Sussex Egyptology Society online


David Rohl, past SES President

Attending a David Rohl lecture is like paddling in the Nile might have been during a high inundation: you tend to get swept up and carried along on an unexpected journey, probably being turned on your head a couple of times and ending up dizzy but exhilarated.

He continued his biblical quest with the search for Eden. But whether or not you agree with his views - and many in the Egyptological establishment don’t - David has undeniably encouraged new vigour and a more questioning approach in many students of the subject.

David’s book and TV series A Test of Time have also done much to publicise and popularise Egyptology at a time when - apart from the aftermath of the massacre at Deir el-Bahri in 1997 - tourism to Egypt has been booming.

David’s own introduction to Egypt, at the age of just nine and in a period when tourists were notable by their absence, was rather more exotic and sumptuous than today’s typical package tour. “It was just after the Suez crisis and there were no cruise boats. The state had confiscated King Farouk’s royal yacht, the Kased Kheir, a beautiful mahogany-cum-Lebanese cedar paddle steamer, and we boarded that. I was given the Royal Suite and slept in King Farouk’s bed!”

“We travelled all the way from Cairo to Abu Simbel, going through the lock at the old Aswan Dam. One of the most vivid memories I have is of coming off the boat on to the beach at Abu Simbel (it had a beach then) to visit the temple on my own at sunrise, pushing those great doors open.”

Evidence of David’s interest in Egypt - and of a precocious absorption in chronology - goes back even earlier, however. “When we were moving house recently we found a box in the loft containing an exercise book with the names of pharaohs from the 1st Dynasty to the 30th, in non-joined-up writing. I must have been around six or seven years old when I did that.”

Although his fascination with Egyptology did not waver during his years at school, other compelling excitements existed for a teenager in the 1960s and David embarked on a “twenty-year distraction” in the rock-and-roll music business. By the end of it he had become chief engineer at Strawberry Studios, the Stockport home of  the group 10 c.c., and had four recording contracts under his belt as a solo artist and composer. The royalties from these enabled him to retire from music and go to University College London to study Egyptology in a full-time degree course between 1987 and 1990.

David had been working on his New Chronology during the last five or six years of his music career, and he was now able to complete it and present it to the Egyptological community. It went down like a lead balloon with most of the field’s established figures. “It would be completely false to suggest for one minute that they accepted or were in favour of it”, he says, “but few new or controversial ideas - even if eventually proved right - are accepted in the beginning.”

Nevertheless, David says, his ideas are at least being considered, not by the middle-ranking Establishment “who are completely against it” but by younger Egyptologists and by senior or retired professors who “are much more relaxed about these things” (“except Kenneth Kitchen, who does a lecture called Rohl over David, the Game’s Up”).

“One interesting development is that Professor Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University is now lopping 150 years off Israelite archæological chronology at Megiddo, moving half-way towards our date.” Time, David believes, will tell.

In the meantime David is impassioned about what he sees as a backward-looking education system in the UK. “By its nature, at university the student sits at the feet of his professor. The professor, who was educated 30–40 years earlier, teaches what he was taught, and if the student wants to get on and not get booted out, he follows that. It takes revolutionary characters, of which I am one, to break the mould. It is not right just to follow and repeat the previous generation’s wisdom: you should push the boundaries and sometimes make mistakes, but without those mistakes you go nowhere.”

Meanwhile, as founder and first director of ISIS, the Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary Sciences, David has been keen to encourage new approaches to the subject through cross-fertilisation between traditional Middle East archæological and historical research and the sciences, including dating techniques such as Carbon 14, dendrochronology and  thermoluminescence.

His second book, Legend, is about the origins of the Egyptian civilisation in the “boat people” whose inscriptions he has been surveying on his Eastern Desert expeditions. “When the boat people arrived in Egypt they had one foot in prehistory and one in history,” says David, “but they had to come from somewhere. So the book goes back to Sumer and to Eden and the book of Genesis.”

David’s future projects include a possible return to excavation — he dug at the site of ancient Kadesh in Syria in the early 1990s, and has been invited to join Prof Finkelstein at Megiddo. He is also working on Book Three. “I have a theory which looks at the origins of the Mycenæan Greeks and the Minoans, stemming from discoveries made at Tell ed-Daba in Egypt.” In essence, it identifies the Hyksos elite at Avaris as the ancestors of Agamemnon, “and the shaft graves at Mycenæ may even be the reburials of the Hyksos kings”.

Ready to be swept along again? Better bring a lifejacket.

Profiles by SES committee member Mick Oakey

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