A Potentially Strong Overview, But Riddled With Weaknesses – A Review of The Story of Egypt by Joann Fletcher

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I’ve been fascinated with ancient Egypt since I was in grade school. I attribute this fascination to my mother, who gave me a lovely set of lavishly-illustrated Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness books when I was younger, and those books informed my current, adult fascination in history and science, as well as nudged me towards the kind of reading I most enjoy doing today. My mother would help me amass quite the collection of such books as I was growing up, but among the very first books she gave me was about ancient Egypt. Since then, I have been enamoured with the place and the time period, and once dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist, digging through the shifting sands in search of lost Egyptian artefacts.

Because of this early interest in the subject, I’ve tried to keep up with whatever new books about ancient Egypt come out – something that was difficult before, but now made significantly easier thanks to the Internet. It has also become much easier to find books about specific parts of ancient Egyptian history, or about specific personages; oftentimes, I skim the Kirkus Review’s website for new books that might interest me. That was how I found out about The Woman Who Would Be King, Kara Cooney’s biography of Hatshepsut, which turned out to be one of my favourite reads of 2015, despite a few minor issues I had with it, which I mention in this review.

It was while skimming through the Kirkus Review website that I found out about The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped The World by Joann Fletcher. I have seen Fletcher as a host on various ancient Egypt-related documentaries, and since I like the way she does her narrations on the aforementioned documentaries, I supposed that her writing might not be all that bad either. I also picked it up because I was interested in reading a more grown-up overview of ancient Egyptian history, instead of something that has been edited and packaged primarily for young adults. Fletcher’s book seemed like just the thing.

The Story of Egypt tells the history of ancient Egypt chronologically, starting with ancient Egyptian creation myths and prehistoric settlements along the Nile River’s banks, all the way to the death of Cleopatra VII, which many historians use as a marker to indicate the end of what they considered to be ancient Egyptian history. Fletcher goes through every single dynasty, one after the other, telling their story and interweaving them with the myths and legends that formed the core of the ancient Egyptians’ view of the world and their understanding of their place in it. In doing so, Fletcher creates an overview of ancient Egyptian history, one that not only enumerates the civilisation’s many accomplishments, but attempts to explain how they achieves such things, and why they did it.

What I like best about Fletcher’s book is that it tries to put as much focus as possible on the female – on goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon, and on the lives of women from the common to the royal. When I read Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Johnson said the following in relation to the efforts of archaeologist Sarah Milledge Nelson to give women back their place in history: “…if you never look for evidence of powerful women, even if the hills and valleys are full of queens and warriors, they’ll be invisible.” What Fletcher does in The Story of Egypt falls completely in line with this sentiment. For example, when Fletcher describes the role of ancient Egyptian goddesses vis-a-vis their male counterparts, she does so in the following terms:

And while Osiris, his father Geb and fellow deities like fertility god Min were usually portrayed as static and inert, with only their prominent reproductive organ bearing any sign of life, their female counterparts were often seen to be initiating action, from Nut, the ‘Great Striding Goddess, sowing precious stones as stars’ to her dynamic daughter Isis who, by gradually absorbing the powers of her fellow goddesses, eventually became Egypt’s most powerful deity, striding out across the Mediterranean to be worshipped for centuries across three continents.

Perhaps because of this culturally and religiously-ingrained respect for their goddesses, ancient Egyptian culture itself tended to be a lot more egalitarian in its treatment of the female of our species. Take, for example, the following excerpt, in which Fletcher illustrates how royal officials passed their titles and wealth on to their children:

Although such officials generally passed down their titles to their sons, some passed them to their daughters, while others were passed from mother to son or indeed from mother to daughter. Wealth derived from the Crown was also passed down from both parents to their children; this is first expressed in the biography of Metjen, who rose through the ranks from warehouse scribe to royal intimate, and who states that ‘there were presented to him the things of his father’. and ‘there were conveyed to him 50 aroura [almost fourteen hectares] of land by his mother Nebsent. She made a will to her children and it was placed in their possession by the king’s writings’.

Fletcher does not limit herself to the high-and-mighty of ancient Egypt, however; she also shines a light on the ordinary people, specifically the ordinary women – some of whom may have literally built the pyramids:

And just as the graves of the Predynastic dead are the best way to understand the Predynastic living, so the six hundred small tombs of the Giza workers similarly preserve a real sense of their original owners. They include the weaver Neferhetpes, mother of eleven children, who had clearly deserved the fourteen types of bread and cakes she requested as offerings in her tomb inscriptions.

