I met a traveller from an antique land…

September 1, 2013 at 12:51 pm (archaeology, Book review, books)

{D7B7FBC2-DF59-4F95-ADB6-3A2B4D6768BF}Img100  …a post in which I describe the way in which Kerry Greenwood’s novel sent me hurtling back in time to the world’s first great civilization. Out of the Black Land was a great read, for sure, but it was more than that. As a recreation of an almost impossibly remote time, it succeeded magnificently – at least it did for this reader.

The story is told from the alternating point of view of two main characters. First, we meet a young girl named Mutnodjme. This is how she introduces herself:

In the name of Ptah, in the name of his consort Mut after whom I was  called and his son Khons, who is the moon and time, in the hope that my heart will weigh heavily against the feather and I may live and die in Maat which is truth, I declare that my name is Mutnodjme and my sister is the most beautiful woman in the world.

This bravura performance in prose serves as the opening paragraph of the novel. I was drawn in at once. And who is this peerless sister? She is Nefertiti, the soon to be Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhnamen. Names are fluid attributes in this strange and exotic world. Akhnamen’s own will soon be changed,, by his own inflexible will because of an equally inflexible obsession.

Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum of Berlin

Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum of Berlin

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum in Cairo

This is this same man who plucks the youth Ptah-hotep from the school for scribes where he is a student and bids him serve at the royal palace. It’s a great honor, but it also means separation from his fellow student, the dearly beloved Kheperren.

As the author takes us step by step through the tumultuous world of Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty, we follow in particular the lives of Mutnodjme and Ptah-hotep as they grow into adulthood in this strange and fabulous land. It makes for a riveting story.
Out of the Black Land awakened in me a deep fascination with ancient Egypt. I should say, reawakened, because this is an interest I felt as a child, especially after I was given this curious little gift, or one very much like it:

I am now reading a book about the rise and fall of ancient Egypt. Written by Toby Wilkinson, it’s unsurprising title is The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. 9780553384901_custom-03bf62c02636f5ea634b287f063653c82bd55fa6-s6-c30  It resides on my Kindle app, and I read a section or two each day, taking in the vast information in minute doses, the better to retain it. Inevitably, some sections are more challenging than others, but for the most part the book is highly readable. And now that I’ve reached the Eighteenth Dynasty I am filled with anticipation, for soon I’ll be reading about Akhnaten (aka Amenhotep IV), that strong willed iconoclast who was powerful in some ways, impotent in others. I’m eager to see the extent to which Toby Wilkinson’s description of him tallies with Kerry Greenwood’s portrayal.

The Middle Kingdom was the golden age of literature, when many of the great classics were composed. From the heroic Tale of Sinuhe to the rollicking yarn of The Shipwrecked Sailor, from the overtly propagandist Prophecies of Neferti to the subtle rhetoric of The Eloquent Peasant, and from the metaphysical Dispute Between a Man and His Soul to the burlesque Satire of the Trades, the literary output of the Middle Kingdom reveals ancient Egyptian society at its most complex and sophisticated.

This is how Toby Wilkinson introduces Part II of his book, entitled “End of Innocence (2175-1541 BC).” Kerry Greenwood references Satire of Trades in Out of the Black Land. That was the first I’d heard of it. The other above mentioned works were completely unknown to me, and I wondered why. JohnLFosterAncient Egyptian Literature  In his introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature, John L. Foster explains that we have been taught to revere our Greek and Hebraic heritage, particularly the latter, identified as it is with religious observance. These languages have been the lens through which we have seen the culture of the ancient world.

On the other hand:

Egyptian hieroglyphic is a dead language. Its meaning only began to be recovered when Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1822. And it was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that a tradition of translating the hieroglyphs into English could even begin to develop. Translation of ancient Egyptian literature is barely a century old, only four or five generations of Egyptologists have had a chance to work on the language, and most of the effort has of necessity been devoted to basics — vocabulary, word order, and sentence patterns. These efforts of earlier language scholars have been absolutely fundamental to, and necessarily preceded, any attempt to recover ancient Egyptian literature as literature and as poetry. Our cultural traditions, along with loss of the key to the hieroglyphic language for so many centuries, have blinded us to the value of what has survived from the literature of ancient Egypt. It has riches thus far largely unrealized.

Foster’s preface is well worth reading. In it, he enlarges on the challenges of translating hieroglyphic writing, especially into poetic form.  Immediately preceding the preface, and after the dedication, he places this verse excerpt from The Harper’s Song from the Tomb of King Intef:

I have heard the words of Imhotep, and Hordjedef, too,
retold time and again in their narrations.
Where are their dwellings now?
Their walls are down,
Their places gone,
like something that has never been.

Here’s what the original looks like:


The first poems following the preface are love poems. Of these, Foster states succinctly: “Love has hardly altered at all over the millennia.”

Judge for yourself:

Why, just now, must you question your heart?
Is it really the time for discussion?
To her, say I,
take her tight in your arms! For god’s sake, sweet man,
it’s me coming at you,
My tunic
loose at the shoulder!

There are more like this. They took my breath away.

There’s plenty of love in Out of the Black Land; all kinds of love. After reading some the poetry in Foster’s anthology, I could not help but feel that in this novel, Kerry Greenwood got it right.
Composer Douglas Irvine has attempted to recreate the sound of the music of ancient Egypt:

Here is the “Hymn to Aten,” from Phillip Glass’s opera Akhnaten:

There are two online sites concerning Ancient Egypt that I especially like: The Ancient Egypt and Archaeology Web Site  and The Ancient Egypt Site, curated by Belgian Egyptologist Jacques Kinnaer.
In her lively Afterword, Kerry Greenwood reflects with considerable asperity on the widely varying viewpoints of scholars in the field of Egyptology. She has also appended to her novel a highly useful bibliography.

The title of this post is taken from the first line of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The 'Younger Memnon' statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum, thought to have inspired the poem

The ‘Younger Memnon’ statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum, thought to have inspired the poem

Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad reads Ozymandias:

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