I have been fascinated by ancient Egypt since I can remember. The iconography, the mystery, the mythology. It’s all crawled around in the back of my noggin. I think I first heard of Hatshepsut when I was in high school. All I knew about her was that she wore a ceremonial beard and ruled as Egypt. Kara Cooney aims to give a more in depth view of the woman and her world. Alas, she falls frustratingly short.
Talking about this book with my partner, I have to agree with her. It feels like an academic dissertation that was cobbled together into a book. It does not read well. Also, Cooney belabors a few points to such a degree that any interesting titbits get lost in the shuffle. Having read other books about times where our current understanding is not as comprehensive as we’d like, I can say for sure that it can be done better. I’m specifically reminded of Bettany Hughes’s excellent Helen of Troy, which does a fantastic job of saying, ‘if she existed, this is the world she would have existed in, and the type of woman she would have been.’ Yet, with Hatshepsut’s life, Cooney spends so much time questioning any ability to know that it begins to feel like pure speculation. Like, anyone could walk along and say, ‘we don’t know, but maybe Senenmut ran in circles to his left all the time, and wouldn’t look right. There are no texts to say if he did or did not.’ And far, far too often, Cooney judges Egyptians (and other ancient cultures) and particularly Egyptian men, by contemporary, early 21st century values. The finger waving occasionally obscures the information. Maybe more than occasionally.
The main thing I gained from reading this book was perspective on health then and now. I knew that health care had improved, but as you read the litany of illnesses, plagues, and basic health problems that afflicted the ancient Egyptians, who were, medically speaking somewhat ahead of their contemporaries (except in the field of surgery), it’s a reminder that the past was awful, even for the very wealthy and powerful. When living past childhood, no matter what condition you made it in, was considered ‘healthy.’ And that’s not even getting into the inbreeding.
There is a fascinating tale here. Hatshepsut must have been a remarkable woman. Some of the other figures surrounding her must have been interesting people. Sadly, this book does not bring them to life. This book left me mostly frustrated and annoyed. At the halfway point, I thought it just needed a couple more editorial passes. But by the end, I came to the conclusion that the whole book needs to be rebuilt, from the ground up. Even more than Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World (a book packed with great information, if you can somehow sift through its haphazard, meandering structure).