by Brian Fagan
Revised and updated edition of the 1975 original
Looting Egyptian tombs and raiding temples for treasure may be most strongly associated with European explorers and archaeologists, but they were hardly the first. Egyptians were robbing their ancestors of grave goods long before the age of Pharaohs ended. Archaeologist Brian Fagan recounts the history of tomb robbers and the systematic removal of Egypt's treasures over the last several thousand years. He begins with ancient accounts from Theban scribes, Herodotus, and the Romans, and moves up through the Middle Ages and the antics of both Christian and Muslim raiders. Of course, no narrative would be complete without the damage done by Napoloen's armies, wealthy antiquarians, and early tourists. It is not until the late 19th and early 20th century, when men like Sir Flinders Petrie replace bombastic showmen like Giovanni Belzoni, that a scientific, archaeological approach is finally taken.
As an armchair Egyptologist, I've read many books about the history of Egypt, and accounts of certain famous excavations, like Carter's books on his work in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Most books that discuss a particular site will mention how its artifact were removed, but this is the first one I've found that reaches back to the beginning of tomb robbery and tries to cover that history comprehensively.
Some topics get more page time than others. Due to the scarcity of information, Fagan doesn't linger long on ancient cases of tomb desecration, but the few that he does mention are quite fascinating. By contrast, nearly a third of the book is dedicated to Giovanni Belzoni, a circus strongman turned explorer and extractor of Egyptian monuments. The enterprising Italian successfully moved many of the large statues of Egyptian pharaohs and gods that grace Europe's greatest museums, like the colossal bust of Ramesses II now living in the British Museum. When this book was first written in 1975, I don't think there was a biography of Belzoni available in English, so I can understand why Fagan dedicated so much page space to him. It does make the book seem rather uneven, as much as I enjoyed the fast-paced escapades of Belzoni as he romped and stomped his way through Egypt. There have been at least two biographies published about him in the last two years – the most recent being 2011's work by Ivor Hume and the other is 2003's biography by Stanley Mayes - and I am inspired to pick one or both up to learn more.
It's a highly entertaining book, written in a very accessible style that will appeal to a general audience as well as dedicated fans of Ancient Egypt.
5 out of 5 stars
To read more about The Rape of the Nile, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: My Country Vs. Me by Wen Ho Lee and Helen Zia
2011: The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary
2010: Discussion Question + Happy Halloween!
2009: Totally Off-Topic: Steepster.com
2008: Bread & Chocolate by Philippa Gregory