Sunday, May 10, 2009

Island of the Blessed by Harry Thurston

I feel like I should be doing something really exciting here, to mark the end of my engrossed reading of Island of the Blessed. Fireworks. Trumpets. Something.

However, what I will do instead is try to keep this review to something short and sweet.

First, and most important: for all of my griping about the length, this book is worth it. I have learned so much since I started reading, and the whole thing is fascinating. Every chapter, every page, every paragraph, is worth reading and absorbing and digesting. There is absolutely no doubt that this book is large because the Dakhleh Oasis Project (DOP) is a huge undertaking, and Thurston has obviously taken great pains to do both the DOP and the oasis itself justice. As someone who hadn't even heard of the Dakhleh Oasis prior to picking up the book, I think he's succeeded; perhaps someone who has been there might feel differently, but I think he's managed to capture the essence of the prehistory, history, culture, and environment of this remarkable place. He's also telling the incredible stories of the archaeologists who are part of the DOP, and, on top of the place and the people, he's saying something about archaeology itself, and about human nature.

This is only the second book by Thurston that I have read. The first was the autobiographical natural history book A Place Between the Tides. Island of the Blessed is very, very different but equally good. In this book, Thurston remains largely in the background, surfacing occasionally to go on a walk with one of the DOP's scientists to a particular place of interest. His own opinions and commentary are largely confined to the Introduction and the Epilogue, and this has the effect of letting the Oasis and the archaeology tell the story. It works incredibly well. This book is masterfully written and incredibly accessible, as well as being completely absorbing. Even when I was anxious to start reading the next book (or books, as the case may be) I was far too interested in Island of the Blessed to put it down.

Thurston's skill with language is so deft that, without the reader noticing, he's describing the archaeologists and their environs in such a way that they are vivid and real people and places. One of my small gripes is that I want to see more pictures -- I want to see what a town in the Oasis looks like, I want to see what a wadi looks like, I want to see what the buried city of Kellis looks like -- but really, I don't need those photographs. I have a clear picture in my head. I can hear the different scientists' voices as they speak, and see them as they work on their various projects, because Thurston makes them all come alive. He makes me believe, as the DOP believes, that the great expanse of the Western Desert was once a vast savannah habitat, complete with waterholes, giraffes, and hippos. He explains, in language anyone can understand, how changes in climate and glaciation eventually led to desert conditions -- and what that meant for both the wild animals and the nascent human civilizations that lived there.

The book takes us from prehistory to current conditions in the Dakhleh Oasis. One of the things that Thurston wants us to understand is how unique this project is: it is one of the very few long-term archaeological studies that looks not just at human activities, but also environmental conditions that surrounded those human activities, in an effort to understand how each has affected the other. He spends more time on the periods where there is more evidence to talk about -- certain times in prehistory, the Roman civilizations -- but he doesn't leave anything out. He celebrates the important discoveries made by the DOP, and talks about the future of the project; and at the end, inevitably because of the nature of the DOP and the author, Thurston talks a little bit about the future of life at the Oasis. The prognosis is somewhat depressing, as expected -- the current water supply, fossil water buried in the bedrock and stored there since prehistoric times, is likely to last fifty years or less if current practices continue. And if the water runs out, life will cease to be possible in the "Everlasting Oasis." And Thurston doesn't say much, but an intelligent reader in a society where water isn't a limiting factor will suddenly understand how it's possible that wars really will be fought over water supply.

In the interests of actually posting this tonight, and thus completing my self-mandated one review a week, I'm going to leave it at that. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Egypt, for sure, but also anyone interested in archaeology, science, political issues of water use, desert cultures, the beginnings of human civilization, palaeontology; also anyone who wants an introduction to any of those things. I came into this book without really any knowledge at all in any of the areas Thurston was writing about, and I had no trouble following except that I do wish someone had provided some sort of visual timeline so I could get a sense of the length of time we're talking about, and what cultures overlapped whom and when. Thurston is thorough enough that I could write one out myself, but I'm lazy and it wasn't that important to my enjoyment or understanding.

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