Joann Fletcher, the author of “The Story of Egypt,” has an unusual academic specialty: “world mummification and funerary archaeology.” No doubt her area of expertise partly explains why her book focuses so heavily on ancient monuments and archaeological matters at the expense of anecdotal history and general observations about society and culture.
Nonetheless, “The Story of Egypt” is, for all its dryly factual tone, passionately revisionist throughout. Fletcher repeatedly presents evidence that a woman could become a full-fledged pharaoh by succeeding a husband or ruling in conjunction with one. Among earlier historians, the cross-dressing Hatshepsut was regarded as a shocking anomaly when she assumed the kingship, but Fletcher shows that sexual identity, at least among the ancient Egyptian ruling class, was as fluid as it is becoming in our own 21st century. For example, Nefertiti — whose sculptured face is one of the most recognizable icons of antiquity — was also regarded as a true pharaoh and not just a consort to her husband, Akhenaten. Royal women were sometimes even represented with fake beards and male accoutrements.
Consider, too, that “The Sayings of Ptahhotep” — a self-help manual of moral philosophy as well as the earliest book to survive from antiquity — sternly advises its readers “not to have sex with a lady-boy.” Such a stricture usually indicates a widespread practice. Even the pharaoh Pepi II, despite three sister-wives, apparently preferred clandestine evenings with his general, Sasanet. To me, most shocking of all is the fate of the beautiful Nitocris. As some readers will know, Tennessee Williams’s first published work — it appeared in Weird Tales magazine when he was 16 — was titled “The Vengeance of Nitocris” and retells the clever way its romantic heroine destroys the people who had literally torn her beloved brother to pieces. In fact, Fletcher tells us, new archaeological evidence proves Nitocris to have been a man, although mistakenly “considered female for the last two and a half thousand years.” Similarly, the Sphinx was also long regarded as female — I certainly always believed the eerie monument to be so — but initially it bore the face of the male pharaoh Khafra.
While Fletcher’s subtitle declares that Egypt’s was “the civilization that shaped the world,” her book doesn’t really make that case. But, amid the dry wadis of data, one does find all kinds of neat details: “The Stone Circle of Nabta Playa is a far smaller version of Stonehenge. But at more than 2,000 years older, it is the world’s oldest known calendar.” The average life span in those days was a shockingly brief 35 years. Egypt’s first known cat was “buried with its male owner at Mostagedda around 4000 BC.” The legendary King Narmer has traditionally been credited with uniting Egypt’s northern half with its southern “to create the world’s first nation state.” His consort Neithhotep is the first named woman in history. Narmer apparently met his death by, of all things, being carried off by a hippopotamus. Fletcher notes, “while this may simply be a euphemism for the forces of chaos the hippo represented, it may possibly have been a historical fact.”
The earliest pyramid, we learn, was built for the pharaoh Djoser under the direction of his prime minister and royal architect Imhotep, sometimes dubbed “Egypt’s Leonardo da Vinci.” The pharaoh Snefru, the greatest of all pyramid builders, married his half sister Hetepheres, whose name means “she whose every command is carried out.” One can’t help but wonder whether Rider Haggard knew of her when he created the immortal Ayesha, “She Who Must be Obeyed.” Hetepheres and Snefru’s son Khufu, in his turn, ordered up the Great Pyramid of Giza. Here Fletcher’s passion for detail comes into its own:
“The Great Pyramid itself was constructed from 2,300,000 blocks of stone, each weighing an average of two and a half tons. Over Khufu’s twenty-three-year reign this required 340 blocks to be moved each ten-hour working day, or thirty-four blocks per hour, roughly equaling one block every two minutes.”
She adds that the pyramid’s height of 146 meters remained unsurpassed until the completion of Lincoln Cathedral’s spire in A.D. 1300.
Many famous figures crop up in “The Story of Egypt,” including, of course, King Tut, i.e., Tutankhamen, who was the son of Akhenaten and (possibly) Nefertiti, and the celebrated Ramses II, whose long reign took up most of the 13th century B.C. Fletcher brings her book to a close an entire millennium after Ramses, when Egypt was annexed by the Romans in 30 B.C. Two of her best pages reexamine the death of Cleopatra. “The suggestion that Kleopatra killed herself with the bite of an asp is highly unlikely. For as she knew from her research, the poison of the asp, the north African viper, caused vomiting and incontinence before death — completely unsuitable for her final plan.” In fact, that “serpent of old Nile” — Shakespeare’s phrase — probably used Egyptian cobra venom, possibly secreted in a hollow bodkin that she carried wound in her hair.
As I hope I’ve indicated, there’s much fascinating material in “The Story of Egypt.” Did you know, for instance, that the Egyptian equivalent of the Medal of Honor was the gold fly of valor, because flies symbolized persistence? And yet the book as a whole isn’t exactly sprightly. It would make a good secondary text for the already committed student, a follow-up to, say, the revised edition of “Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs” by Barbara Mertz. That longtime resident of Frederick, Md., held a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and, as readers of her Elizabeth Peters mysteries know, she could be very sprightly indeed.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
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By Joann Fletcher
Pegasus. 482 pp. $29.95