Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: Abydos: Egypt's First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris

Al Ahram Weekly (Jill Kamil)

David O'Connor's Abydos: Egypt's First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo (2009)

Abydos is situated on the western bank of the Nile about seven kilometres west of the town of Balyana in Middle Egypt. It made its debut on the stage of Egypt's ancient history even before the dynastic period, and it retained its aura of sanctity longer than any other site in Egypt. It houses the tombs and mortuary cult enclosures of the rulers of the First Dynasty. It was the cult centre of Osiris, Egypt's most beloved hero and the central figure of the country's most popular myth. And it is an archaeological site that casts light on the origins of the Egyptian civilisation before the dynastic period, a subject on which scholars argue to this day.

It is a debate which reminds O'Connor, an internationally recognised Egyptologist with 40 years' experience of excavation and research at Abydos, "of Pieter Bruegel's wonderful etching depicting scrambling men gutting an enormous fish. It towers above them while, from the vast and gaping cut, a gigantic stream of smaller fish pours across the beach. Grand theories," he goes on, "as impressive as Bruegel's fish are proposed about early culture and kingship in Egypt, but are based on heterogeneous and random archaeological data, akin to Bruegel's variegated little fish. So far, these data are an inadequate foundation for the complex speculations built upon them, for the evidence... has substantial ambiguities and gaps. Yet the challenge of tracing the origins of one of the world's most brilliant civilisations continues to fascinate us, and Abydos is increasingly important to this endeavour."

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