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Friday, July 14th, 2006

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12:39a
Yeah, another one ...
As I noted in my last review, I was reading another book on Egypt while plowing through those four "Lost Civilizations" books. This one was also part of a series, "The Cultural Atlas of the World", and I figured it would take as long, in parallel, to read it as those four books, and they did, indeed, come in at a dead heat.

John Baines & Jaromir Malek's Ancient Egypt is a remarkable book. I'd not seen any of the "Cultural Atlas" books, but I assume they're all based on this concept, of taking the geography of the studied region to act as a framework for the cultural aspects. Of course, for Egypt this is a remarkably revealing approach, starting in far Upper (Southern) Egypt, the book walks the reader ruin site to ruin site all the way up to the Delta, describing the ancient Egyptians' political structures, dynastic struggles, and evolving civilization. The only downside of this is that most of the narrative didn't have a clear "time arrow", as it would move from one site from the Old Kingdom to one that primarily hailed from the Ptolemaic era, and much of this was discussed in terms of Dynasties rather than years, so one did have a tendency to lose track of what was from when. To be fair, the first quarter or so of the book does give a "historical portrait" of Egyptian civilization, so I suppose if one was to be referring back and forth (OK, or paying more attention) it would be less hazy than I experienced it.

There were several things that I found surprising, although in retrospect, I suppose they make sense ... prime among these is just how much Greco/Roman material there is .. of course, being the "later phase" this stuff has had less time to disappear, but given the thousands of years of building, it's just such a small slice. I was also surprised to find how many of the Roman Emperors added their touches to various sites. There was Hadrian's this and Trajan's that, and most of this stuff seemed to be additions or restorations to Egyptian temples honoring the local Gods, in the classic Egyptian style for the most part. Somehow I guess I though that if a Roman Emperor was going to build something it was going to look, well, Roman and be dedicated to their Gods. I suspect that this might come from too much Shakespeare as a source for my "Rome in Egypt" mental framework!

Ancient Egypt, being an atlas is chock-full of maps, perhaps giving the best sense of any source of exactly where the various whats are in Egypt, but aside from that it is "lavishly illustrated" with photos, line drawings, art reproductions, and diagrams. Personally, and this is just a gripe, I wish they'd invested in some fly-time to take aerial shots of more of the ruin sites, as after a while the dune-level snapshot of bits of columns or pylons got to be a bit of a blur, and having the bird's eye view would have made it a lot easier to "get" the many "site diagrams" they provided, which (for me at least) were often hard to mentally assemble the temple bits into.

These caveats aside, this is one heck of a reference to have handy, as it allows you to look up nearly any significant Egyptian ruin and get at least a thumbnail of what it was about. A later version (from a different publisher) of Ancient Egypt is still in print, but has a $50 cover price ... copies of the original version are available, though, via the Amazon new/used vendors in "like new" condition for as little as $3.99 ... which is what I'd be looking at if I were going to be picking up a copy.


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