Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: Review

September 30th was a bit of a clusterfuck of a day. For complicated reasons I wound up going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an excursion to escape the clusterfuck. It’s familiar to me, as it’s along a typical day game route, but I don’t often go inside. It’s been a few years. By the way, there’s a lot of young ladies in there, and a few of them are alone. I’ll have to check that out as a potential day game mine later on.

I’ll share some pictures:

Amazon warrior Metropolitan Museum of Art

Egyptian temple Metropolitan Museum of Art

The draw of this place for me isn’t so much the artwork in and of itself. When I go there I spend most of my time looking at the Greek, Egyptian, Byzantine, Arms and Armor, and other exhibits that have a connection with the great people and civilizations in the past and reveal their splendor to us.

Egypt also interested me in particular this time because of research needed for my project I have mentioned before (believe it or not you can trace the remote origins of the “social justice” Year Zero insanity to Egypt). Towards a rather obscure corner of the Egyptian exhibit, right near the bathroom, there was a stairway leading to a clearance shop. I knew I would probably find something good at a bargain (even at the Met), and I did.

The first item was a book called Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Brief History of Ancient Egypt.

Temples Tombs and Hieroglyphs
It also goes by this title.

Barbara Mertz released the original version in 1964. As you might expect, many new revelations have been made since then, and the new version was released in 2009-10. I’ll say at the getgo that Mertz is a good storyteller. She has numerous famous fictional works to her name (or pen-name), so you might be expecting that. Her narrative technique is good, and she can make Ancient Egypt come alive without sacrificing historical accuracy or her integrity as an Egyptologist. In other words, she can make Egyptological history entertaining without sacrificing the facts.

On the other hand, sometimes she does convey a veneer of snark in Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. Fortunately these passages are very small in the overall book (I’d guess around 5%), but it can be a bit annoying. She also admits to extensive or brief reporting based on what she finds interesting, so if you’re looking for a specific period to study, you may find yourself out of luck. For instance, she is remarkably brief about the famous Ramesses II, who she admits to disliking. You get the feeling that she gave him his due and nothing else. If Ramesses is your man, you might want to look elsewhere. On the other hand, she brings many people to light you may not have heard of before, and I learned much in this way.

Egyptian Caveman:

That’s a bit of a misnomer, but Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs starts out strongly by documenting, or rather, shedding light on, how the hunter-gatherers in Egypt gave rise to the Dynastic culture to come.

One bright summer afternoon in the year 5263 B.C., a man stood on the cliffs high above the Nile Valley. He was slightly built and only a few inches over five feet in height; his brown body was naked except for a kilt of tanned hide. But he held himself proudly, for he was a tall man among his people, and a leader of men. The people he led clustered about him – women peering timidly out from a tangle of black hair, hushing the children in their arms; men bearing their weapons, bow and arrow and stone ax. The wind blew hot behind them; they had turned their backs on the desert. Once it had not been desert. Once, in the time of their ancestors, there had been water, and green growing things, and animals to kill for food. Now, the god had withdrawn his hand from their homeland. And so they looked with bright apprehensive eyes into the new land below, a green slash of life cutting through the growing desolation all around. The leader’s keen vision saw the gleam of water and the flicker of birds’ wings; his hunter’s ears caught the far-off bellow of a hippopotamus. There was food below, and water; yet still the leader of the tribe hesitated. He knew the old life, with all its perils. Could he face the more chilling peril of the unknown and, unaware of destiny, take the first step toward the pyramids? (pg 1-2)

I included this passage, a fictionalized account of the first settlers in the Nile area, to give the reader an idea about her narrative technique. It draws you in. However fictional, something like this probably happened, as Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs notes, around 5500 B.C.

One of the ways to trace the development of civilizations, and how predynastic Egypt evolved into the civilization we know, was the development of different types of pottery. It was one man, Flinders Petrie, who made sense of the pottery fragments to determine progression toward civilization:

Taking a group of 700 graves, Petrie, who had begun as a statistician, made an index slip for each grave. The slip was ruled in columns, one for each type of pot found in the grave. These had already been divided into a number of general categories by their appearance – red-polished ware, blacktopped ware, rough ware, and so on.

