Book Review: Curse of the Pharaohs

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Ages 9-12

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Such an expert as Zahi Hawass knows a great deal about Egypt, the Pyramids, the Pharaohs; and the so-called curses that have resonated through the legends of time, and he puts that expertise on full display in The Curse of the Pharaohs, an eminently readable and entertaining examination of those "curses," answering once and for all, in his opinion, the question that has plagued archaeologists for a very long time.

Simply put, the man knows how to write for a general audience. The assumed audience here is younger readers, of course, but adults will not at all be put off by his prose or his choice of subject matter. This is a great book, full of fascinating insights and fabulous illustrations (as always with National Geographic), as up-to-date as it is patient with examining what happened a very long time ago.

Hawass is now the most eminent archaeologist in Egypt. He is in charge of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It is his job to coordinate and oversee a great many things, and sometimes his administrative work gets in the way of his true passion: discovering links to the past. But he is also at the forefront of every major find in recent years, and this is firmly illusrated in his firsthand knowledge and experience with what many have considered one of the finest archaeological finds of the 20th century: the tomb of Zed-khonsu-iuf-ankh, the supervisor of the Pyramid-builders. This tomb was the subject of a television special and was one of hundreds found at a site that included vast evidence to support the theory that the people who built the Pyramids were not slaves, as had been thought for a great many years, but free people who chose to do the back-breaking work in order to be part of something momentous and historic. An entire mini-city has been unearthed, with Zed's tomb as the centerpiece. In this way, Hawass has shown us that you can always learn about the past, even when you think you know what it holds.

The book's subtitle is My Adventures With Mummies, and Hawass takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of mummy adventures, patiently explaining why the Egyptians mummified themselves (An appendix explains how.) and why they went to so much trouble to bury themselves far away from normal foot traffic. He also gets right into the story of the "curse" and how it has been attributed to many strange happenings down through the years.

The most famous story of the curse is, of course, that of the people who discovered King Tut's tomb. Hawass goes to painstaking detail to examine all of the deaths supposed to be caused by the curse, then discounts the curse theory case by case, including facts that are convincing and resonating. It becomes clear from this point on that he doesn't believe in the curse. In fact, he deeply believes that the Pharaohs and others who buried themselves far away from reality wanted to be found.

Along the way to this conclusion, Hawass does include several episodes that border on the supernatural, including a near-death experience that could be interpreted as his being saved by the spirit of a long-dead Egyptian. He has a rational explanation for it, of course.

Of particular interest to young readers is the last chapter, in which Hawass escorts a young girl named Dina through the Great Pyramid, easing her fears with experience, brushing aside what she thought might be waiting for fear in the darkness with wonder at what she was seeing. This is, in effect, a metaphor for the point of the entire book: Fear remains as long as irrational thoughts do; when confronted with cold, hard reason and empirical data, silly notions disappear and are replaced by wonder and awe.

Those two words, wonder and awe, are what come to mind most when examining the pictures in this book. They are simply wondrous and awesome, some of the finest illustrations ever published in a book on this subject. Rich and color and detail, they put the reader in the moment and encourage him or her to learn more.

The author includes a few appendices that are very helpful to young readers, including a chronology, a bibliography (with books and websites) a glossary and a listing of Egyptians gods and goddesses. Also included is advice for how to become an archaeologist. Hawass reminds the reader that he didn't want to be an archaeologist but was compelled to become one on his first job, when he beheld the wonder of Egyptian ruins.

Easy to navigate, breathtaking to behold, this book entertains long after the reading and viewing is done. Pick it up and see for yourself!

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