Review: The History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s not often I differentiate between books I read in print, books on e-format and books which I listen to, usually via Audible. For this review it is important that I do so as this ‘book’ is actually a series of 48 one-hour lectures by Professor Bob Brier covering the entire history of Egypt from pre-history to the fall of Cleopatra – roughly 3,000 years.

While there may be some criticism to be levelled at Brier for certain forays into whims and personal theories, the man is immensely qualified and has huge experience, and so he has a right to expound his views – especially in his own lectures! Indeed, every lecturer in the world will teach his or her take on their speciality, so it has surprised me that this criticism has been made at all.

Perhaps the charges were made because Brier spends two different lectures looking at biblical stories – the story of Joseph and the Exodus – and gives careful consideration to their validity. I found him to be remarkably gentle and respectful, considering the lack of external evidence that these stories ever actually occurred. Rather than dismiss them out of hand, Brier considers the internal evidence and makes some surprising observations.

That aside, Brier gives superb lectures based on solid, dependable rearch. The thought of 24 hours of ancient history is enough to fill anyone with dread but Brier is a master orator and every word was absorbing. The 30-minute format is perfect for the modern-day ‘short attention span’ most of us suffer from and, honestly, the half-hour whizzes by every time.

Those of you who follow my reviews regularly know that my litmus test for novels is ‘do I care about the characters after the book has ended?’ For once, I found myself applying this test to Brier’s lectures. I was genuinely saddened by the fall of Cleopatra. I was astonished by some of the earlier pharaohs and I thrilled at the exploits of the battles. I didn’t want the story to end, and if there’s ever a time where I’m going to repeat listening to a book – this is it. I’m ready to tackle the stories all over again.

Like many people, I was fascinated by ancient Egypt as a boy and that interest has continued on into adult life. I’m reasonably good at reading Hieroglyphs and have at least one certification in the subject and I’m jealous of my daughter who is about to start studying Egyptology at university. I’m sure she and I will have many interesting discussions as she teaches me what she learns. For myself, I’m always delighted to learn new things and Brier’s lectures taught me hugely. There’s too many things to go through them all but I will say I was surprised to learn that chemistry comes (via Arabic, which I knew) from Egypt (kemet, the Egyptian name for the country); I was also delighted to find that, with my English teaching hat on, that Shelley’s poem, ‘Ozymandias’, is based on Ramesses the Great. I had, by pure accident, used photos from a book on Egypt to give visualisations for students new to the poem. I was delighted to find out I’d actually got the exact statute Shelley re-imagines.

Brier, as I said, is a master orator and I feel I need to say more on this. Some people have criticised his casual style, his ‘that’s my guy’ approach in talking, but I think that’s a ridiculous assertion. He brings the subject alive. There is nothing dusty and dry about him. He is lively, interesting, quite witty and very relatable. I love the fact that, in the final lecture, he encourages us to go watch the old Mummy movies and read the novels to enjoy the egyptology which is often there somewhere now that we know a lot more about the subject than we did. I just love that an egyptologist loves watching horror movies involving mummies! So dynamic was his style that almost every lecture left me thinking ‘there should be a movie made of this’. Such a teacher is worth his weight in gold.

Although the lectures were produced nearly 20 years ago, I don’t think a huge amount has changed since Brier gave these talks. They are certainly an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to know more about this amazing civilisation, and where pyramids, mummies, sphinxes and the whole carving pictures on walls thing come into it all. You’ll learn well and be entertained while you do; and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be moved at times too.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bob Brier is still alive. I had a feeling the age of these recordings meant he’d died years ago. Apparently not. I do hope that somehow I get to meet the man and shake his hand. He’s inspirational and lovely – twin combinations which make someone a hero in my book. I’m certainly very grateful to him.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.


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