In defining stages, Petrie made an assumption: that, as time went on, the features of a pottery type “degenerated” from functional to purely decorative. This assumption was supported by the change in the contents of the jars.

Having established the earlier and later types of this particular pottery class, Petrie had the beginning of a chronological sequence. Now he could begin to tie in the other pottery classes that were found in company with the wavy-handled examples. Some of the graves that contained the wavy-handled pots also had pottery of a class designated “L,” for “late,” because it continued in use up to historic times.  This gave him a terminal point, since the examples of the “L” type that occurred in First Dynasty graves could be dated. (pg 7-9)

Petrie had nothing to help him but graves and bits of pottery. He did not have the benefit of layered cities such as the sight of Troy. Yet, Petrie was able to accurately construct the progression of the material culture from prehistoric times to the beginning of Dynastic Egypt.

Such is the ingenuity of man when he is determined!

This first chapter in Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs, called “The Two Lands” continues on into what is termed the Archaic Period, which covers the First and Second Dynasties. Of particular interest to me, aside from the political unification of Egypt at the start of the First Dynasty, was the possible series of religious wars during the Second Dynasty.

It’s hard to tell, because the Second Dynasty is one of the most little-known times in Ancient Egyptian history, but it seems that one of the kings of the era may have touched off some kind of heresy by using the animal for the god Set instead of Horus, which was the proper deity to accompany a regnal name in Egypt’s national mythology:

This change of ritual, which looks so small on a stone seal or stela, must have signified some far-reaching and dramatic events. Many of the First Dynasty royal monuments, both at Sakkara and Abydos, were set afire in ancient times, perhaps during this very period. The next king, Khasekhem, is known for his military exploits, and several campaigns were fought in the north. There is certainly a suggestion of a battle for the crown, if not outright civil war. (pg 43-4)

This “Set rebellion” was eventually resolved in a pluralistic fashion, if one might call it that, by including both Horus and the “Set-animal” in the representation of the royal name. The Egyptians (and polytheists in general), were a pretty mellow group when it came to religion, so I found the prospect of a religious civil war early in Egypt’s history interesting. Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs in some ways anticipates my own work in its explaining the differences in outlook between polytheism and monotheism.

Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs
Second Dynasty Statue. Click here for more on this dynasty.

The Labyrinth:

Following the first chapter, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs gets into the glory days of the Old Kingdom in the Third and Fourth Dynasties. The story of Imhotep, legendary architect of the Step Pyramid, is told. I may give him his own post on The Masculine Epic as he’s truly a character. Simply mentioning him here won’t do him justice.

The descriptions of the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period when Egypt was disunited after the Old Kingdom’s fall come next, but I found some of the descriptions of the lesser known Middle Kingdom particularly interesting.

The Middle Kingdom is in a bad place because in terms of Ancient Egyptian history it is sandwiched between the immortal pyramids of the Old Kingdom and the imperial grandeur of the New Kingdom. Yet it was during the Middle Kingdom that Egypt began to wade ankle deep into expansionism beyond its traditional boundaries:

The first kings of the Twelfth Dynasty had sent troops into Lower Nubia as far as the Second Cataract but it remained for Senusert III to put the country under organized military occupation.

Before the Aswan Dam drowned Lower Nubia travelers could see the ruins of great buildings located at strategic spots beside the river, all the way to the Third Cataract.

In the heavy walls and the strategic location of each we see recognition of an enemy of no mean quality; the forts were close enough so that they could reinforce one another in case of an attack. (pg. 111-12)

These forts were sophisticated, having all the callings of proper fortification procedures until such defenses became obsolete with the industrialization of warfare in the 19th century over 3,500 years later. The Egyptians were pioneers indeed.

