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Books: Egyptian Yarn Spinner Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Polly Shulman

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An Old Kingdom (2662-2195 B.C.) statue of a scribe (Kenneth Garrett) [LARGER IMAGE]

Zahi Hawass, the ebullient, press-savvy secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, loves to spin a yarn. But he also cherishes the opportunity to recall how Egyptian archaeologists suffered for centuries from the disrespect and rapacity of their European and American colleagues. Now, in two new books from National Geographic--The Curse of the Pharaohs: My Adventures with Mummies ($19.95), for children, and Hidden Treasures of Ancient Egypt ($35), a coffee-table tie-in to a centenary exhibit at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo--he does both, sometimes capitalizing on the portents, mysteries, and mummies that make Egyptology so tempting to Hollywood, and other times emphasizing his Egyptian colleagues' contributions to an understanding of their own country's past. But sometimes he gets carried away with the yarn and strays from the archaeology.

Curse of the Pharaohs purports to reassure young readers by debunking the idea of cursed tombs and vengeful mummies, but Hawass indulges in so many stories about mysterious accidents and illnesses, dead children appearing in nightmares, flashing lights, howling dogs, and cobras that swallow canaries or knock importunately on outhouse doors that when he finally gets around to the debunking part it feels halfhearted. The book would have benefited from a more systematic exploration of ancient Egyptian beliefs about death and rebirth, which could have helped explain how the Egyptians understood the connection between life and afterlife, and why they mummified their dead in the first place.

Hidden Treasures reads like a collection of anecdotes loosely held together by Hawass's excitement. Here, though, the wealth of stories improves the book. Hidden Treasures is organized roughly chronologically, but the chronology in question is that of Egyptian archaeology rather than Egyptian history. Objects in the collections of the Egyptian Museum, from icons like Tutankhamun's gold mask to more modest treasures like a pair of cubit rods or a graceful stela, are presented more or less in the order in which they were uncovered over the past two centuries. Readers learn as much about Egypt's struggle to keep the treasures of its past as they do about the past itself. Kenneth Garrett's evocative photos present each object with elegant solemnity. For the most part the objects stand alone, underlining the loss of priceless information through careless excavation and theft, especially during the early days of Egyptology.

In Hidden Treasures Hawass also traces his archaeological forebears through Egyptians like the Abd Al-Rassouls, the tomb robbers who discovered the mummies of the New Kingdom kings and queens--and then hired by Howard Carter to help excavate Tutankhamun's tomb--and the El-Krity brothers, Talal and Ahmed, experts at moving heavy stones to whom Hawass turned to remove a 20-ton sarcophagus from amid fragile mud-brick structures in Qiwesna, 35 miles north of Cairo. "They had been trained by their father, who had been trained by his father, and so on back into the mists of time," he writes. "Their ancestors had moved heavy stones, perhaps even for the pharaohs themselves." For Hawass, the history of Egypt's own Egyptologists is one of the most important treasures to reclaim.

Polly Shulman is a contributing editor at Science and a freelance writer.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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