A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Some stories never fail to fascinate, such as the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, with which Cambridge Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson opens his brilliantly told history, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (Random House, $35.00). But those familiar with the story of Tutankhamun's discovery will find some minor inaccuracies. History tells us that Howard Carter did not, in fact, find amulets and ritual objects inside each coffin when he came upon the tomb. But readers should not be put off. The book is a masterful introduction to ancient Egypt for a general audience.
Wilkinson uses the Palermo Stone, a fragmentary list of the early kings of Egypt carved during the Fifth Dynasty (2450 to 2325 B.C.), as a platform from which to tell his story of Egypt's earliest pharaohs. Along the way he selects revealing details to answer questions such as: What was the earliest papyrus found in Egypt? (Kemeka's of Dynasty I.) And which was the first bronze vessel? (Khasekhemwy's, Dynasty II.) As he describes the early cities and objects found there, Wilkinson demonstrates both the detailed knowledge and writing skill to hold the reader's attention for more than 500 pages.
While this book is accurate in most of its details, history is by nature interpretive, and some of Wilkinson's ideas are unconvincing. One example is his thesis that ancient Egypt was primarily a brutal culture, ruled by pharaohs who cared little for the common man. As an example of the health disparities between the upper and lower classes, he compares tomb paintings of healthy-looking elites with the bones of peasants who suffered from a range of debilitating diseases. It is not a fair comparison. The paintings are idealized; the actual bones of Egyptian elites also show the ravages of disease. Tutankhamun suffered multiple bouts of malaria, Rameses II had a massive infection in his mandible, and Amenhotep III had excruciating dental abscesses. Wilkinson's account, despite these small drawbacks, is an enjoyable history of Egypt packed with details not found elsewhere.