As Egypt was undergoing a period of expansion into Nubia, the Middle Kingdom pharaohs were also pushing Egyptian architecture into a new frontier. The massive pyramids of the Old Kingdom had been scaled down, but other structures were built, one of which survived into Classical Antiquity and was visited by Herodotus and Strabo:

The building was known as the Labyrinth, which gives some indication of its size and complexity. Today only a mass of limestone and granite chips, covering the surface of the ground for hundreds of square yards, shows where this wonder of antiquity once stood. But Strabo tells us that the ceilings of the chambers each consisted of a single stone, and that the passages were walled with monolithic slabs. Herodotus says the Labyrinth contained twelve walled courts and no fewer than 3,000 rooms. The historian himself saw the 1,500 that were aboveground – he says – but he had to take the word of the priests as to the existence of the corresponding 1,500 underground chambers, since they were burial places, and sacred.

A modern archaeologist has calculated the size of the Labyrinth as 305 meters long by 244 meters wide – big enough to contain the enormous temples of Luxor and Karnak. (pg. 119-20)

The Labyrinth of Egypt

After the glories of the Labyrinth and the Middle Kingdom, the regime weakened into the Second Intermediate Period. This was the time during which the peoples that we describe as the Hyksos invaded Egypt and took over a large part of the country. Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs does the struggle of the Egyptians against these foreign occupiers some justice (even when the Egyptians themselves wanted posterity to forget all about it).

After a century of conflict, in which kings like Seqenenre Tao met brutal ends, the Hyksos were overthrown, and a vibrant new dynasty ushered in Egypt’s greatest period of glory.

Seqenenre Tao Mummy
Seqenenre’s mummy. You can see the pain he went through in his final moments of life against the Hyksos.

The Gloriously Overdone Dynasty XVIII:

Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs devotes much of its pages to the Eighteenth Dynasty. I get it. This is the group of people we think of when we hear the words “Ancient Egypt.” This is the dynasty that gave rise to the most famous of all pharaohs, Tutankhamun. Fortunately, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs does not devote much time to him. There are more interesting people to consider.

My main interest in getting Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs was to find out more about the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten for an upcoming project that I’ve mentioned in passing. What’s most interesting in its mention of the Amarna Period in the chapter appropriately called “The Great Heresy” is that Temples Tombs, and Hieroglyphs was updated and republished in 2009-10, just before the results of extensive DNA testing on the surviving mummies of this period were released.

Part of the “Great Heresy” chapter devotes its passages to the mummy in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings. The controversy over this mummy is whether it is the heretic king Akhenaten or his mysterious successor Smenkhare. Mertz extensively argues that it is Smenkhare based on the apparent age of the mummy being around 28 (which was decided based on unfused bone structures), whereas Akhenaten must have lived longer.

Yet Mertz also says in Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father. There is a problem here, as just after the second edition was published, it was revealed that the mummy in KV55 is King Tut’s father. The DNA says so. Additionally, the mummy in KV55 was the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, as Akhenaten was.

So this gives us two options. If the mummy in KV55 is Smenkhare (and I did find Mertz’ argument based on the apparent age of the bones convincing), he must have been Akhenaten’s younger brother, and Tutankhamun inherited the throne from a more junior branch of the Eighteenth Dynasty’s family tree, marrying his cousin Ankhesenamun, Akhenaten’s daughter – a pretty common occurrence in history, and easily done when brother-sister marriages were widespread in royal families (a marriage which ultimately produced Tutankhamun, as his mother was “The Younger Lady,” a daughter of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye). Either that, or the mummy in KV55 is Akhenaten himself.

KV55 Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs
The desecrated KV55 coffin. Akhenaten or Smenkhare?

Leaving this detective work behind (you’ll see much more about Akhenaten from me later), there was an earlier chapter in Temples, Tombs and Heiroglyphs that I actually found more of interest from a pure satisfaction standpoint.

The Conqueror:

An entire chapter in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs is dedicated to Thutmose III. The man deserves his own post, so that will be forthcoming. I was grateful for the chapter though, as it goes into great detail about his campaigns. This was my favorite part of Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, and I suspect it will be for any military history buff.

