The Egyptians

"The Egyptians"
by Michael Hayes
Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1998
ISBN 0847821080
160 pages, $19.95

(Note: The following review has been excerpted in the November-December 1999 issue of "Scientific American Discovering Archaeology" magazine.)

Good things can come in small packages. Lush photographs and full color make this short book worth the money. While Hayes suggests this introduction to ancient Egypt is also for adults, its simplistic tone is better suited to children -- as a first introduction, especially for an intermediate young reader, The Egyptians is a wonderful place to start.

Hayes is so cognizant of his young audience that some sexually oriented material is censored. For example, the myth of Heru and Set notes Heru's loss of an eye, but not Set's loss of a testicle, and the hermaphroditic god Hapi is referenced as "a well-fed blue man." Strangely, other points of the text do not seem embarrassed by such material.

An additional inconsistency is the jacket and introduction's continual assertion that The Egyptians is specifically about New Kingdom Egypt. Except for details on certain pharaohs, Hayes makes reference to the entire expanse of Egyptian history. This is disappointing in two ways -- it creates a book which is neither entirely general nor entirely specific.

The Egyptians covers various topics such as daily life, the temple of Amun at Karnak, and the life and times of Thutmose III. The book also focuses an entire chapter on Hatshepsut, combining artful photography with history of the woman who would be king. Surprisingly, however, Tyldesley's signature work on Hatshepsut is neither quoted nor listed in the bibliography. This is unfortunate (as is Hayes' decision to start the chapter by painting Hatshepsut as a poor gentle victim of a stepson's postmortem hatred, a stereotype more or less abandoned by today's scholars). Other than its start, the Hatshepsut chapter is well-balanced, presenting several theories concerning Hatshepsut's motives and the denouement of her reign.

A chapter on the enigmatic Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten depicts him as "a king in a hurry" -- a perfect title for Hayes' exposition of the alternately fascinating and maddening Heretic. The chapter forms a fair yet brief introduction to the Amarna Period and captioned photographs enhance the story as it unfolds.

Hayes also discusses the understanding of death in ancient Egypt, using imagery to explain concepts which seem strange to a modern audience. However, imagery is occasionally mired in author bias. For example, the suggestion that Egyptian underworld books provide "an early glimpse into...the dark psychological side of Egyptian imperialism" is out of character with an otherwise positive presentation, as is an earlier note that Egyptian temples and pyramids were built through the "miseries unwitnessed" of slave labor.

The recommended reading and glossary are superb. Unfortunately, however, the provided chronology can be misleading, since it only mentions rulers discussed in the book. For example, Khafre (Chephren), Unas, and Montuhotep I are listed in order, without a clear explanation of the hundreds of years and number of unaccounted rulers between each.

Even with its disappointments, I would recommend The Egyptians as a gift or first book for young people interested in ancient Egypt.

- Rev. Tamara L. Siuda