And now for something completely different! Terry Jones of Monty Python fame teams up with Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher to give us a look at everyday life in ancient Egypt by comparing it to everyday life in modern Egypt.
Food and fun, work and play, you will be surprised by how much remains the same. Summary, analysis, and some really cool video clips wait inside!
The Hidden History of Egypt is presented by Terry Jones, with Egyptologist and fellow Brit, Dr. Joann Fletcher serving as his guide and advisor. It was written by Terry Jones, Alan Ereira, and Phil Grabsky, and was directed and produced by Phil Grabsky, in conjunction with Seventh Art Productions, for the Discovery Channel (original air date—January 20, 2002).
In The Hidden History of Egypt, comedian, philosopher, and social commentator Terry Jones seeks to uncover the mysteries of one of ancient Egypt’s most secretive orders—the everyday man and woman. With all the attention given to celebrity mummies, touring treasure troves, and custody battles over “stolen” artifacts, it’s easy to forget about the people who paid the taxes, crafted the treasures, and built the monuments, which Terry Jones dismisses as the “funeral arrangements for some crazed megalomaniac.”
But this documentary doesn’t rely solely on ancient chronicles to bring the citizens of Dynastic Egypt to life (although there is certainly plenty of that as well). Instead, Mr. Jones asserts that in many ways life in Egypt remains unchanged, and to get an idea of how the average ancient Egyptian lived, one needn’t look further than how ordinary Egyptians live today.
To assist him in this undertaking, Mr. Jones enlists the expertise of Dr. Joann Fletcher to act as his (and our) guide. The mix is a good one and it is clear the Mr. Jones and Dr. Fletcher are genuinely enjoying their tour of ancient and modern Egypt. Dr. Fletcher is equally at home in the field and in the Egyptian social milieu, and Mr. Jones’ natural wit—in all senses of the word—is both entertaining and thought provoking in equal measure.
The video opens with scenes of modern agrarian life and Dr. Fletcher’s observation that one of the key similarities between the ancient and the modern Egyptians is their spirit of cooperation. Neighbors help neighbors with planting and harvesting, building houses and maintaining common resources, and putting on social events and celebrations, just as they have always done.
The collective activities of average individuals working together toward common goals is a recurring theme throughout the video, and Dr. Fletcher points out that it is this communal character that transformed the Giza Plateau into the Sphinx, the temples, and the pyramids.
This leads into a montage of clips of ancient builders that seems to have been culled from classic movies and outdated documentaries showing slaves and citizens-in-duress toiling under threat of the pharaoh’s whip. Fortunately Terry counters this with the radical notion that the pyramid builders were not slaves, but free people working in a collaborative effort (for more on this, see Who Built the Pyramids? Part 1: The Lost City of the Pyramid Builders, here on Em Hotep).
In order to get a more realistic depiction of how the ordinary ancient Egyptian spent a typical day at work, we begin at Saqqara with a visit to the tomb of Ti “the Rich.” Ti was an important Fifth Dynasty court official whose rather large estate employed an equally large workforce. Apparently Ti was given to wandering his grounds and eavesdropping on his employees, and many of the rather mundane interactions he observed found their way onto the walls of his tomb.
Actually, tomb scenes depicting average people going about the business of their average days are not all that unusual in Egypt, as the ideal afterlife was basically a continuation of an ideal life. These portrayals provide us with a detailed look at ancient life, which this documentary makes good use of by interjecting clips of modern Egyptians conducting the same activities in much the same way.
Another example visited by The Hidden History of Egypt is the tomb of master craftsman Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina, a sort of up-scale village adjacent to the Valley of the Kings where the builders of the royal tombs dwelt. Like Ti, Sennedjem had his tomb decorated with scenes of how he envisioned his afterlife, which included working in his garden with his wife. Again we see video clips of modern Egyptians doing the same work with the same tools.
We then take a walk down into Deir el-Medina for a tour of Sennedjem’s house. Dr. Fletcher explains the architecture of the house and shows evidence of how the furniture was arranged, food and water were stored, and how and where the family would have slept. This is followed by a trip to a modern working-class Egyptian house where we see how little things have changed in 4,500 years, from the architecture down to the furniture.
