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My Favorite Books on Ancient Egypt

Since we can’t go back in time or meet anybody who lived during the rule of Pharaohs, students of the time period often rely on books. Luckily, there are a lot of materials out there for fans of Ancient Egypt. I want to give you a short list of some of my favorite books to expand your collection or learn some more if you are interested.

There are many different versions of The Book of the Dead. These funeral texts, some of which are on display at The British Museum, taught us much of what we know about the rituals and beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians. The most well-known is probably the E.A. Wallis Budge edition, and for good reason: Dr. Budge worked in the Egyptology department at The British Museum and helped steal the Papyrus of Ani from Egypt in 1888. Personally, I like the Ogden Goelet and Raymond Faulkner edition for its oversized, glossy photos and readability. It is a good place to start if you’d like to learn about the techniques, prayers, and ceremonies regarding Egyptian funerals, or if you want to practice translating hieroglyphics.

If you wish to understand more about the religious aspects of the Egyptian culture, you might feel overwhelmed by the number of beings in their pantheon. A good book serves as a helpful guide to understanding both the major and minor deities and what part they played in the lives of their people. An easy to manage, yet thorough collection, can be found in Richard H. Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. I especially like the images that are included.

To learn more about the history of Egypt, I highly recommend The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson. It has the right blend of honesty and awe when it comes to this fascinating culture – the violence and brutality, the splendor and the knowledge. I also like that it doesn’t feel dry or as if I am being lectured. You get a good grasp of life in Egypt for its people, whether they were a Pharaoh or an ordinary citizen. If you’re just starting your journey into Egyptian studies, I recommend starting here.

For those of you who prefer fiction, there are a lot of books out there, some more historically accurate than others. Of the books that I’ve read, I have two favorites. The first is by Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, titled Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, a journalistic style novel about the “sun king” whose controversial reign I find incredibly interesting. The second fictional book I would recommend is The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which is both a well-researched and completely engrossing (albeit fictional) version of events told from the point of view of Cleopatra herself.

Finally, if you are hoping to encourage or further the interests of a younger reader, I have some recommendations there as well. For early readers, Mummy Cat has wonderful illustrations, an engaging story about a cat who wants to be reunited with his owner, and some facts about Egyptian culture at the end. For lovers of chapter books, Mummies in the Morning, Book 3 of the fascinating and imaginative series The Magic Treehouse is an interesting take on a tomb exploring adventure. DK Publishing has a great set of books for children about Egypt, from what life was like to glossy photos of the art of the time period, to extensive bios of the major people and deities of the time period.

I hope this little guide helped you, and if there is a book in particular that you like and that I missed, please let me know in the comments!

Great Museums for Egyptian Artifacts

Until we figure out how to go back in time and actually witness the events and experience the culture of the Ancient Egyptians, the best we can do is study artifacts. Unfortunately, not many of us can be archeologists and go on important digs. So we must resort to websites and museums to experience the art and culture for ourselves. But what are the best museums to visit? I’ve compiled a list of a few for your convenience, just know that I haven’t been able to visit them all first hand.

If you have the money and the means to go, by far the greatest and most extensive museums will be in Egypt. Next to the Giza Pyramids is a new museum (still partially under construction), The Grand Egyptian Museum. This huge, one-of-a-kind museum will host over 7,000 years’ worth of Egyptian culture and artifacts, many of which are being moved from the Museum of Cairo. Final completion of the museum will take a few more years but some areas appear to be open now. Many of the artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb will be moved there, although his fragile mummy will remain at the Valley of the Kings.

There are several great places in Europe to experience Egyptian art and culture. There’s too many to list, but The British Museum is probably the next best thing to visiting Egypt yourself, as it is home to the largest collection of artifacts outside of the Nile region in the world – including a mummy, The Book of the Dead and the Rosetta Stone. There are lots of other museums in the U.K. that have artifacts as well, but The British Museum is top of the list. In Germany, you can check out the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, dedicated solely to the study of Ancient Egypt and papyrus writings. The Louvre also has a great collection of Egyptian art. And if you find yourself in Italy, they also have a museum dedicated to the Egyptians, Museo Egizio, that is now the home of the Temple of Ellesyia — it needed to be relocated or be lost forever to Lake Nasser.

For those of you in the United States, there are several places throughout the country that are worth visiting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has another temple, the Temple of Dendur, that needed to be relocated for the same reason as Ellesyia. Although it is indoors, the museum took pains both to make it look like it was at “home” while maintaining the look of that wing of the museum. Further east, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a top-notch collection as well, some of which you can view directly on their website. The University of Chicago’s Oriental Museum and the Smithsonian’s National History Museum also have impressive collections.

In Asia, you can visit the impressive Pushkin Museum for another extensive collection of Egyptian art and artifacts.

These are just a small handful of museums that you can visit. Check out this handy page on Wikipedia for an even more in-depth list of locations around the world that you can visit to see and learn more about this fascinating culture.

