The good ancient days: Donald P. Ryan’s ‘Egypt 1250 BC’

Even those with a particularly strong sense of national pride would probably agree that Egypt’s Golden Age is a thing of the distant past. Home to one of the earliest recorded civilizations and architectural monuments that continue to astound the modern world, Egypt has a unique and varied history. Given its unstable present and uncertain future, it is understandable that one might consider the wonders of  Egypt’s earlier days with curiosity, and even a little envy. For those who have ever wondered what life was like when the Egyptian empire was the heart of the civilized world, some answers can be found in Donald P. Ryan’s book, Egypt 1250 BC: A Traveler's Companion.

Published this year by AUC Press, Egypt 1250 BC takes the reader back in time to an age when Egypt was “prosperous, energetic, and full of ambition.” Written in the style of a contemporary travel guide, Ryan’s book describes the sights and sounds of a theoretical journey up the Nile river during Ramesses II’s fifty-fourth year of reign. The expedition begins with crossing Egypt’s borders with Canaan (Palestine) and continuing along the Ways of Horus, a desert trail used frequently by merchants and soldiers, extending west to the Nile delta. Along the way, stops are made at major points, such as Pi-Ramesses, Iunu (Heliopolis), and Men-Nefer (Memphis), continuing south to Upper Nubia and the Nile cataracts.

On each of the stops, Ryan, an established Egyptologist, describes notable sightseeing opportunities and regional traditional customs, especially in terms of religious practices and local deities. There isn’t much in the way of elaborate detail; Egypt 1250 BC is a travel book, not an archeology text book. Marketplaces and major temples are all given an obligatory mention, but too often Ryan only describes the physical appearance of a given location or lists facts, such as that armed guards would never allow a lowly tourist into the sacred temples or that upper-class citizens would never invite a “wretched” outsider into their home, without exploring their implications.

Despite these shortcomings, Egypt 1250 BC is still an entertaining and informative read, and does manage to provide some intriguing insight into a different age. The opening chapters serve as an accessible and practical introduction to the old-world setting, with Ryan explaining the barter-based economy—you can, for example, trade two new skirts for a donkey and a jug of beer, depending on the quality of the donkey—as well as local customs and fashion trends, like tubular sheath dresses which were “popular with fashionable ladies.” Ryan also includes helpful tips on what to pack, whom to avoid, and how to deal with constant police interrogations and military checkpoints, of which there are many. Apparently, some things never change.

Overall, Egypt in 1250 BC seems like an alluring and wildly fun time. With annual riverside festivals that last for three weeks, an unprecedented appreciation for the arts, and massive orgies in honor of a cat-headed goddess, it’s unsurprising that people back then modeled their conceptions of the afterlife on the lives they were already leading. Ryan also duly notes the dangers of the time (disease, war and, of course, crocodiles) but understandably spends little time dwelling on them. The goal is to entertain and educate, in that order, and when it comes to the former, the book is hard to fault, with Ryan filling the pages with ancient remedies, poetry, and amusing historical anecdotes, such as the following royal summon, written by king Pepi II (Neferkare) upon hearing that one of his scribes has captured a “dancing pygmy” while on an expedition to Nubia:

"When the pygmy goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent, inspect him ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt."

Although it contains some good information and comes from an authoritative writer, Egypt 1250 BC is not meant to be taken too seriously. Ryan, for example, repeatedly gets a kick out of the male fertility god and his exaggerated genitalia. His book may not uncover any secrets of the ancient past, or solve any of the mysteries behind the legacy of enigmatic and eccentric pharaohs, but it will teach you how to say “beer for everyone!” in Ancient Egyptian, and “my donkey is ill” for the mornings after those wild orgies.

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