The Hidden History of Egypt stands apart from other Egyptological documentaries in its ability to get its point across without the use of reenactments and computer animations. Not that there is anything wrong with reenactments and animations per se, it’s just that this documentary doesn’t need them. The juxtaposition of ancient artistic renderings with modern video footage and comparing ancient sites to currently occupied spaces leaves little doubt that the secret lives of ordinary ancient Egyptians are not so secret after all. They are still going on every day throughout Egypt.
The video turns next to comparing the ancient and modern palates with a trip to the suq. Winding our way through the marketplace we again find that the Egyptians have found little need for change. But the scenes of beer and winemaking and the baking of bread are interrupted when Terry and Joann arrive at a tailor where they commission a kilt and robe ensemble for Terry based on an ancient pattern provided by Joann.
While the tailor weaves his ancient magic, we resume our culinary comparison with a trip to the village of Gurna, located across the Nile from Luxor, not far from Sennedjem’s house. Over a lunch of beer and a variety of breads, Dr. Fletcher explains that bread and beer were the fuel that powered the pyramid builders. Unlike our modern lackluster bread, the fare of the ancient Egyptians provided the calories needed to put in a hard day of cutting stone and dragging blocks.
The documentary provides another interesting example of the ancient surviving into the modern with a discussion of how the ancient Egyptian language was kept alive by, of all institutions, the Coptic Church. When the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned pagan temples, the video explains, his edict had the collateral effect of closing the schools, libraries, medical centers, and legal courts of Egypt. All civil life was tied to the temples, and when they closed they took with them the written, and eventually the spoken, language.
But just as the Catholic Church preserved Latin, the Coptic Church retained a distant linguistic cousin of ancient Egyptian as the official language of the liturgy. Terry Jones points out that modern Coptic is probably as distinct from ancient Egyptian as modern English is from Anglo Saxon, but it was sufficient to help with decoding the hieroglyphs after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.
The Hidden History of Egypt makes other comparisons between ancient and modern Egyptians, and modernity does not necessarily always come out on top. In one segment we learn that the engineers who moved the colossal temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel were not able to reassemble it with the same precision as the ancients, and in another segment we find that women in ancient Egypt had superior rights and equality to much of the world today.
And the Monty Python alumnus has his trademark moments of humor, such as when he dons his ancient Egyptian kilt and robe, along with traditional makeup and a stylish (by Old Kingdom standards) wig, for a walk around the modern streets. Judging from the reactions he gets, some things have clearly changed over the millennia.
But The Hidden History of Egypt is by no means cheeky, it easily stands toe to toe with the best Egyptological documentaries. The humor is functional in supporting the thesis that not only have the tools and trades of the ancients survived the ages, the sometimes quirky and sometimes sublime character of the Egyptian people endures to this day. Mr. Jones concludes that while the pharaohs and their riches have been preserved as public property in the world’s museums,
Perhaps the real immortality is to be found among ordinary men and women, living lives that have changed very little since the days of the pharaohs. Perhaps the hidden history ancient Egypt has been here all along, under our noses.
After viewing The Hidden History of Egypt, I am inclined to agree.
- Hemienu to Houdin: Building A Great Pyramid – Introduction
- Coptic Cairo: A Complex Design of Many Parts
- Dance of the Ancient and the Modern: The Streets of Cairo
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010. All rights reserved.
The clips “Intro”, “In the Tomb of Ti”, and “Lunch with Sennedjem”, are taken from the Discovery Channel video “The Hidden History of Egypt,” copyright by the Discovery Channel, 2002, all rights reserved. These clips and the related still images are used in accordance with the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act in that they are used for purposes of education and critique. The fair use clause provides that the reviewer has the right to use as much of an original work as they need to in order to put it under some kind of scrutiny, so long as the reviewer analyzes, comments on, or responds to the work itself, and such use does not satisfy the consumer’s need or desire for the original.