Fabulous lives of the Pharaohs revealed in new book

23 Jun 2009

Egypt was the best place to live in the ancient world, according to ‘The Pharaohs’, a new book that gives a full but straightforward and colourful account of life there from 3100 BC to 30 BC.

Isis, Queen of the Gods
Isis, Queen of the Gods

“The River Nile flooded every year, making the land very fertile, so there was always food,” author Dr Joyce Tyldesley explains.

“The peasants were worked hard but they didn’t have a bad life. Women had better rights than other civilizations – they could own property, live alone, raise children by themselves. The elite lived luxurious lives; they had country estates complete with bathrooms, and well-decorated tombs.

“The ancient Egyptians pitied people who lived in other lands.”

They had some problems – low level diseases such as bilharzia (a worm that lives in the gut, making the host feel unwell if not seriously ill) and respiratory problems from breathing in sand and fire smoke from cooking and lighting were common. Many women died in childbirth.

And the Pharaohs themselves, despite being semi divine, the country’s high priest, leader of the army and head of the civil service, faced many thorny political battles to lead or even just survive. At least two were murdered by ambitious wives and sons, one prostituted his daughter and another was proclaimed a heretic and his reign erased from official history.

The good luck and living of the ancient Egyptians was also their downfall, ensuring Rome’s continuing interest in invading the country.

Dr Tyldesley takes the reader through the Pharaohs in chronological order, bringing out the themes and issues of the time, in a style to be enjoyed by all levels. While beautifully illustrated, it also gives plenty of essential and fascinating information.

“I wrote the book while rewriting the Certificate in Egyptology course at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology,” she explains.

“I was directly in touch with the people I was writing for, it was a great help. I could see the students enjoying the course and which bits they liked and this informed my writing of the book. It’s not often you get to do that.

“Egyptology can be highly academic in the worst way, with lots of footnotes, quotes in foreign languages, etc. I have written the full history but simply, to get people hooked into the subject.”

Cleopatra’s death provides the book with a particularly exciting finale.

“Cleopatra was not the last native leader of Egypt – her family were Macedonians – but she was the last independent leader,” Dr Tyldesley explains.

“She was semi-divine, precociously intelligent, politically powerful and extraordinarily rich and thus enjoyed a good life, at one point bearing Julius Caesar a son. Following Caesar’s murder, Italy was divided between Octavian and Mark Antony. Cleopatra sided with the older and more experienced Mark Antony, who accepted she was ‘queen of kings and her sons who are kings’, and she bore him twins and another son. However it seemed she had backed the wrong house; Octavian won the Battle of Actium and then followed the lovers to Egypt.

“Believing Cleopatra had committed suicide, Mark Antony stabbed himself. He was then carried to the mausoleum where she was in fact hiding and pushed through the window; he died in her arms. She then stabbed herself but did not die, later committing suicide while under guard.”

Dr Tyldesley adds: “I believe she did commit suicide, and was not murdered, but I am not sure she used an asp. There is evidence she experimented with different poisons and three people died in that room – one snake would not be able to do that.

“Her daughter survived and went on to become the queen of King Juba of Mauretania so it is possible that there are descendants of Cleopatra living today.”

  • The Pharaohs by Dr Joyce Tyldesley is published by Quercus History, priced £20.

Notes for editors

For more information or an interview with Dr Joyce Tyldesley contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111, 07768 980942 or Mikaela.Sitford@manchester.ac.uk.

For a review copy of the book contact Quercus History on 0207 291 7200.

The Certificate in Egyptology course is a three-year programme led by internationally recognised scholar Professor Rosalie David and taught by Dr Joyce Tyldesley. It draws upon the important Egyptological collections of the University's Museum and Library and has also been completely revised and restructured for delivery online via the Blackboard Virtual e-learning platform.

The KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology is the first specifically designated research centre for the investigation of Egyptian mummies in the world. Officially opened in 2003, it plays host to a multidisciplinary team of researchers and students experienced in many different areas of science, medicine and Egyptology and forms a major resource for this discipline. See http://www.knhcentre.manchester.ac.uk/

The University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, with 1,700 undergraduate students, more than 1,000 people involved in research, £135 million in active research grants and £170 million investment in state-of-the-art facilities, is one of the largest and most successful unified research and teaching organisations of its kind in Europe. See http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk.