24 Hours in Ancient Egypt: a day in the life of the people who lived there
Donald P Ryan
Michael O’Mara Books, £12.99
Review by: Matthew Symonds
Ancient Egypt still exudes an aura of mystery. Visitors have been enchanted by its monuments for millennia, but the culture that created them can be harder to bring into focus. By and large, the tombs and temples that wow modern tourists were intended for the elite, the divine, or pharaohs straddling this divide. Less august individuals can be glimpsed toiling in wall paintings, or as miniature models designed to serve their masters for eternity, but these do little to bring everyday activity to life. The same is true of the hieroglyphics. For many tourists – your reviewer included – the symbols adorning majestic ruins remain every bit as incomprehensible as they were before the meaning was cracked in the 19th century. Translations reveal royal brags and religious doctrine to be popular topics, but such subjects do not give voice to those living under the pharaohs. Even modern discussion of the region betrays a debt to Greeks rather than Egyptians, as we have the former to thank for the English words ‘Egypt’ and ‘Nile’; to its ancient inhabitants, these were ‘Kemet’ and ‘Itroo’. It is the people of this alien-sounding land that Donald P Ryan effortlessly breathes life into in 24 Hours in Ancient Egypt.
Our day plays out in Luxor c.1414 BC, and takes the form of an hour in the company of 24 people pursuing varied vocations. It begins with a midwife delivering Merit’s baby boy, and ends with a novice tomb robber regretting his role in a ghoulish venture. In between these bookends of life and death, we meet a cast of characters that range from a brick-maker to Pharaoh Amenhotep II. As each hour brings a self-contained story, readers can dip in and out, sticking to the snapshots of life they find most interesting. Those who experience the full 24 hours, though, are rewarded by glimpses of characters and incidents they met earlier. Hours after Merit has given birth, for example, we find her husband Manu working on a new skiff. This approach is particularly effective when it comes to Amenhotep II and his entourage. We see the pharaoh from a number of perspectives, including those of his intimates, and even a dancing girl who dreams of performing for the Living Horus. It makes the god-king rather more human, revealing a ruler unafraid to dismiss hereditary bureaucrats in favour of lifelong cronies. Indeed, Amenhotep II was clearly angling to get the gang back together in the afterlife, securing tombs for his wife, vizier, and perhaps even his pets in the Valley of the Kings.
Ryan is an accomplished Egyptologist who has excavated some of these burials, and it is clear throughout that he is fully immersed in his subject. The text is lively and amusing, with hippos described as ‘notoriously surly’ while the denouement to an ancient tale about the goddess Hathor getting drunk and sparing humanity from annihilation is ‘thus humanity was saved from complete destruction… by beer’. As well as making for an engaging read, a wealth of information has been skilfully woven through the various narratives. We learn how bread, boats, obelisks, and many more sights and staples of life in Kemet were made, but always with an eye for the experience of the individuals involved. By foregrounding the human element, Ryan successfully makes this ancient civilisation more immediate and accessible. Although most of the characters are fictitious, rather than known historical figures, the lives they live are so authentic that the conceit is entirely successful. For those interested to know more, the text is peppered with boxes containing succinct information on subjects ranging from the toll that grit in bread took on teeth to Ancient Egyptian advice on how to treat wives, which certainly raises eyebrows today. One estimate has it that only 3% of Egyptians were literate, suggesting that many who witnessed the texts when they were first erected had no better idea of what they said than most modern visitors. For those wishing to discover more about Kemet’s inhabitants, this highly affordable book is the perfect starting point.