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Egypt's Golden Empire

Warner Bros. // Unrated // March 4, 2003
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted April 11, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The movie

Making an outstanding documentary is every bit as tough as making an outstanding feature film... and the results, when it works out right, are just as compelling. Egypt's Golden Empire, part of the overall Empires series from PBS, is an example of the very best in historical documentaries.

Egypt's Golden Empire focuses on the portion of the ancient Egyptian dynasty known as the "New Kingdom," from 1560 BC to 1080 BC, more than a thousand years after the reign of the pharaohs who built the great pyramids of Giza. The program does an excellent job of something that other Egyptian documentaries tend to fall short on: truly establishing a sense of the vast expanse of time in which the Egyptian pharaohs reigned over their empire. The focus on the New Kingdom in detail is an excellent approach, allowing the documentary to focus on key pharaohs in detail, explaining their situations, their ambitions, and their accomplishments and struggles. It's a fascinating story, rich with detail and personality.

The documentary's three parts follow a chronological structure, starting with the "warrior pharaohs" who fought against foreign invaders to establish a renewed empire, continuing with the reigns of important rulers such as Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh; Akhenaten, who established a monotheistic cult of the sun god Aten; the young Tutankhamen, known in the modern day by his spectacular burial goods; and the great diplomat and empire-builder Ramesses.

Egypt's Golden Empire is fascinating because it goes beyond a simple list of events or tour of impressive monuments. We learn a great deal about each pharaoh, what he did, and more importantly, why he did what he did. The politics of Egypt's court, including its power struggle between the king and the priests, as well as the delicate diplomatic balance between Egypt and rival nations at its borders, come vividly to life. We see not just what happened, but why. We see not just the monuments that have come down to the present day, but what these monuments tell us about the interrelations between pharaohs and their subjects, their heirs, their priests, and their foreign neighbors.

The documentary makes excellent use of the information that archaeologists have gleaned from contemporary written texts: carvings on palace, temple, and tomb walls, but also diplomatic correspondence, letters from ordinary people, and scribal reports. An impressive amount of detail about the daily lives of the pharaohs and the major events of their reigns comes from these original sources, including the fact that the pharaohs were astute politicians, often eager to re-write history in their own favor, from eliminating the names of rivals in the historical record, to inflating their own accomplishments on the field of battle.

One aspect of Egypt's Golden Empire that impressed me is the way that it makes extremely good use of maps throughout the program to develop a clear sense of the physical setting for the events we learn about. The maps aren't static, either: various colored areas change shape, arrows appear to indicate direction, and new cities and nations appear on the map as the narrator explains a change in the empire's borders, the movement of an army, or the appearance of a new outside threat. Overall, the visual support provided by the consistent use of maps definitely enhances the viewer's understanding and appreciation of the events being presented in the documentary. 

Egypt's Golden Empire makes use of a variety of techniques to bring its topic to life. A great deal of impressive footage of the actual monuments as they stand today is included. A fairly large number of reenactments, including both live actors and re-created buildings, are also used throughout the documentary. These scenes are mainly used to give the overall impression of an event: soldiers milling about in battle, stone carvers chipping away at a temple, citizens in a procession to a temple. As such, they add a nice flavor to the documentary and give a sense of what it must have been like at the time. I probably would have preferred fewer segments of reenactments, particularly in the third part where the program is a little too enamored of a particular battle sequence, but on the whole it's well handled. In addition to the overall narration, several archaeologists regularly contribute information and commentary; these segments are nicely handled, long enough to allow the speaker time to make his or her point, but not so long as to fall into the "talking head" syndrome. We also get quite a few voiceover readings of actual Egyptian writings of the times, which are very interesting.

Egypt's Golden Empire runs a substantial two hours and forty minutes, and every minute of it well used. Between the fascinating information and the excellent pacing, it remains consistently interesting and engaging from start to finish. The three-part structure also makes it conveniently watchable in several sessions.



This documentary is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but unfortunately it's not anamorphically enhanced. The image quality is quite good as a whole. Colors look vibrant and natural throughout the documentary, and contrast is also handled well. The print is clean, with no flaws apparent, and very little noise. I did notice a fair amount of pixellation, especially visible at high-contrast points such as silhouettes against the sky. On the whole, the transfer would certainly have benefited from anamorphic enhancement, but as it is, it's quite good.


Egypt's Golden Empire is presented with a Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack. For the first two thirds of the program, the sound is quite good; the narrator and the various scientists offering comments are clear and understandable, and the overall sound is clean. The music is balanced well with the rest of the track, though rather oddly it is strikingly (and distractingly) similar to the theme from Last of the Mohicans. The final third of the program suffers from a decrease in audio quality: the sound becomes concentrated in the center channel, and some distortion and harshness becomes evident. All in all, the soundtrack is reasonable, though it could have been better.


The DVD has no special features. Viewers will be pleased to know that the DVD is packaged in a keepcase, even though it's distributed by Warner.

Final thoughts

Informative, intelligent, and compelling, Egypt's Golden Empire is a standout as a historical documentary. In addition to being full of interesting information on Egypt's New Kingdom period, the program is extremely well organized and well structured, which adds considerably to its overall appeal. This DVD is sure to please any viewer interested in history, as it goes beyond the "dates and events" of the period to present an in-depth look at the politics and society of the time, showing us what the pharaohs were like and why they chose the courses of action that shaped their empire. I highly recommend this DVD; in fact, the only thing keeping it from a Collector's Series rating is the fact that there are no special features and that the transfer is good but not exceptional. Go buy this documentary; you won't regret it.

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Highly Recommended

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