Time Periods of Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians dominated a good portion of the early history of mankind. Through careful excavations and extensive research, scientists have learned a lot and have organized that information into different time periods. As a basic rule, periods of turmoil and change are noted as Intermediate Periods.

Archaeological digs have been able to give us great insight into a time before recorded history. Known best as the Predynastic Period, it spanned from around 6000 through 3150 BCE. Objects found throughout the Nile River Valley area help archeologists piece together how the culture developed and the daily lives of people who lived there.

Next came the Early Dynastic Period. Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under a single, centralized government ruled by a king. The first of these kings was Menes (or possibly Narmer, as more research has scholars believing).  Moving on to The Old Kingdom, four dynasties followed. This time period is also known as the Pyramid Age. The Pyramid of Djoser, Great Pyramid of Giza, and the Great Sphinx were built during this time. Pharaoh Djoser broke up the kingdom into different areas, known as nomes, which had their own governors (called a nomarch). But the nomarchs grew so powerful that the government collapsed while famine and poverty ravaged the population.

A dark period followed: The First Intermediate Period. While plentiful documentation and art have survived from The Old Kingdom, we do not have much from this transition era. Battling factions fought over resources and led to the founding of Lower Egypt. Finally, Mentuhotep II defeated Lower Egypt and brought it back under his control. The Middle Kingdom followed. Infrastructure improved and art was plentiful again. The Pharaohs limited the power of nomarchs and priests and formed a centralized army under the direct control of the Pharaoh. This time period was prosperous, but there were challenges to come.

The Second Intermediate Period depicts an Egypt divided into three factions – Nubians had taken the south, Hyksos ruled over the north, and Egyptian ruled at Thebes. The biggest conflict here was between the Hyksos and the Seventeenth Dynasty. Eventually, the Egyptians won and began consolidating power again. The New Kingdom followed, marking another prosperous time for the area. Many well-known people came from this era – Ramses, Tutankhamun, Amenhotep, and Nefertiti.

Marking the death of Ramses XI, the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt was once again a tumultuous time marked by significant decline and political instability. This period coincided with the Dark ages all over Greece and portions of the Mediterranean. By the end of this period, Egypt had lost much of its prestige throughout the world. The Persians took advantage of this chaos, imprisoning and eventually killing Pharaoh Psamtik III so that the Persian king Cambyses could assume the title of Pharaoh.

The Late Period was ruled by both Native Egyptians as well as Libyans and Persians. The 26th through the 31st dynasty was marked by the Egyptian people resisting rule by the Persians even though the Persians encouraged and imitated the traditional Egyptian culture. Alexander the Great ended the Persian rule of Egypt and was greeted as a liberator. This final period was known as the Greco-Roman Period. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of the end of Egyptian culture, as it blended with Hellenism, and later, Christianity.

Those are the main time periods of Ancient Egypt. If there is a specific period that you’re interested in, please let me know in the comments and I might dedicate an entire post to it.

Why Study Something From So Long Ago?

Why am I so intrigued by the ancient Egyptians? Well, friend, I am not the only one. A better question to ask is: why do their ways and artwork interest so many people? Why are there whole sections of museums and scientists who have dedicated their careers, to the study of a language and a people that lived so very long ago? It is such a fascinating puzzle when you really start to think about it. The interest sparks in us as children when we make our first trip to a museum and see an ancient artifact first hand, or when we see those pyramids on TV or in a textbook for the first time.

 

I think the main reason we’re so interested in people from so long ago stems from their accomplishments. We tend to think of the past, especially that long ago, to be primitive times. But we still don’t know how they managed to do some of the things they did. Some people have that their whole lives and dedicate their careers to solving some of those mysteries.

 

How did they build those pyramids with the kind of technology that was available at that time? By studying artwork, texts, and artifacts, scientists now think that those huge bricks were moved on a sledge while workers poured water on the sand directly in front to get it where they wanted the bricks to go. But how did they develop the plans, and get the bricks in place? They did not have the use of computer programs or modern construction equipment like we would now. How have the pyramids lasted as long as they have when things we build now can barely survive a few storms? Think about it – they couldn’t possibly have known or been able to predict the long-term weather effects on these structures. There has been erosion, yes, but the most damage has been done either deliberately or by having areas opened to tourists.

 

The Egyptians were some of the earliest embalmers that we know of. They believed that the body needed to be preserved so that the spirit could be reunited with their body when the time came. Scientists think it took around 70 days to complete the process. Organs were removed and embalmed separately. They dried out the body using a type of salt. Once the body was dry, it was wrapped and prepared for a tomb. We still embalm bodies, although we use different techniques. But how incredible is it that the work they did, so long ago, to preserve bodies has made them last as long as they have? Now, using xray machines, we can learn even more about how people lived, and how they died, from that time without risking any damage to the mummies themselves.

 

Learning about other cultures and different time periods can inspire us and teach us things. I think studying any culture has amazing benefits. And the Ancient Egyptians are probably the most interesting!