Dan Cruickshank explores some of the most intriguing stories from Ancient Egypt.
Part 1: Secrets of the Tomb Builders
Dan visits the magnificent underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in search of clues about the unsung heroes of this ancient world – the mysterious community of craftsmen who spent their lives building lavish burial chambers for the pharaohs.
The tombs are wonderful feats of art and engineering and Dan finds a wealth of intriguing evidence about the lives of the supposedly anonymous people who built them. Given rare access to the most complex tomb of all – the 150-room necropolis built for the sons of Rameses II – Dan speculates on the skill of the men who designed and excavated this tomb thousands of years ago.
In the tomb of Thutmosis III, he discovers an unfinished burial chamber, where the intricate process of tomb building was stopped in its tracks, leaving detailed evidence of the techniques of artwork used by these ancient artisans. Across the dry desert hills beyond the Valley of the Kings, Dan visits the village where the tomb-builders lived, explores their homes and reveals their personal lives through unique written records that have survived for thousands of years.
Were the tomb-builders slaves, forced to use their skills to glorify the dead pharaohs? Dan pieces together the truth, and reveals an unexpectedly intimate picture of these ancient artists and craftsmen.
Part 2: The Pharaoh Hunter
Dan traces the unexpected twists and mysteries in the life of Howard Carter, the great British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, and reveals the hidden legacy of Carter’s work. Carter rose from humble origins to become the most famous archaeologist in the world, but despite his spectacular success in discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Carter was never honoured in this country, and received no official recognition from the British.
Dan travels through Egypt, looking for clues to this mystery as he follows the rollercoaster of Carter’s career, from his first visit to Egypt as a teenager hired to copy Egyptian art, right up to the fame of his later years. On the way, Dan finds out that Carter played a crucial role in updating the science of archaeology and unearths his original artwork and his fascinating diary.
Part 3: The Rebel Pharaoh
Dan Cruickshank travels the Nile, from magnificent Karnak to the desolate ruins of El Amarna, in search of the truth about Akhenaten, the most radical and mysterious Pharaoh ever to rule Egypt, and his beautiful wife Nefertiti.
They were a golden couple, rich and all-powerful, but when Akhenaten had a personal religious conversion, it changed everything. Akhenaten decided to overturn the entire religious belief system of Ancient Egypt, and convert the whole nation to his own new religion. He swept aside centuries of worship of many gods, and declared that there was only one god, the Sun – the ‘Aten’. To the Ancient Egyptians, this was heresy, but as he was the Pharaoh, no-one could stop him. He then built a vast new sacred city in the desert, far away from the ancient capital of Thebes, a city dedicated to the Aten, in which he and Nefertiti lived in splendour.
But, as Dan discovers, the royal couple’s dreams would soon come to a tragic end. From the grand temples at Karnak, Dan traces the route of the heretic king and queen along the Nile to the site of their splendid new city at El Amarna, in Middle Egypt – now just a poignant, desolate ruin where Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived out their glorious but doomed lives.
Part 4: Building for Eternity
Dan Cruickshank discovers the ingenious techniques that the ancient Egyptians used to make their pyramids, temples and mummies last forever, driven by their obsession with magic and the afterlife.
The Egyptians believed they could live forever – that death was not necessarily the end. But to enjoy the afterlife depended on preserving the important things from this life – their bodies, possessions and monuments.
Dan explores how the ancient Egyptians pioneered remarkable ways of preparing for eternity. He visits the colossal, indestructible pyramids at Saqqara and Giza as well as the massive stone temple at Dendera, and examines the mummification process that allowed the Egyptians to keep their bodies intact long after death.
The religious belief in the afterlife dominated the lives and deaths of everyone in the land, and meant that hundreds of monuments were built to survive, and can now help us understand their beliefs. Above all, thousands of mummies found all over Egypt bear witness to how they thought, more than any other culture in history, that the preservation of the human body after death played a part in the everlasting survival of the spirit.
Part 5: Pharaoh’s Wives
Dan delves into the dark side of the court of Ramesses III, tracing the conspiracy that spread through his harem and may have led to his mysterious death.
At Ramesses III’s temple at Medinet Habu, the pharaoh wrote his own legacy in stone – huge wall carvings celebrating the glories and achievements of his reign – an attempt to match his illustrious predecessor, Ramesses the Great. But behind the propaganda, Ramesses III was far from being a strong pharaoh in control of his country; he was not even in control of his own harem. One papyrus bundle has survived to tell us of dark intrigue swirling around this pharaoh in crisis. With Ramesses unable to decide whether to take Isis or Tye for his queen, the harem women took things into their own hands, starting a rebellion that spread through the court and the army and possibly led to his murder.
Part 6: The Death of Ancient Egypt
On a lonely island in the River Nile, Dan visits the last known hieroglyphic inscription in Egypt and discovers the surprising truth about those responsible for the final, brutal collapse of this great civilisation, a culture that had lasted more than 3,000 years.
Travelling the length of the country, from Alexandria in the north to the beautiful temples of Dendera and Philae, Dan traces the key dramatic events that marked the decline in the fortunes of the ancient Egyptians and reveals the rich cast of characters – from Alexander the Great to Cleopatra – who all played a part in this powerful drama.