Friday 17 December 2010

Ramesses by Joyce Tyldesley

I chose this book because I love Egypt.  I've loved it ever since I first learned about it back in my primary school days, and now, many trips to the British Museum later, I still love it.  I also get to teach it for an entire term every spring, and it's my favourite thing to teach.  I chose this particular author as I've read one of her books before (a tie-in to a BBC series about Egyptology pioneers) and found it to be both informative and well written.

Synopsis: Joyce Tyldesley presents what history knows about Ramesses, one of Egypt's most famous pharoahs.  Using a number of different sources, she separates myth from fact.

Score: 2 out of 5

You know how some non-fiction books are so well written and lively and engaging that you feel like you're reading a fantastic work of fiction and you just can't put them down?  This book wasn't like that.  In fact, this book was the opposite - it managed to make a fascinating topic that I already had some knowledge of seem dull and it was a battle to get to the end.

Part of the problem was that Tyldesley had organised the book thematically, with chapters such as 'Ramesses the Husband' and 'Ramesses the Warrior'.  This meant there was no overall arc to the book, making it hard to place the various events and leaving me with no clear impression of what Ramesses was actually like.  Whilst I appreciate that much about his life is not known, I would still rather have had what is known organised chronologically.

The book also couldn't decide whether it wanted to be academic or popular non-fiction.  The other book of hers I've read Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered was clealy supposed to be a popular non-fiction book.  There was an attempt to make the writing lively.  Ramesses was different; there were notes at the end of each chapter, a further reading list, and way too much scholarly detail.  At one point she spent about 30 pages outlining the names and lives of all of Ramesses children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.  And the history of all his scribes, advisers etc were also included, down to their position of birth and where they died.  That kind of stuff is too much for the interested but not that knowledgeable reader.

All this is not to say there was nothing I enjoyed about the book.  There was some interesting facts about his family life (it seems he married practically all of his female relations) and about the way society in Egypt was organised.  Ramesses was also a master of propaganda, and modern politicians could learn from him.  Even now he is remembered as a great warrior pharaoh, but his 'victories' seemed to have been largely made up.  And his famous statues either plagarised or stolen from previous pharoahs.

To sum up: only really for the serious Egyptologist or those that enjoy very winding family trees.


  1. Interesting. Looks liks something I would want to read- now glad I haven't. I recently received Duane Roller's Cleopatra biography, and, while I haven't finished, there are definitely sections that contain WAY too much detail. I'd like to take a peak at Stacy Schiff's newest Cleopatra biography and compare the two. Thanks for the review. I've always loved Egypt mythology and so forth- the British Museum- and a few museums, here in Atlanta, are the closest I've come to experiencing the cultural practices from that period. I went to an exhibit a few years ago, I believe it was the mummy of Ramesses (or his perhpas his descendents?)at Emory University. Anyway, interesting. Bummer it wasn't that entertaining!

  2. @Beth
    It was disappointing, especially as I had high expectations from another book of hers I had read. I'm looking forward to reading the Stacy Schiff biography of Cleopatra too, I've heard it is supposed to be very good.

    Hope you get a chance to visit the British Museum one day. I live in London, so have been lots of times, and it really is amazing. I'd love to go to Egypt one day.

  3. Would love to read some more about Egypt! Where would be a good place to start do you think?

  4. @Willa
    Her previous book "Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered" is a great, readable introduction. Even better if you can buy the BBC series that goes with it.