Book Review: Donadoni - "Tebe"

Submitted to the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum (EEF).

Sergio Donadoni - "Tebe"
Centri e Monumenti dell'Antichita
Electa, Milano, 1999.
211 pg., colour&b/w photos, maps and drawings.
ISBN 88-435-6209-6; price: ITL 160000

I think it is always a rewarding experience to review a book written by a master of a discipline, but I think that it is also a great pleasure if the book is the newest one by Prof. Donadoni, the most eminent Italian Egyptologist.
What we have here is a comprehensive guide to the ancient town of Thebes; this book is a volume of the series Centri e Monumenti dell'Antichita, which was created to provide a successful documentation about the most important archeological sites of ancient times.
I don't know if there will be in the future also a volume dedicated to Saqqara or Giza, but it is nicely surprising that these Lower Egypt sites have given the precedence to Thebes, a town which has received, at least in Italian, and excluding obviously the Valley of the Kings, little attention. There is, on the other side, a certain amount of books about the pyramids of Saqqara and Giza, probably because they are part of the s.c. Wonders of the Ancient World.
Why has Thebes received so little attention in books destined to non-specialists? I think the answer is given indirectly by Professor Donadoni himself in the end of the preface of the book when he declares his real aim for writing it:

"This is a book that I've written, as it now seems to me, to clarify, for my own use, the often intricated situations of Theban archaeology and also for my own pleasure. I hope now it can be useful to others too." (translation from the Italian)

Theban archaeology is difficult.
This is the main point of the question. If one wants to go beyond the usual tourists' guide schemes and give a deeper insight then the task is really uneasy. Not only one must get the global sense of the zone under study, but one must also appreciate the differences, even the subtle ones, from the various points of view, of the various sites of Thebes. Donadoni, I think, has succeeded in doing this with the skills that he has put in his every book. Persons familiar with works by Donadoni will know what I mean: the perspectives used are never the "usual" ones, the points of view are always new ones and the pictures are rare. Basically Donadoni has written four books of History of Art of ancient Egypt: in them he never used the same photos and never used the "usual", "ever-seen" material. The same happens here: drawings, maps and pictures are really stunning and, what counts more, feature things that are not easily visible in other books about Thebes. I've read many books or articles dealing with Thebes, but the vast majority of the pictures used in this book is new to me. Only to quote a few examples: photos of the paved streets leading from Karnak to Luxor seen as exiting from the Karnak temple, not as entering it; powerful walls enclosing monumental buildings, from the outside and the inside; various photos of the Akh-Menu and its reliefs; the temple of Seti II in the first courtyard of Karnak; the portico of the Bubastites; the wall of Nectanebo; photos of stairs leading to the roofs of various buildings; Deir el-Bahari before the modern archaeological explorations; the entrances to a few 17th-early 18th dynasty tombs (i. e. queen Ahmose-Nefertari at Dra Abu el-Naga); the lower court of Montuemhat's tomb (TT34); a very recent photo of the hidden entry to Hatshepsut's tomb; various photos of details of Deir el-Bahari temples; various photos of Medinet Habu buildings; various recent photos of Malqata; and many more. The high cost of the book is well repaid by all these pictures.

The layout of the book is quite simple but effective; it is divided into four major sections:
1) "Where Amun reigns" (basically Karnak)
2) "Not only Amun" (temenos of Montu, temenos of Mut and Luxor)
3) "Where the sun sets" (KV, QV, TT tombs, funerary temples, DB, etc.)
4) "The living ones in the city of the dead ones" (palaces and DM).

Special attention is devoted to topography, even if the author doesn't enter massively into the debate of the identification of ancient toponyms. A quick summary of the history of the archaeological activities in each zone is always given.
Unluckily not much attention is given to the very recent excavations at the ancient site of Thot Hill.

The main focus is admittedly art and archaeology (also given the character of the series), though history and religion are not forgotten; their reciprocal links and interconnections are presented wherever possible. It is hoped that in the future a real and detailed history of the Theban region, and of what happened in it, may be written; I realize however that such a "monumental" history would have much in common with a more extended treatise of history of Egypt and that would be a big, but very rewarding, task indeed. What Donadoni has given us in this book is the detailed description of the setting of such a History of Thebes, without which every historical study would be a simple account only.

A dictionary of technical terms and a glossary, together with a chronology and the bibliography, complete the book. No analytical index is present, and this is a bad thing, alas.

Whom is the book destined to, then?
Surely it is not to be considered an introduction to Thebes to or for a person without a basical knowledge about ancient Egypt; the specialists of Thebes have certainly at hand more specific tools; again the answer is found in the words of Donadoni quoted above. The book was written by an Egyptologist for himself, as a sort of precise, rather complete, handbook for his own reference. A sort of highly-refined sum-up, then, written without leaving questions unanswered or points unspecified. The edition is obviously not the one typical of handbooks, but the one typical of lavishly illustrated books; in other words the book has the merits of *both* the handbook and the coffee-table book, a characteristic that is very difficult to find.

Federico Rocchi
April 2000

Footnote by Michael Tilgner:
A German edition is forthcoming:
Sergio Donadoni, Theben. Heilige Stadt der Pharaonen,
Hirmer, Muenchen, 2000.
216 pp., ISBN: 3777485500, price: DEM 128

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