You are here

Ancient Egypt: An Introduction

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Ancient Egypt: An Introduction

By Salima Ikram. Pp. xxiii + 330, b&w and color figs. 150. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009. $27. ISBN 978-0-521-67598-7 (paper).

Reviewed by

The allure of ancient Egypt is strong, and the demand for books about Egypt is great. Detailed studies written for a specialized audience serve a specific purpose well, but what about the general reader who is looking for a survey? As Ikram herself states, “few books furnish a broad overview that makes all aspects of Egyptian civilisation accessible at a fundamental level” (xi). With Ancient Egypt: An Introduction, Ikram has produced a broad overview while also making a welcome contribution to the genre of popular books on Egypt, all without sacrificing any nuance of scholarship. Her love of Egypt—and her vast knowledge of the subject—makes this book easily readable and also edifying.

The nine chapters of this volume are divided thematically; topics include the standard treatments one would expect of a thorough overview (including geography, history, religion, and social stratification). In the second chapter (“Travellers, Thieves, and Scholars: The History of Egyptology and Egyptomania”), Ikram gives a concise but thorough overview of the development of Egyptology from the earliest mentions of ancient Egypt by classical authors through the Early Medieval Arab interest and into the western/European “discovery” of Egypt. Although at times this chapter can begin to feel like a laundry list of names and dates, Ikram’s thorough treatment and inclusion of many significant but often overlooked individuals, peppered with anecdotes, never feels weighted down.

The third chapter (“Re-creating Ancient Egypt: Sources and Methodologies”) is a welcome addition. It provides an essential overview of how the history of ancient Egypt has been constructed. Ikram is to be commended for integrating not only standard primary sources, secondary sources, and archaeological reports but also for discussing the ways in which new technologies are becoming imperative to Egyptian archaeology. Her discussion of primary sources also expands beyond textual sources to include Egyptian monuments in their entirety (with a section, e.g., on how to “read” an Egyptian temple and how to distinguish hyperbole from accurate information—or, as she puts it, an ideal from reality), including the placement of these monuments within the context of the Egyptian landscape. The book is well illustrated; many of the photographs are the author’s own, and they go beyond standard representations to include several unexpected and refreshing scenes, such as a rabbit embalmed recently by Ikram and her students.

Ikram includes both modern research and modern perspectives on ancient Egypt. For instance, a treatment of the geology of Egypt in the first chapter, beginning in the Cenozoic period (65,000,000 b.p.), helps the reader to have a clear picture of the Egyptian landscape and how it was shaped over time. Given the impact that the landscape had on the formation of Egyptian society, this is essential information for a survey. Her focus on geography and landscape continues throughout the book, including a discussion of how Egyptians viewed different types of soil and their grain-production capabilities. She also dedicates as much time to the material culture as she does to the literary record, in a refreshing change from surveys that show partiality toward the written record.

The attention to detail notable in chapter 2 (on the history of Egyptology) is not as obvious in chapter 4 (“Shadows in the Sand: Egypt’s Past”). For a summary of ancient Egyptian history, few specifics are given, and major periods are glossed over quickly. However, for a one-chapter summary of Egyptian history, her material synthesizes new research with the standard understanding of historians; she adroitly incorporates ancient Egyptian art, culture, and literature along with modern archaeological finds. While the historical treatment is too broad for a specialized audience, educators might miss the lack of historical specificity, and general readers might also find themselves consulting outside sources to read about Egyptian history in greater detail. More than compensating for this, however, later chapters include detail of unexpected topics such as pottery making, livestock, and aspects of personal grooming. Other sections, such as the one on tomb development in the final chapter, provide more information that is typical of a survey.

In addition to providing a well-illustrated overview of ancient Egypt for the nonspecialist, one ideal use for this book would be as an introductory textbook. Despite ancient Egypt’s popularity, it can be surprisingly hard to find an appropriate book for an introductory survey of Egypt at the undergraduate level. Often, standard works in the field either assume extensive knowledge or are pitched to a level that is beyond many introductory undergraduate courses. Ikram aims to fill this gap, which is partly rooted in her many years of teaching at the American University in Cairo. The topical chapters are divided in a way that would be conducive to the classroom, and the supplementary materials (including a chronology, glossary, footnotes, further reading, and additional resources) even offer suggestions of more in-depth books that could be used to complement the text. In terms of teaching with this book, one minor criticism would be that the further reading section consists solely of monographs and includes no relevant articles. Additionally, in-text boxes augment the text with small asides on topics such as Belzoni, the decipherment of hieroglyphs, and Atenism, to name a few. The information in these boxes provides a nice stepping-off point where additional readings could be provided. Finally, and notably, Ikram’s volume is interesting and enjoyable to read. No higher compliment can be paid to a book.

Tracy Musacchio
History Department
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The City University of New York

Book Review of Ancient Egypt: An Introduction, by Salima Ikram

Reviewed by Tracy Musacchio

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Musacchio

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.