Pharaoh’s Boat

I seem to have vague memories of my brother James loving famed author and illustrator David Macaulay when we were growing up. Since my oldest was a baby, he has reminded me of James in lots of ways. When Michael was old enough to be fascinated by how everything works, I got David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now for him. He and I were both mesmerized. I proceeded to buy everything I could get my hands on. We especially loved Built to Last, which is a compendium of three excellent books: Castle, Cathedral, and Mosque. I am a lover of Egypt, and using Macaulay’s Pyramid as a leaping-off point; we spent many months studying Egypt before taking the kids to the Field Museum in Chicago, where we got to see Egypt up close. I remember friends suggesting David Weitzman’s Pharaoh’s Boat, but for whatever reason, I could not get my hands on it. 

In Purple House Press’s big sale in May, I asked Jill Morgan what books I should be adding to my shopping cart that I might not already be thinking of. She and several Facebook friends all insisted that I get Pharaoh’s Boat. I noticed this quote on the cover from David Macaulay: “Pharaoh’s Boat is an immensely gratifying book as skillfully crafted and assembled as its subject.” I love Egypt; I was planning on ordering The Lost Queen of Egypt. And as I said above, I love David Macaulay. So, into the cart, it went. I have since re-ordered it to donate to one of my favorite local classical schools. 

Probably because of the endorsement from David Macaulay, I was expecting this book to be technical, maybe a little monochromatic, and perhaps even a little funny. It is technical, but in a slightly different style from Macaulay. The illustration is rich with the colors of the Nile. And it is not funny at all, but is instead utterly fascinating and very storybook-like. This book is everything I love about Macaulay, but it is also a compelling story spanning 4,600 years, with illustrations that delight the imagination.

From the prologue: 

“In 1954, workers began clearing away tons of windblown sand and rubble that had piled up against the south face of the Great Pyramid of Giza. As they dug, there suddenly appeared an old stone boundary wall . . . Kamel el Mallakh, the Egyptologist supervising the work, was puzzled. The Egyptian builders were always so precise about placing structures, he was certain this was not a mistake. Had the wall been deliberately built there to hide something?”

Before his death in 2581 B.C., Cheops made all of the preparations for his burial, except for one: boats. After his death, his son Djedefre, commissioned two great ships: “one to guide Cheops safely through the dark, perilous underworld of night, and the other to carry him up across the sky to embark on his eternal journey with the sun.” 

The first part of this intriguing book explains in lively prose, and with traditional flat Egyptian illustration, the many parts of the ships and how they were constructed. Readers will marvel at how the ancient Egyptian sewn ships were strong and elegant, and yet incredibly easy to take apart for reassembly elsewhere. Once the ships were assembled, they were taken apart and meticulously packed into thirteen intelligent rows in ship pits next to the Cheops’s pyramid (The Great Pyramid at Giza). The Egyptians believed that Cheops would be able to reassemble them in the afterlife and use them for all eternity. 

1954, when the ships were discovered, they puzzled the Egyptologists, archeologists, and antiquities restorationists. The second part of this story talks about the work that was done by Ahmed Youssef Moustafa from 1954 to 1970 to take these pieces and correctly assemble them into a ship. Realizing that he needed to intimately understand ancient shipbuilding, Moustafa apprenticed himself to modern shipwrights who still use ancient techniques. It took almost two decades, five assembly attempts, and specialized research and systems to accomplish this task. But, “what at first was only a jumble of timbers now emerged like an exquisite butterfly from its cocoon.” 

Diane and I had the joy of speaking to David in September. He is a gem! And, his books are magical. In our discussion, we learned why. David was a history and social studies teacher for the first part of his career. He loved his students and felt that stories that featured on a young person who was learning a craft and becoming an adult of skill were a delightful window into any subject matter. His stories are always about a subject but more than that, they always center on a person or a people.

Pharaoh’s Boat is delightful because it combines the history and intrigue of ancient Egypt with the gifts of modern technology. Fans of David Macaulay will likely love this book as much as Macaulay does himself. I wish we had been able to get our hands on this years ago when my children were younger, but I am so glad that Purple House Press reprinted this one so we can enjoy it now. I have since checked my library for other Weitzman books and loved his Model T as well. I can’t wait for Purple House Press to reprint Old Ironsides, Jenny, and Model T later this year or early 2023. 

You can purchase this book directly from Purple House Press. Jill suggested that we also link Bookshop.org as a reputable place to buy their books as BS pays a small affiliate link to us and supports bricks-and-mortar bookstores. It is a great way to support those who love books the way you do. You can find this book in hardcover.