nothing quite like seeing the Pyramids, except perhaps knowing exactly what you are looking at and there aren't many books that will make you feel as knowledgable about the pyramids as this one.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Dieter Kurth - The Temple of Edfu - A guide by an Ancient Egyptian Priest

The huge ancient Egyptian temple at Edfu in southern Egypt must be one of the best-preserved places of the many impressive buildings that have survived from that ancient civilisation. The temple is dedicated to the god Horus, and took many decades to build.

The Temple of Edfu - Unknown ancient priestOne of the unique aspects to the building is a long inscription, over 300 metres of hieroglyphics, around the wall of the temple. This inscription, made by an anonymous Egyptian priest are of great importance because they describe the building in great detail. It’s dimensions, it’s shape and layout, the purpose of the rooms.

The text’s language is strange to read – mingling references to kings and gods in an almost poetic way, which requires a detailed understanding of ancient Egyptian beliefs and history to get more than a rudimentary enjoyment and knowledge from it.

But this in itself is fascinating – the way clearly the Egyptians believed that there was a duality between rulers on Earth, and the Gods themselves.

The Temple of Edfu front pylonsDieter Kurth has done amateur Egyptologists a favour by bringing this fascinating text together with maps and a history of the temple. Kurth’s introduction to the history of Edfu’s exploration by later archaeologists and the role of religion in ancient Egyptian society is also very useful. He also documents and builds on previous attempts to understand the inscriptions.

For anyone trying to get a glimpse into life 2000 years ago, towards the end of the Egyptian civilisations domination of North Africa, this book will give you a start.

But the last word should surely go to that unknown priest who wrote the words for the side of the building that speak down the centuries to us about a monument to a different world.

“They [the Gods] protect their beloved son (the king) because ofhis monument [Edfu] and they allow his image to endure on earth, the image of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt…whose Ka is granted power and strength on the Throne of Horus, at the head of the living, forever.”

Friday, April 08, 2005

Robert Charles Wilson - Darwinia

This 1999 science fiction novel looks at the ideas of alternate realities / universes with a somewhat different approach. Things start out promisingly, albeit with a somewhat unbelievable core idea.
This idea - that Europe vanishes overnight in 1912, being replaced by a continent identical in geography, but with a different natural evolution - has many plot holes. Some of them so large you can drive a very large bus through them. But leaving this aside, we get a promising start to the book.

Obviously Britain has vanished - on the eve of the First World War, still the greatest imperial nation, and one controlling large swaithes of the globe. With it's capital gone, parts of the empire (Egypt is mentioned) gain rapid independece, while the remnants of the British Ruling Class - lead by Lord Kitchener, from Canada, attempt to hang on to India, and the more important bits.

Britain's navy is intact, and this leads to the most exciting ideas in the book - that the vast, untapped natural resources of this new, primerial Europe, are up for grabs - and the US wants to get them. Sparking conflict between the two powers.

So the book centres on an expedition into the new/old continent. At this point, the novel falls apart. Rapidly. We get some sort of alternate-reality, future civilisation, mumbo-jumbo. Different forces at the end of the galaxy are mentioned, who seem to be using the Earth as both a store of the accumulated information over the previous eons and a battlefield. Or something.

Frankly, it's easy not to care. So I didn't. I finished it out of duty, in the hope that something interesting might happen. But when some of the main characters (I say characters, but most of them are little more than names) started to mutate into lizard like creatures with multiple arms, I found that the only reason left to finish the book, was so that I could be horrible about it in this review.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Robert Graves - I, Claudius

The 40 year rule by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, which ended in AD14, was followed by decades of the most infamous periods of Roman history.

Robert Graves’ famous novel, “I, Claudius” views the temporary decline of Roman society, through the eyes of future emperor, Claudius.

Claudius - lame, stammering and bookish, is somewhat of a Roman “Flashman”, present at some of the major events of Roman history two thousands years ago, meeting famous writers, statesmen and soldiers, and being intimately connected through extensive family connections with the lives and loves of those around him. Though historians know that unlike the Flashman character, Claudius was actually there.

This then is a stylish read of treachery, murder, sex, incest, violence and madness. And if my all to limited knowledge of that period of history is correct, Graves has stuck pretty close to the known facts, and where he’s embellished and added things, it’s done in a way that is entirely plausible.

First published in 1934, it’s inevitable though, that later historians will dispute some ideas that where taken for granted when this novel was first written. The Emperor before Claudius, was Caligula who in popular belief was mad, murderous and extremely violent, but some later historians believe that he possibly wasn’t as insane as made out. Graves’ book may well have helped emphasise a one sided view of Caligula’s rein – a view totally distorted by the later film of his life.

However, as long as you don’t base an academic paper on the detail in this novel – the Penguin edition I have certainly makes it look like another of their series of reprints of early Roman writings – there is much to recommend this exciting read. Not least of which is the portrayal you get of everyday Roman life, the food, the slaves, the attitudes to lower and upper classes and the religion.

Related Reviews

Graves - Claudius The God