The Surprising History of Egypt with Terry Jones: continuity of the ancient in the modern with a message about living life to the full

Phil Grabsky, “The Surprising History of Egypt with Terry Jones” (2002)

An entertaining trip into the lives and customs of every-day people of ancient Egypt, with host and narrator Terry Jones of Monty Python fame thrown in as a bonus to spice up the history lesson, this program uncovers a surprising continuity between the people of ancient Egypt and the people of modern Egypt in spite of centuries of invasion, one set of foreign rulers after another, and drastic changes in language and religion. Jones’s approach to making this documentary is warm, conversational and often comic, making the history lesson accessible to families and children. He chats easily with archaeologists, historians and other experts on aspects of ancient Egyptian life and the film moves at a brisk pace, flitting breezily from examinations of ancient life as portrayed on murals and in archaeological sites to scenes of modern life.

With a striking redhead Egyptologist guide called Joanne by his side, Jones visits a family at home where Joanne explains how the construction of the residents’ home, their furniture and the family’s sleeping arrangements have changed very little in concept, design, basic structure and function from early times. They visit a cloth seller and tailor to buy material to be made into an ancient Egyptian costume for Jones and they have lunch at a cafe, consuming food and beverages that ancient Egyptians might have been familiar with. They talk about the kind of work most ancient Egyptian workers would have done: farming, construction work (for the elites), running shops and other small businesses, metal-working. Along the way Jones detours into those aspects of ancient Egyptian life and society that have survived to the present day: the Coptic language, spoken and written, literature and literary genres such as the autobiography. Jones discovers also that ancient Egyptian women enjoyed some economic and social equality with men.

In the last 10 minutes of the documentary, Jones tries on his costume, dons appropriate sandals and submits to a skincare and moisturising routine worthy of most ancient Egyptian workers. He puts on a wig and goes for a walk through town to the amusement of adults and the horror of young children. It’s all very amusing but apart from observing that Jones looks like one of his old Python drag queen acts, I don’t find that his dress says much about what ordinary Egyptians used to wear: there’s little discussion of fashion trends those worthy ancients might have followed, whether men and women wore different things, whether women had to cover their hair and faces, and if clothing styles depended on the work people did. There is mention that both men and women wore kohl to protect their eyes from sun glare but Jones and Joanne make no comment as to whether modern Egyptians still follow the most personal of customs from ancient times.

Jones makes the observation that the ancient Egyptians were self-sufficent in their thoughts and worldview, and within that worldview, life was good and was as much for fun and good living as it was for work and obeying the gods, the rhythm of the Nile river and one’s rulers. Beyond the Nile and the Valley of the Kings, there was only desert, death and not much else the ancient Egyptians needed. It is this worldview, complete in itself, that has created a society conservative in many of it ways yet adaptable enough as to adopt two religions from the outside world (Christianity and Islam) in the last two thousand years and change its everyday language from its native Egyptian / Coptic to an Arabic flavoured with native Egyptian and foreign vocabulary, morphology and pronunciation,

The film does an excellent job of bridging the old with the new, combining history and archaeology with travelogue without the expected laundry list of dates, rulers and conquests, and serves well as an introduction to ancient history and its continuing impact on modern life to young people.

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