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Pharaoh's Boat
Weitzman, David L. ; Pharaoh's Boat . New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children , 2009. $18.00, ISBN 9780547053417 / 054705341X .

Note: With poetic language and striking illustrations, Weitzman tells the story of how one of the greatest boats of ancient Egypt came to be built and built again. In the shadow of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the most skilled shipwrights in all of Egypt are building an enormous vessel that will transport Cheops, the mighty pharaoh, across the winding waterway and into a new world. But no one could have imagined just where the journey of Pharaoh's boat would ultimately lead. (CABA Winner)


What a splendid little book this is. It tells the story of the building of enormous magical boats that were meant to take King Khufu through the sky after his death, the discovery in 1954 of one of these ships on the south side of the Great Pyramid, and the ensuing efforts to rebuild it. I should add that I will use the name "Khufu" in the review, since this is the ancient Egyptian name of the king in question, although the author uses the name "Cheops,"which is the name used by the Greeks when referring to Khufu.

Our story begins 4600 years ago, with the death of Khufu and the subsequent preparations for his funeral. During his lifetime, Khufu was famous for his building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. However, what books from earlier parts of the twentieth century could not tell us is that two enormous boats were added to the king's funerary equipment, buried beside his pyramid. There follows a highly comprehensive account of the process of building ships in ancient Egypt. From carving huge cedar logs into the desired shapes to the assembly of the various parts of the boat, the narrative is full of wonderful details that will delight anyone interested in boats and boat-making. One particularly successful double spread (pp. 10-11) shows an illustration of ancient shipwrights sawing long planks while others use adzes to carve grooves into the wood. This scene is accompanied by individually labeled drawings of actual ancient Egyptian tools. Such a juxtaposition will allow teachers to get their students to identify the tools and find them in the scenes of the shipwrights. In the description of shipbuilding, the language is perforce highly technical, using the proper nautical terms, but the narrative and the accompanying illustrations are clear enough to allow everyone to follow the story. By the end, even I could tell a keel plank from a rocker and a scarf joint from a toggle.

This part of the narrative ends with the transporting of Khufu's ships into their respective pits beside the pyramid, where they were dismantled and laid in thirteen layers properly aligned to the sun's own journey through the sky from the east to the west. Thus, the stern pieces - the back of the boat - were in the east side of the great pit and the proper port and starboard planks were placed on the left and right sides, respectively, of the pit.

From there, the book segues into the recounting of the accidental discovery in 1954 of one of the boats by an Egyptian archeologist, Kamal el-Mallakh. As workmen were carefully removing tons of wind-blown sand from the south side of the Great Pyramid, they came upon stone walls. Surprised to find walls where one would not expect them, the archeologist and his workmen cautiously dug around the walls, exposing two massive limestone blocks. Having made a small hole in the mortar between the blocks, el-Mallakh was able to peer down and see ... the tip of a cedar oar. What was inside the pit was a boat, an enormous boat! Immediately, Hag Ahmed Youssef Moustafa, the chief conservator of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, was called in to recover, conserve, and eventually rebuild the boat, a task that would take him nearly two years.

And here, the author has cleverly woven past into present by having his two-page illustration show an ancient Egyptian working on the boat on the left side page while Hag Ahmed is seen working on the same plank on the right side of the image. From here on, the illustrations are based in the present, as they show the rebuilding of the ship. The task of extracting the hundreds and hundreds of fragile wooden planks from the pit, then putting them back together, was a daunting one. As the author amusingly puts it, it was like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without having the picture on the box (p. 28). The work was painstaking and took much trial and error on Hag Ahmed's part. But he received unexpected help from the ancient shipwrights, who had painted now-faint markings on some of the planks. These turned out to be indicators for the four quarters of the boat: fore and aft, as well as port and starboard. And successful he was. The magnificent boat now rests in its specially-made museum over the pit that housed it for thousands of years. It is truly an awe-inspiring relic, a true testament to the art of the ancient builders and the meticulous work of its modern restorer.

However, and at the risk of sounding pedantic, I have a few reservations about the book, as a number of anachronisms came up in the ancient part of the book. Chief of these is the title itself, Pharaoh's Boat. To call Khufu - a king who ruled in the Fourth Dynasty, around 2600 BCE, in a period we call the Old Kingdom - a Pharaoh is incorrect, since the term would not be used to refer to the ancient Egyptian monarch for another 1100 years or so. Similarly, the author gives the impression that Khufu was accompanied in the afterlife by copies of the Book of the Dead, inscribed inside his coffin (p. 7). Instead, the funerary compositions of the time are referred to as the Pyramid Texts, which, at any rate, would not be carved on the walls of royal pyramids for another two centuries. Khufu's sarcophagus is free of texts, as are the walls of his burial chamber. Additionally, to speak of equipping Khufu's burial with chariots is incorrect, since this mode of transportation would not be introduced into Egypt for another thousand years. The royal palace of the Old Kingdom rulers was at Memphis, not Thebes, as the author asserts on the same page. And lastly, a reference to woven cotton sails (p. 8) is highly anachronistic, since cotton would not be introduced into Egypt before the first century CE; such sails are then said to be made of papyrus on the next page. What the author has done here is the common mistake of conflating the thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history into a monolithic never-changing continuum, where the circumstances of the 15th century BCE are thought to be the same as those of the 27th century BCE. As well, there is also one factual error, which is that the boat was made of cedar because this type of wood is said to be resistant to decay and ship worms, which eat and live in wood (p. 10). Modern analysis of actual ancient ships recently found at the site of Wadi Gawasis on the Red Sea coast, which were also made of cedar, have turned out to be worm-infested; see C. Ward and C. Zazzaro, Evidence for Pharaonic Seagoing Ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt, _The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology_ (2009), p. 3, fig. 3, and p. 14 (accessed electronically from: doi: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2009.00229.x. I owe this reference to T. Spurrier, whom I thank). There is also an unfortunate use of archaic language in the quote at the very beginning of the book (Thou art like Re in all thou doest). While wonderfully atmospheric, such archaic language distances us from what was after all a living language for the ancients, and makes more of a distinction than is necessary between them and us.

These, assuredly, are minor quibbles. But they're the sort of misconceptions students bring along to my own university-level classes. The students are surprised, and a little disappointed, to find that what they had long thought to be true about ancient Egypt turns out to be not so. It's often more difficult to unlearn incorrect facts than it is to learn new ones.

These caveats aside, I still highly recommend Pharaoh's Boat. The book's narrative moves along at a good pace and the illustrations - colorful images done in the ancient Egyptian style - fill out the story quite nicely. It is an enjoyable account of a truly remarkable discovery. The author has cleverly woven his ancient narrative with his modern one, and it should inspire much lively discussion on the amazing skills of the ancient Egyptians in the classroom.

Copyright 2010 Africa Access

Rating: HR Grade: E / M Type: Book

Reviewed by: Ronald J. Leprohon, University of Toronto

Subject: Ancient Egypt / World History / Pharoahs / Khufu / Cheops