Peeps at Many Lands: Ancient Egypt

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2012/10/18 by rmstrong1980

PeepsI have to stay, I like old books. I used to like the smell of old books, the heavier stock used in old books, and the feel of the heavier covers. I don’t get that with the Kindle, so I’m left loving old books for the sheer love of old books. I love that Amazon has a team of volunteers that is currently converting many of the old public-domain books into free Kindle editions.

“Peeps at Many lands: Ancient Egypt” by the Rev. James Baikie (first published in London in 1916) is one such book. I am currently researching for a historical fiction novel set in New Kingdom Egypt and while old books (this one actually precedes the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb) may not be the best for accurate interpretations of history, it was enjoyable nonetheless.

The Rev. Baikie writes his sometimes-fanciful and sometimes-erroneous (though not for the time) book as a conversation to his target audience–early 20th century school-aged English boys, boys who have grown up reading the exploits of Sir Henry Morton Stanley on his adventure to find Doctor Livingstone. Although he had never been to Egypt himself–instead relying on first-hand accounts of friends and colleagues who had gone–he describes Unchanging Egypt in the same way one can easily do today thanks to Google Earth:

It is a monotonous land–a long ribbon of green running through a great waste of yellow desert and barren hills.

In order to help his young readers accurately picture the significance of what he is writing of, he does a lot of comparing Ancient Egypt and Ancient (or even modern) England. He asks his readers to imagine, for instance, what it would be like if one found evidence of King Arthur’s court and then goes on to describe, “Well, in Egypt, you can see just that sort of thing.” When describing the young Egyptians’ day at school, he compares it to English grammar school. Some of these analogies don’t translate as well to a modern audience than it probably did nearly 100 years ago, but one gets the gist just as well.

Being a minister in the Church of Scotland, and then the United Free Church, the Rev. Baikie is very quick to point out that the Egyptians believed some strange, queer, funny, ridiculous, *insert age-appropriate adjective here* things when discussing the Egyptian pantheon and their ideas of “heaven” and “hell.” Instances of this are scattered throughout the book. As a Christian myself, I personally found this refreshing. Though if one is not, however, it may be a bit more annoying.

Because definitions of words change throughout the years, many terms and phrases that once seemed innocuous are now not nearly so. As with any older book, there are unintentionally-hilarious statements. The “best” is this:

The Egyptians were good marchers, and even in the hot Syrian sunshine, and across a rough country where roads were almost unknown, they could keep up a steady fifteen miles a day for a week on end without being fagged out.

I do, however, have to take issue with one assumption the Rev. Baikie makes: Namely, that Egypt would not hold the public’s attention or create the same sense of nostalgia (and, one can infer by extension, its own branch of archaeology) if it wasn’t for its role in the Bible–namely, the being the backdrop for the stories of Joseph, Moses, and the Plagues. I recognize that this book was written six years before Howard Carter’s discovery of “wonderful things,” but when a civilization has lasted twice as long as our modern civilization, whether it’s mentioned in the Bible or not, it’s going to garner attention.

All in all, I enjoyed to book… even though I am not the target audience by gender, age, and about 100 years. As a history text, The Rev. Baikie’s interpretations of archaeology have stood up well against the test of time. He did not mention–whether because he didn’t believe it or because it was not necessarily appropriate for his intended readers–the contemporary theory that “Tahuti” (his fictional every-day Egyptian boy) would have been encouraged to marry “Sen-Senb” (Tahuti’s younger sister). The Rev. Baikie’s timeline puts the time of the Exodus during the reign of Merenptah, making Moses’ adopted grandfather Ramesses the Great.

First two sentences:

“If we were asked to name the most interesting country in the world, I suppose that most people would say Palestine–not  because there is anything very wonderful in the land itself, but because of all the great things that have happened there and above all because of its having been the home of our Lord. But after Palestine, i think that Egypt would come next.”

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