In some cases the people are still present too, their skeletal remands unsurprisingly revealing strain-induced health problems. Nearly all the individuals examined showed signs of arthritis and compressed vertebrae; one physical anthropologist was ‘surprised to see this kind of arthritis in the women’ and added that ‘there is more damage to their bone than you would expect from simply doing household chores’.

Aside from human remains, tomb paintings further illustrate how women were not only mothers and wives, but held down other jobs that had nothing to do with just running a household:

… In calmer scenes, two women bake bread while tending their children, although the prize for multitasking mother has to go to the unnamed woman shown in another Sakkara tomb, breastfeeding her baby while steering a cargo ship, telling the lad who brings her lunch ‘Don’t obstruct my face with it while I am putting to the shore!’

Through Fletcher’s eyes, the reader comes to see a changed view of ancient Egypt: one that is not solely about its kings and the great deeds of those kings, but also about the queens, highborn ladies, and ordinary women who moved through all walks of life on a similar footing with their male counterparts. It is this altered view that I find most valuable about Fletcher’s book, because she gives women back their place in the story of ancient Egypt – a place that the largely male (and in some ways, deeply misogynistic) field of Egyptology has neglected to do.

Unfortunately, despite this compelling reason to pick up the book, The Story of Egypt has its own weaknesses. One of those is the overall narrative that the book takes. Since Fletcher goes literally dynasty by dynasty through ancient Egyptian history, there are times when the book reads more like a Biblical list of “begats,” rather than as a compelling story. And while I am aware that so much of the history of ancient Egypt is gleaned from archaeological evidence, Fletcher tends to linger on those details a mite longer than I prefer.

What this means is that the book is, more often than not, something of a slog to read, except in the portions that actually interest me. This is unfortunate because I chose to pick up this book precisely because I wished to learn more about the parts of ancient Egyptian history that are not as widely covered, but there are times when Fletcher does not seem to be trying all that hard to make certain aspects of the story as interesting as they could potentially be, mentioning them only as waypoints to something more interesting.

Equally disappointing is how the book does not deliver on the subtitle’s promise. While there are moments when Fletcher does show how certain aspects of ancient Egyptian culture did indeed affect the world at large, more often than not, the innovations Fletcher points out (or which the reader is able to dig up on their own while slogging through the book) seem applicable only to Egypt itself, or only for the duration of a particular time period. This is unfortunate, because the subtitle suggests that the book will show how the ancient Egyptians shaped the rest of the world through their culture and various technological innovations, but Fletcher does not do much to truly highlight these otherwise interesting points – and sometimes, does not seem to present them at all.

Another problem that other readers have noticed is that Fletcher has a distinctly biased approach to certain topics presented in the book – namely, anything to do with Nefertiti. Back in 2004 Fletcher published a book titled The Search for Nefertiti: The True Story of an Amazing Discovery, in which she presents her case for claiming one of the bodies found in a mummy cache in the Valley of the Kings is, in fact, the body of none other than Nefertiti herself, famed as one of the greatest beauties of history thanks to a bust that is now housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin. However, that book has garnered much criticism from other Egyptologists; the main points are presented in this article from Archaeology.org.

Since I have not read The Search for Nefertiti, I cannot claim with absolute certainty that the information Fletcher presents about Nefertiti and the Amarna period in The Story of Egypt is indeed biased or unbiased. Still, I think it is important to mention what others have already said about her previous publication, especially since other reviewers are already claiming bias in The Story of Egypt. I advise the reader, therefore, to approach that portion of the book with some caution, with an eye towards scepticism regarding what Fletcher claims as factual, at least as far as the Amarna period and Nefertiti are concerned.

Overall, The Story of Egypt is a potentially interesting book for those who are looking for a broad overview of the history of ancient Egypt, but it does suffer from some problems, such as a tendency towards narrative slog, and the spectre of intellectual bias (which other readers of Fletcher’s work have already noted in her previous work) hangs over certain portions of the book. It is a pity that this is the case, because Fletcher’s attempt to give ancient Egyptian women their rightful place in the historical narrative is an otherwise compelling reason to pick up this book.

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