Egypt: 4000 Years of Art

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Egypt: 4000 Years of Art, Jaromir Malek, book reviewMy husband knows I love big lavish picture books that you can dip in and out of at will and a couple of years ago he bought me a big chunky picture book called Egypt – 4000 Years of Art by Jaromir Malek. He got it from the Phaidon shop at Bicester Village outlet centre and swears he didn’t pay much for it. Perhaps he was hoping it would inspire me to book a trip to Egypt but so far it’s not worked its magic on me.

Jaromir Malek is the Keeper of the Archive at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, one of my favourite museums and a place where I always hunt down the mummies and have a good gawp at the Egyptian section. With such a background he’s undoubtedly qualified to create such a vast volume. The book has 375 pages but to look at it you’d think there were more because it’s just so thick. I guess that’s down to the quality of the paper.

A journey through time

The structure of the book is quite simple – a brief introduction swiftly followed by nearly 350 pages of photos and commentary all presented in chronological order. The first photograph is a carved sheep from a grave which is 6000 years old and the last are items from 180 AD. I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that nobody’s interested in anything that’s happened in Egypt in the 1800 years since then. I guess that’s the price you pay for being a country with your best years long behind you.

Each page has a well lit and beautiful photograph presented on a clean white background. The quality of the photography is excellent. The text reveals what it is and where it came from. Then we learn the estimated age, what the item is made from, how big it is and where you would have to go today to find it in a museum if you wanted to track it down. The author explains why he’s chosen each item and why he considers it to be significant or a good example of its kind.

Parallel evolution

I was intrigued by some of the stylistic designs which reminded me of items from ancient sites I’d visited in other countries. For example the lion on a plaque from Abydos looked a lot like the lions carved at ancient monuments in Iran at Persepolis.

The photogpraphs of archaeological items are interspersed with beautiful photographs of ancient buildings from across Egypt which broke up the (sorry – got to be said) monotony of page after page of pots and carvings.

One of the great things about the Ancient Egyptian habit of burying dead leaders with their belongings and all they would need for their next life, is that masses of fabulous but normally not very easily preserved items have been protected for thousands of years. I loved one particular model of people in the market inspecting their cattle which was made of wood and plaster and over 4000 years old. The fact that something so frail could still be in great condition says a lot for the skills of the tomb builders. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the gold coffin of Tutankhamun which did the world tour back in my childhood and ignited a love of Egyptology in people all over the world.

At the end of the book you’ll find a time-line which lists the dynasties and their kings, the key events of each period both within Egypt and further afield and references the items in the book which reflect each time. I find this quite interesting as there are ancient cities in other countries that I’m much more interested in and this time line helps the reader to correlate what was happening in the different countries at more or less the same time. There’s also a map and a glossary and a very detailed index at the back.


If you are – or if you know someone who is – a fan of ancient Egypt who’s looking for lots of fabulous photos, then this is a great book. Sadly I’m not particularly interested in Egypt and so this book was a bit wasted on me. I dip in now and then but I’m flicking through rather than really soaking up the information. It would make a great present for someone with a passion for the country and the ancient times but for me it just made me wonder if Phaidon have also published one on India. I can’t fake the interest that’s needed to get the most out of this particular volume but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a beautifully photographed and well assembled volume. It’s just not really for me.

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Egypt: 4000 Years of Art
by Jaromir Malek

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Written by koshkha