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Book review: “The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” by Lionel Casson

The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Lionel Casson is a fine book.  It’s just not what’s advertised.

Or, at least, what I expected.

Casson was a well-respected classicist, at the height of his career a half century ago when The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Ancient Egypt was published by the American Heritage company. 

It’s a book that works very well for the general reader as a quick but fairly comprehensive overview of ancient Egypt during a three-thousand-year period that ended around the time of Jesus.

In 128 large-format pages, filled with color and black-and-white images, Casson writes about the three kingdoms — Old, Middle and New — and about Egyptian religious practices, beliefs in an afterlife, travel and the social pyramid.  A highlight is a chapter about a maverick Pharoah who changed much of the art and culture for the length of his reign until, after his death, things went back basically to how they’d always been.

These subjects provide a historical and cultural view of the Egyptian world. But they aren’t really about the “daily life” promised in the book’s title.  They give the context of daily life, that’s all.

Everyday Egyptians?

The subjects of some chapter headings seem to suggest that they will deal with the way Egyptians lived — the family, women, on the farm, at leisure, the professions and fine craftsmen. But almost exclusively they are dealing with the life lived by the Pharoah and, to a lesser extent, the nobles and bureaucrats around him.

Anyone, like me, who comes to the book looking for a sense of what it felt like to be an everyday Egyptian during those three millenniums won’t find much here.

Again, this is a fine book with a lot of well-presented information, except for the daily life of most Egyptians.

I understand that it was relatively easy for Casson and other Egyptologists to figure out how the Pharoah and rich lived because they left behind tombs with detailed paintings, artwork and descriptions in stone of the affluent life they lived.

And I understand that it was all but impossible for the experts to be able to say much about the middle-class and the poor because there are no such artifacts for them, no such descriptions of their lives from their own gravesites.

Other books in the series

This book is one of five that American Heritage published in 1975.  The others are:

  • The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Casson.
  • The Horizon Book of Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Clara and Richard Winston.
  • The Horizon Book of Daily Life in the Renaissance by Charles L. Mee Jr.
  • The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Victorian England by Christopher Hibbert.

I have all of these and plan to read them, and I’m thinking that they will probably be able to give more of a sense of the way it felt and smelled and tasted and sounded like for the people in the historical periods they cover.

At least, I hope so.

Patrick T. Reardon

7.28.22

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