The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes – #biography #bookreview

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books – hardback, Kindle

 

Early in the 19th century, a young Englishman repeatedly risked death and overcame numerous dangers as he sailed along the Nile River and journeyed into deserts, discovering and documenting important details about ancient Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

William John Bankes and his various crews dug away tons of sand from ruins, giant statues, and other artifacts of ancient cultures. Photography was still several decades in the future, so Bankes used the best available technologies of his time, including drawings and paintings, to create images of ruins, shrines, temple floor plans, and hieroglyphs found on walls and in pyramids. He sometimes dangled dangerously from ropes, as well, as he worked in high places to document details he could not decipher, yet knew were important.  On occasion, he even hired teams of artists to travel with him so he could record as many images as possible.

Once he returned to Great Britain after a few years of travels, he entered politics as his father had desired. He was elected twice to the House of Commons, and he maintained a friendship–and possibly more–with the poet Lord Byron, whom he had known since school days.

But Bankes soon found himself again facing death, this time at the hands of the English justice system. Homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and execution in early 19th-century England, and Bankes was arrested twice on “unnatural behavior” charges that could have gotten him hanged. In his first trial, he was acquitted, thanks in part to testimony in his favor by the Duke of Wellington. Bankes’s second arrest, however, left him little choice but to flee England and go to France and then Italy, where he would pass away in 1855 at age 68.

Despite his great Egyptian discoveries, Bankes essentially died an outlaw from English justice. Yet, through an odd quirk in English law in force at the time, he had been able to return to England occasionally, as long as he was there only on a Sunday. Both from Italian exile and on quick trips back to his family home, Kingston Lacy, Bankes managed to add one more fascinating chapter to his life. He had become an expert on Italian art, and he began helping rework and remodel his English home in the style of an Italian villa, complete with many paintings and some works of sculpture. The home eventually was given to the National Trust in 1982 and, after “[s]ignificant conservation efforts,” was opened to the public.

Whether you know much about ancient Egypt or not, The Obelisk and the Englishman is a fascinating book about a fascinating explorer. It details his exploration methods and the lasting significance of the numerous discoveries and illustrations he made in the Nile region. And it takes readers inside his troubled life as he tried to find personal happiness within the very narrow confines of 19th-century British society.

“William lives on through his archeological work in both Egypt and Syria,” Dorothy U. Seyler writes in this well-researched, well-written biography of Bankes. “Of special value to Egyptologists are his drawings and notes on temples south of Aswan, since many of these temples were lost under the sand or the Nile waters. His discovery of the Abydos King List and his copies of the hieroglyphs contributed to the decoding of Egypt’s sacred language.”

Si Dunn

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Raiders of the Nile – Steven Saylor brings fast-paced action & intrigue to ancient Egypt – #fiction #bookreview

Raiders of the Nile

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

(Minotaur Books – hardcover , Kindle )

Best-selling author Steven Saylor is well-known for his many books, including his Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, starring Gordianus the Finder, a B.C. equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Now, in Raiders of the Nile, Saylor again has turned the sundial back a few years and given us a young, pre-Finder Gordianus. In 88 B.C., on his 22nd birthday, Gordianus suddenly has to embark on a truly desperate quest. He must rescue Bethesda, the beautiful young woman he loves,  from fearsome pirates based in the Nile Delta. They have kidnapped Bethesda from the troubled city of Alexandria, where the latest in a string of Egyptian kings named Ptolemy is on a very shaky throne (despite, or perhaps partly because of, his huge girth). And young Gordianus finds that he has just one ally willing to be his John Watson in the Egyptian badlands: a 10-year-old slave boy named Djet.

A pleasingly complex plot unfolds as Gordianus and Djet barely escape death at several turns and have to join the pirate gang not only to save their lives but to have a chance to escape with Bethesda, who is being held for ransom.

What the pirates and their vicious leader don’t know is that they have kidnapped the wrong woman. And if they somehow find out, she, Gordianus and Djet all could be killed on the spot.

It’s the set-up for a lot of intrigue, action and entertainment. And Steven Saylor demonstrates that he is a master at telling fast-paced stories set in the seemingly slow-paced ancient world.

His characters, fortunately, do not speak in hieroglyphics or Latin. Nor do they sound like actors in grainy Old Testament movies. Indeed, they converse in reasonably modern English, which momentarily can be disconcerting the first time you pick up a Steven Saylor novel. But it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the tale and find yourself racing along on the back of a camel you barely can ride, while murderous villagers, also on camels, try to chase you down and hack you into mincemeat.

Saylor, widely recognized as an expert on ancient Roman life and politics, has done extensive research into the lives and politics of some ancient Egyptians, as well as key settings used in Raiders of the Nile. He needed a vacation, he says in the book’s concluding notes, from his long studies of the ancient Romans’ “murder trials, gruesome histories, and self- aggrandizing memoirs.” So he turned to the works of “Greek authors whose books were all about travel and exploration, love and sensual pleasure, religious exaltation and athletic glory.”

One outcome was his 2013 book The Seven Wonders, which brings 18-year-old Gordianus face-to-face with intriguing, challenging, deadly mysteries each time he stops to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Raiders of the Nile is the second prequel novel that points toward how Gordianus eventually will become the famed Finder who solves cases involving prominent historical characters and events in Rome. While researching ancient Greece, Saylor encountered several books, manuscripts and websites that inspired him to look closely at Egypt, too. And that led to the absorbing tale which unfolds in this new book.

One downside to the many plot twists, intrigues, double-crossings, and surprises in Raiders of the Nile is that Saylor must rely on a fairly lengthy ending to wrap everything up and shake Gordianus loose for whatever will come next. Even then, some of the concluding events seem to happen just a bit quickly and conveniently.

Still, fans of Gordianus the Finder will not be disappointed. And readers encountering Gordianus (and Saylor) for the first time will find plenty to enjoy–including a whole series of Gordianus novels to savor.

Steven Saylor definitely knows how to blend imagination, good storytelling, historical accuracy and cultural details into tales of mystery, intrigue, action and, yes, love.

Si Dunn