My majesty will proceed along this road of Arunna. Let him who will go among you go upon those roads of which you speak, and let him will among you come in the following of my majesty. (pg. 173)

So Thutmose challenged his officers and men on a course that was high-risk (but brilliantly chosen, as you’ll see), high-reward.

The Long Decline:

After a period of resurgence in the early Nineteenth Dynasty, Egypt, along with the other Late Bronze Age powers, declined. One of the reasons was the Sea Peoples, who Merneptah (son and successor of Ramesses II) and later Ramesses III of the Twentieth Dynasty defeated. Yet these victories were ultimately not enough to save the Pax Aegyptica, and the empire collapsed.

One of the reasons was internal corruption, which is surprisingly well-documented in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs. One official in Thebes, Paser, brought an inquiry against his rival Paweraa, who was charged with orchestrating tomb robberies. The vizier at first set up a commission to investigate, but then rendered it impotent:

He opened the hearings with such a statement which implied he had already checked the suspected tombs and found nothing wrong! This took the wind out of Paser’s sails. Imagine him, squirming on the bench and growing paler and paler as the suspects he had dragged in took their cues from the vizier and denied everything.

That was the end of Paser; reformer or not, he was trying to swim against the tide. He sank. We never hear of him again, whereas his opponent, Paweraa, was still mayor and chief of police 17 years later. The tomb robberies continued and increased under the latter’s administration. (pg. 276)

It’s a scene we’re too familiar with today. An honest man goes up against corruption, which took hold of the entire country. A once-great nation was now led by men that only incubated decay and disgrace. In a conflict, it’s the honest man that loses, and the nation continues to rot.

The tombs in the Valley of the Kings were robbed extensively, with somewhat official sanction from the priests and the state. Only Tutankhamun’s was spared, as he had faded from memory by then.

And it’s a warning for us as well. Even Barbara Mertz acknowledges at the end of Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs those voices that warn of our own decay, and saying that in the 21st century A.D., we are not at the beginning of a process. (pg. 299) The sad tale ends with the silencing of a civilization. The language faded from the knowledge of men, the hieroglyphs became unreadable, and one could only look at wonder of the grandeur of a civilization lost.

Mertz may be somewhat biased against looking for causes of decay (or at least acknowledging that they can be found), but look we should.

Perhaps one day, through catastrophe or stupidity (or both), our own language will become as incomprehensible to our successors as the hieroglyphs. It would do well for us to learn.


Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs is, as the category of this post implies, a niche product. I bought it because I wanted some more information about Akhenaten and the Atenist heresy for my own work. I got some of that, but I also learned much more about Ancient Egypt than I knew previously. I knew some, but Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs allowed me to fill in some blanks.

Ancient Egyptian history has two main problems to the layman – it is very obscure compared to more recent times, as so few records from the ancient world survive, and many of those are of questionable validity. Puffing was not as frowned upon then as it is today, and even in our own time, few can resist a good story. It’s made worse by the fact that there are quite few witnesses indeed left who can say anything different.

The second main problem is that Egypt was a very stable civilization. It lasted a long time. It almost makes it difficult to start. How can you even begin to piece together a picture of the Ancient Egyptians if they span so many centuries?

Fortunately, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs does it pretty well, and if you want to start learning about the Ancient Egyptians, or even a specific time (though this can vary depending on how much time Mertz devotes herself to) in Ancient Egyptian history, this book will perform that service well.

My major gripe with Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs is that I wish Mertz had gone more in depth about the Third Intermediate Period, which occurred after the collapse of the New Kingdom around 1100 B.C. I was surprised, as Mertz devoted more time to the first two Intermediate Periods. I wanted to know more, but she did devote some choice passages to the Nubian conquest of a large portion of the country and this dynasty, the Twenty-Fifth’s, conflict with the Assyrian Empire. Still wish I’d had more detail, though.

Bottom line, if you want to learn about Ancient Egypt, or if you’re simply a student of history (as I suspect many here are), Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs will interest you. If not, it probably won’t.

Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs.
Click here to get Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs.