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Ancient Egypt!

By (May 1, 2014) No Comment

Our book today is something simply called Ancient Egypt, a slim 1942 volume from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; it began life as a fairly straightforward guidebook to the museum’s vast and impressive collection of artwork and artifacts from ancient Egypt, which a later editor very accurately characterized as “not the most extensive but perhaps the most distinguished outside of Cairo.”

The original book became something of a surprise hit, not only in the museum’s always-bustling gift shop but also with the general reading public. Subsequent editions followed (we’re looking at the most comprehensive and last of those editions, reprinted in 1960), each more generously illustrated than the last, and all featuring the clear-as-a-bell narration brought together by the museum staff. There’s nothing musty about their descriptions of even the most familiar subjects, like this refreshing description of the new near-monotheism of the rogue pharaoh Akhenaten:

Far simpler than the old religion, it laid emphasis upon truth, or rather, upon individual liberty. With this was bound up a love of nature, for the life-giving powers of the sun were universally expressed in all living things.

The book’s narrative extends far beyond the collection’s actual objects, of course, and those passages, too, are surprisingly evocative:

At Tell al Amarna, in a sandy plain where the eastern hills make a wide curve away from the river, Akhenaten created a new city which was intended to provide a more congenial background for his religious experiment. Patterned somewhat after his father’s palace at Birket Habu in western Thebes, there were rambling palaces and villas surrounded by orchards and gardens pleasantly interspersed with pools and little summer-houses. Gay wall paintings and vines and flowering shrubs concealed the signs of hasty construction.

The writers in Ancient Egypt are always careful to move their familiar curated objects mentally back through the centuries into their original settings – something museum docents are forever despairing of getting their distracted patrons to do:

The impressive seated statue of the goddess Sekhmet in dark stone is representative of the temple sculpture of the time. It was one of many such figures which lined the court of the temple of Mut erected by Amenhotep III south of the Amon temple at Karnak. These lion-headed female figures must have been grimly effective standing in long rows against the walls.

I have no idea how many hours I’ve spent wandering around the MFA’s Egyptian collection, both alone and in the company of friends. I’ve done it in all weathers and all moods, and depending on those moods and weathers, some pieces have struck me more than others. But I have my favorites, as you’d expect, and the first of these is the beguiling statue of the pharaoh Mycerinus and his wife, both of them lucy reads mfa egyptradiating calm love and contentment even now, an unthinkable expanse of time after they lived and breathed. I’ve never read a description that does this pair true justice, but I like the simple elegance of this book’s attempt:

Thus in a slate pair, Queen Kha-merer-nebty stands beside her husband, placing one arm around his waist while her other arm rests upon his arm. One feels in this statue, as in the other great pieces of Dynasty IV, that the ideal of kingly majesty has been achieved. Everything superficial has been eliminated.

Certainly there are larger and more elaborate guidebooks, both to ancient Egypt and for the Boston museum’s great collection. But this one is a wonderful combination of art and scholarship, and it’s slim enough to fit in your shoulder bag – even if you know its contents well enough not to need it there.