Book Review: The Pharaoh
by Garry J. Shaw
Thames & Hudson, 2012
Of the many focal points of fascination involving ancient Egypt – the elaborate tombs, the weird hieroglyphics, the outsized monuments – none is more pure and direct than its rulers: in the long history of human power, there has never been anything quite like the Pharaohs – gods on Earth, fallible human beings, and, most bizarrely of all, here among us, their bodies preserved by arts so spectacular and exacting that some of their mummified remains still show facial expressions. It’s little wonder one of the first fantasies to develop around the mummies of ancient Egypt is that these weren’t really dead bodies at all – that with the slightest of provocations, they might simply get up and start walking around.
Those shambling mummies, mindless and draped in dirty rags, stand in odd juxtaposition to the other image known around the world: the incredibly beautiful and refined funerary mask of the boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun, his serene golden face crowned by a nemes headdress, his hands clasping the royal crook and flail that symbolized his power three millennia ago. For most casual observers, this is the face of ancient Egypt, the staggering summary image of the pharaohs in all their glory.
The deep irony of this, as Egyptologist Garry Shaw points out in his sumptuously satisfying new book The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign, is that the long roll-call of those ancient pharaohs (and the all-powerful priestly caste which ruled the Nile valley in their name) would have wanted it just so. The image of the pharaoh was a carefully-tended thing, far more a matter of facade and stage-craft than even the Windsors of the 21st century could imagine. And the image-shaping was so extensive and conscientious that it still retains its power today: the pharaoh as distanced from ordinary humanity, as aloof as his tomb-portraits. The main purpose of Shaw’s book is to restore the humanity behind the impassive mask. The cover of The Pharaoh (marvellously produced by Thames & Hudson – oversized, as so many books on ancient Egypt are, and featuring over 200 illustrations, 178 of them in color) shows Seti I, preternaturally calm, with no hint of the urgent exigencies this warrior-king must have felt virtually every day of his life. This very tranquillity was a tool of ruling, a visual reassurance of social stability. Shaw wants to fill in the rest of the picture.
What did pharaohs eat? When and how (and with whom) did they sleep? What did they do all day, in their palaces and temples? How (if at all) did they interact with their people? What exactly could and couldn’t they do, as rulers? These are the questions Shaw takes up, and although this is extremely well-trod ground, there’s always room for one more engaging guide. He shares with us some imaginative reconstructions of the first thing the pharaohs might have seen in the morning (and their torture-device beds, which you’d pretty much have to be a god to endure), the often elaborate court rituals surrounding their physical persons, and what details the historical records give us of how they went to war and what they did on campaign. Because his book ranges over the entire span of Egypt’s history, he has a very large amount of material to use.
The circumstances changed drastically from dynasty to dynasty, of course, but the picture that emerges – refreshingly – is one of pharaohs as hands-on rulers actively involved in the maintenance of their realms:
Kingship thrives on ceremony; authority must be acknowledged in order to exist. In ancient Egypt, the court met frequently. Small-scale meetings took place in the private royal throne room, perhaps between the king and a single courtier since many individuals record that they were summoned at any hour to advise the king.
Almost by necessity, a good deal of Shaw’s book is straightforward narrative of ancient Egyptian history in fairly broad strokes. Despite being as high-profile as high-profile ancient-world leaders get, pharaohs often slip from our sight, lost in the larger story of tempestuous kingdoms. But Shaw does his best to keep his story focused on the remarkable men (and a few women) at the center of things:
Thutmose I hunted elephants by the lake of Niy when on campaign in Syria, as did his grandson Thutmose III, who ‘slew seven lions by shooting arrows in the space of a moment. He captured a herd of 12 wild bulls in a single hour before breakfast time arrived, their tails being (draped) behind him. He dispatched 120 elephants in the foreign territory of Niy.’ Thutmose also seems to have hunted a rhinoceros, as one is depicted on blocks from Armant, annotated with the animal’s measurements. These hunts did not always proceed smoothly; it seems Thutmose was attacked by an elephant in Niy and was only saved thanks to the quick action of a soldier named Amenemhab, who cut off the animal’s trunk.
Also refreshing is the attention Shaw pays to the substantial body of literature we have from ancient Egypt (not just The Book of the Dead), testing poems and song-cycles for what they might tell us about the day-to-day givens of imperial life. And our author is not above inserting the odd ‘talking point’ into his book, as when he makes a cheeky but convincing case that the last pharaoh of Egypt was … the 4th Century Roman emperor Diocletian.
All this research and enthusiasm is enlisted in a good cause: the grounding of the awe-inspiring remote grandeur of the pharaohs in the flesh-and-blood world of ordinary humans with ordinary limitations and emotions. It’s a good and needed corrective, although readers with access to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts will perhaps have known the main thrust of it long since. Those readers are able to stand and look at a life-sized statue of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Menkaure standing in a reserved but loving pose with his wife, Queen Khamerernebty. They ruled four thousand long years ago, but they seem entirely human even under the MFA’s unflattering lights. But Shaw’s book will help immeasurably with the rest of that gaudy crew.