“Mountains of the Pharaohs”

So, my most recent non-fiction read has been Mountains of the Pharaohs: The Untold Story of the Pyramid Builders, by Zahi Hawass. It took me a VERY long time to finish, though that’s no reflection on the quality of the book or the writing, but rather my ability to concentrate on scholarly concerns lately. But that’s another post.

I had never read anything by Zahi Hawass before, though naturally I’ve heard plenty about him. For the non-egyptologists, Dr. Hawass is the leader of the Egyptian Antiquities service (also known as Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities), a formidable scholar and excavator in his own right, and a bit of an iconoclast in the field. Anyway, I quite enjoyed the style of Mountains of the Pharaohs. It is a mix of scholarly and popular, with just a dash of historical fiction thrown in for spice. At the beginning of each chapter, Dr. Hawass paints a fictional “might-have-been” scenario relating to the topic of the chapter. So, Chapter 1 is about the reign of King Sneferu and the dawn of the 4th Dynasty. At the beginning is a little scenario written from Sneferu’s hypothetical point of view.

Mountains of the Pharaohs is about the development and building of the Ancient Egyptian pyramids, focusing most closely on the pyramids of Giza of course. It discusses 4th and 5th Dynasty history and archaeology. I’m not especially well-read in Old Kingdom history beyond the basics as my focus is on New Kingdom Egypt. So I was surprised and delighted at the depth and extent of new (relatively, as the book was published in 2006) archaeological evidence dating from this period. There is even a surprising amount of evidence from recently excavated workmen’s villages and associated cemeteries dating from the period. This is particularly exciting because it gives greater insight not only into the building of the pyramids themselves, but also into the lives of the men who built them, and their families.

Dr. Hawass also spends some time dispelling certain popular myths, such as the pyramids were built primarily by slave-labor, or by aliens, and replaces those myths with the facts we know for sure, and those we can extrapolate given the current evidence (i.e. educated guesses). I quite enjoyed these sections, as well as giving me another authority to quote in debunking those persistent myths which are the exasperation of egyptologists of all stripes.

I definitely highly recommend this book for anyone even casually interested in the history of the Old Kingdom and the pyramids specifically. The style is accessible to scholars and non-scholars alike.


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