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A new book on Akhenaten and the decline of the 18th dynasty.
on 18 September 2011
Aidan Dodson begins his history of the late 18th dynasty kings at a somewhat late date in the story, beginning when the "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaten was at the zenith of his reign, around the 11th or 12th year, and his religious reforms were in full swing. No discussion nor introduction is given for events leading up to these important changes, nor the discussion of the speculated co-regency with his father, nor any real mention of the charismatic Queen Tiye, and the reader will feel somewhat thrown into the middle of the action of an interesting historical drama after a commercial break, and not having seen the opening part or introductory background to set the scene.
In addition there is no analysis of the possible motivations nor psychology behind this important change to Egypt's religious identity and ideology. Admittedly, a difficult task given that these events ccured close to 3500 years ago and little "personal" history of the important characters is recorded in any shape or form. As the book progresses, a repeated "skimming over" occurs of details from time to time as events in the book progress, which left me feeling rather on the frustrated side of things at times, wishing the book had been longer, more thorough, and by the time I was finished, well, just left me wanting more. When the book first arrived, the first thought to cross my mind was "is that it?"
Even before I had turned a page, the size and length of the book seemed comparitively short and brief. Nonetheless, I started to read this latest book on a subject that has intigued me for many years, despite my initial misgivings and first impressions.
For a book covering an era as fascinating as the pharaohs from Amenophis IV [better known as Akhenaten], through to the end of the 18th dynasty with Horemheb [responsible for the their subsequent "removal" from history], covering approximately 50 years of rather turbulent history, one would expect a longer and absorbing tome, discussing ideas, evidence, and theories. Despite the ready availability of evidence, ideas and speculative theories, comparatively little of this is found in the pages of Dodson's book. Dodson makes no apology for this, informing the reader that of the evidence that exists, it is considerably less than most people are lead to believe. With this statement, his approach seems rather offhand and dismissive of other Egyptologists assertions and suggestions made previously. He doesn't name the writers involved however one might presume that this is in relation to books and papers by Cyril Aldred, Nicholas Reeves, etc.
Dodson displays little interest in discussing the possible identity of the enigmatic Smenkhkare, evaluating the evidence of the myterious Tomb KV55, only touching briefly upon the kingship of Ay, and scanty reference to the letters and identity unnamed Egyptian queen who wrote to the Hittites for help following the death of her husband. Dodson seems to have little interest in certain areas leading readers with a degree of knowledge to bring the words "missed oppurtunity" to mind. Where certain suggestions might be considered, the author shows little interest in wishing to expand further upon them. A full and thorough re-examination of Tomb 55 would have been appreciated, the recent suggestion that the death mask of Tutankhamun had originally been fashioned for a woman (possibly for the elusive Ankhepure Neferneferuaten), etc. These are important pieces of the jigsaw to this period in time yet they are simply overooked or neglected.
To Dodson's credit, his suggestions, though biased, are well reasoned yet not as agressive nor forceful as those of the likes of, say, Zahi Hawass. Hawass, although behind some of the most beautiful and fascinating books currently available on Egyptology, often comes across as being a terribly self-righteous individual, refusing to acknowledge fault when proved wrong. One of Dodson's theories, well backed up, is that there were two pharaohs in between Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, both enigmatic individuals figures of whom little is known - ie: Smenkhkare and Ankhepure Neferneferuaten.
The book was published just prior to the DNA results published in early 2010 revealing the parentage of King Tutankhamun and his immediate family. The DNA findings showed that Tutankhamun was the son of the mysterious occupant of the coffin in KV55 (a theory Dodson proposes), however he is not the son of Nefertiti (as suggested here) nor Kiya (suggested by previous Egyptologists); but now shown to have been an unnamed sister of the male mummy found in KV55. The remains of Tutankamun's mother having found in a side chamber of the tomb of Amenophis III in the 19th century, alongside those of her mother, Queen Tiye. As a result of these DNA findings, some of the theories and conclusions proposed by Dodson relating to Tutankhamun's parentage, will have to change as they are now proven to be inaccurate.
To sum up, Dodson is usually, to his credit, a thorough and informed Egyptologist, having written numerous excellent papers and various books on the subject, not least a fascinating and highly recommended genealogy of the Pharaohs. With that in mind, this book is disappointing and will leave the reader somewhat flat after reading it. The writing isn't especially captivating nor in-depth, and it feels almost minimalist at times. The book is nicely illustrated throughout with plenty of illustrations and photographs. However, there is insufficient stimulus, drive nor conjecture, to keep most readers mtivated, especially for those reading this book as an introduction to a fascinating and complicated period of Egyptian history.
To be fair, Dodson readily admits that he might not go into as much depth as some might wish; but the question is, if Dodson was aware of this, why choose to go down this path? His acknowledgment of this shortcoming was the major criticism when reading and subsequently reviewing this book. As it is, there are insufficient books available on this fascinating era; as the majority of information is to be found in papers and journals. To almost knowingly leave out detail seems remiss and will surely further alienate intended readers, not attract nor encourage them to read on.
That said, once I had started, I did read it from cover to cover, in the continued hope for much more, soon enough realising I had finished the book before I felt it had started. For quite an expensive book most readers, academics, scholars and amateur historians will feel short changed. To add insult to injury, the book has been badly proof-read; on more than one occasion the reader is directed to the wrong footnote, map or diagram. A let-down given that this is one of the most recent publications on a most fascinating period of history. Better books and articles have been written on shorter periods within this era. All in all, not great but not terrible, and at best decidedly average.