An Audio-Book Review: Back to School

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

A series of lectures by Professor Bob Brier

Published by The Teaching Company


The Lectures:

Every so often I like to take a break from listening to fiction and, instead, go for something, uh, real. So for the next two weeks I shall be reviewing two series of lectures, published by The Learning Company. My academic degrees are in archaeology so it was natural I might choose to listen to this series first (The next is more historical than archaeological in nature although still of interest to me).

My field of studies, while working on my master’s thesis centered on the archaeology of the Israel area so I had to study both Mesopotamian and Egyptian archaeology because, as my freshman advisor once remarked to me, in Anthropology (and archaeology) everything is related.

Bob Brier’s lecture style is engaging and only semi-formal, but which I mean he does not drone on about his subject and that you can easily imagine sitting in his classroom as he talks. I think it is obvious that you will not be tempted to sleep during one of his lectures. So, yes, I enjoyed listening to him, but I did have a few reservations.

Perhaps because I am already reasonably well versed on most of the subjects of his lectures, I found them somewhat shallow, rarely going into great detail. They were great for the beginner who knows very little about ancient Egypt, but it definitely would not serve as a refresher for a graduate student. Then again, these lectures, and this series in particular) are meant to be introductory, so maybe I’m out of line.

I was a bit disappointed in his choice of “Great Pharaohs.” Certainly, Narmer, the king who unified Upper and Lower Egypt, was a good place to start, but I was a bit annoyed when he characterized Snefru as the Pyramid Builder. Yes, his “Red Pyramid” was the first true, smooth-sided pyramid and he had two failures (the Broken Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid) before that, but I think the credit for invention should go to Djoser, or rather his architect, Imhotep, who, during the previous dynasty built the first Step Pyramid. Snefru’s pyramids were actually just refinements (although significant refinements) of Djoser’s. Very little credit, however is given here to Djoser and Imhotep. However, one should grant that it was Snefru’s building style that led to the Great Pyramid of his son Khufu and the others situated at Giza.

And then the lecture skips roughly a thousand years (and 14 dynasties) to the reign of Hatshepsut, one of only two reigning Egyptian queens the average person may have heard of (the other being Cleopatra). I will not contest his choice of Hatshepsut. I would have centered on her too, but, a lot happened between her and Snefru (two Intermediary Periods and the whole of the Middle Kingdom). By the time we get to the 4th lecture on Akhenaten, I realized that his choice of “Great Pharaohs” meant the ones we know the most about, but not necessarily great in terms of their influence on Egyptian history. Certainly, had Howard Carter not found Tutankhamun’s undisturbed tomb, I doubt he would have been considered important enough to merit two lectures to, although Ramses II does deserve to be called the “Great.”

However, as I mentioned above, the lectures did not really go into great detail and in some cases glossed over or misrepresented some details I thought important. For example, at one point Doctor Brier states that all Egyptian art is the same, being literally set in stone and never changes, until the reign of Akhenaten. The truth, however, is that the unusual realism of Egyptian art during the Amarna Period actually can be seen in development earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty. (NB: the Aten disk, the symbol of Akhenaten’s god, can be seen in several bits of art from the reign of his father, Amenhotep III. Aten had been a minor god but the fact the disk appears with some frequency earlier might indicate that the cult of the Aten was beginning to rise in importance even before Akhenaten chose it as his one and only god) The realistic art style reached its height when Akhenaten became king and lasted into the reigns of several successors, but it was not a sudden occurrence as the lecture makes it sound.

I was pleased to listen to a lecture on the Nubian kings of Egypt as they were ones about which I only knew a little, although I am not sure why Alexander the Great deserved a whole lecture. Yes, he conquered Egypt, but his main contribution was to die, leaving his general Ptolemy I to inherit the kingdom. We then have a lecture on the early Ptolemies and finish up with Cleopatra. Was Cleopatra a Great Pharaoh? Certainly, a famous one, but I can only say she was better at it than her brother.

In all, I think there should have been twice as many lectures in this series to at least make an attempt to fill in the many gaps necessitated by the fact that it was attempting to cover about 3000 years in only six hours. However, even though I knew most of this, it was still fun and interesting to listen to.

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