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Book Review: The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

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Egypt, with its pyramids and deserts, holds many secrets. Like many ancient civilizations, answering one question often leads to many more questions, luring the professionals and amateurs alike. Of course, with the intense competition and the dream of immense material and intellectual rewards at the end (if you are successful), it often result in people working with obsession and single aim of getting the fame, which they feel is their due.

“The Egyptologist” by Arthur Phillips is a novel of a young man's obsession, ambition and how that can easily result in tragedy.

The story starts with an Australian detective Harold Ferrell, who is investigating the deaths of an Egyptologist called Ralph M. Trilipush and his benefactor, an American millionaire called Finneran. Trilipush is a man who has found a piece of poetry by a little known, yet visionary Pharaoh (or so he believes), thinks that he can find the tomb of the Pharaoh, which will mark a triumph of his research and make his fame as an Egyptologist permanent. After becoming engaged to the daughter of Finneran, the arrogant and snobbish British man sets off to Egypt, with the promise of untold riches.

After reaching Egypt, he begins by hiring a team of local laborers and starts digging in the hills where the piece of poetry was found. After hitting a lot of dead-ends, his laborers leave him and go to the next valley, where a man called Carter is digging for the tomb of a little known king called Tut.

When the Trilipush’s initial reports are all negative, and there is no return on the huge investment, Finneran decides to visit Egypt himself. Trilipush — broken and abandoned by his laborers, without his benefactor sending him money — starts to live in the cave where he thought he would find the tomb of his Pharaoh. Shortly after learning that his benefactor, Finneran, is coming to keep an eye on him, Trilipush starts finding the clues to his elusive tomb. His journal entries give the descriptions of his findings, leading to a bizarre climax.

The story belongs to Trilipush, who was obsessed with Egypt and his Pharaoh, and believes everything else is below him. While investigating his background, Ferrell finds that his past is not easy to uncover, as there is a mystery surrounding his youth and his years in army when he claims to have found the Pharaoh’s poetry. When Trilipush cannot find the expected results, his mania and ambition increases, and he almost wills the climax into being.

The story is also of an orphaned Australian boy, who finds in Egypt the key to escape the anonymity of his poverty. After showing brilliance, his tutor and a librarian take him under their wing, and he becomes interested in the mystery that is Egyptology. When his mentors try to get him involved in their activities, he escapes their clutches, and goes to England to live his dream, where he purportedly meets Trilipush.

Trilipush's journal (read by Ferrell) and Ferrell's investigation reports narrate the story in parallel. The jumping back and forth between the two keeps the mystery of the tomb alive. Trilipush starts as a confident young man trying to uncover his destiny and gain the fame he feels is due to him. After hitting the setbacks, his inner arrogance and naked ambition comes out, and he ends up being completely maniacal in gaining his ends. Ferrell the investigator is no less self-centered and conceited, though cynical and sarcastic instead of maniacal and obsessive.

The result is a dark tale of how easily interest can turn into obsession, how scholarly interests can turn into monomania and ambition, and what are the results of ambition. Overall, a solid read if you are interested in ancient civilizations, archaeology and mysteries of those fields.

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