AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ROHL
David Rohl is one of the leading Egyptologists of his day; a maverick, free thinker, and not surprisingly, a heretic in the eyes of academia, though he holds degrees in Egyptology and Ancient History. That’s why we love him. On his Myspace page, he describes himself as a; “Writer, historian, Egyptologist, musician, composer, photographer, lecturer, TV presenter (sometimes) and general pain in the ass in the view of many orthodox scholars. Still, can’t please everyone.” I could not have introduced him better.
The truth is, Rohl’s books are sensational and his lectures legendary. Each reflects his unique blend of knowledge, instinct and rebellion, traits that served him well as Chairman of the respected, ‘Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary Sciences’. It’s no wonder that London’s Sunday Times Newspaper Magazine once featured him on the cover, anointing him ‘The Real Indian Jones’.
As far as Egyptology goes, Rohl is a late bloomer. His first career was as a rock musician and record producer. Though having first visited Egypt at the age of ten and spending much of his childhood fascinated by the pharaohs, he got caught up in the music business as a teenager and later, in the 1970s, formed the progressive rock outfit, Mandalaband. He then retired from music in the 1980s with the advent of punk rock, deciding to take degree courses in the Ancient World at University College London. This return to his childhood fascination was at first tough going, as a mature student in his late thirties, but David’s new ideas and constant questioning of orthodox thinking soon got him noticed by the senior academics and the TV people. Success came quickly, however, due to his superb debut book, ‘A Test of Time’, and the highly acclaimed documentary that accompanied it. Overnight, or so it seemed, Rohl had become the leading voice in a movement known as ‘The New Chronology’, or the re-dating of milestones in Egyptian history, and other ancient cultures, through the lens of common sense and historical evidence, not dogma or faith.
Nevertheless, Rohl’s books remain his strongest brand, and in order of publication, they include:
Rohl is also responsible for rejuvenating interest, and understanding, of the Egypt’s Eastern Desert, a fascinating expanse of remote and largely neglected wadis near Luxor, that contain clues to early dynastic origins. Rohl is also a friend, and someone I have traveled with extensively, and so I am especially delighted to welcome him to Arcadia.
David, welcome. It’s great to have you on 17 Questions.
1. Your trilogy of work – ‘A Test of Time’ (1995), ‘Legend’ (1998), and ‘The Lords of Avaris’ (2007), are truly impressive, comprehensive and visually striking books. As a respected chronologist, why may I ask, did you write them out of sequence?
I assume you mean chronologically out of sequence?
Sorry, yes, that’s what I meant. And it was intended as a jovial question, as I recall from years past that you always mused that they were historically out of sequence, with respect to each other.
It’s always embarrassing when younger minds start reminding me of stuff that I have completely forgotten about. Did we really talk about such esoteric trivia? Well, let me try to explain how it all happened.
The debut volume – ‘A Test of Time’ – required me to put forward the New Chronology case from its starting point – that is to say by revealing the chronological anomalies of the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (conventionally 1069 to 664 BC). It was then perfectly logical to work backwards from that point. After all, one must always work from the known towards the unknown. In other words from the widely accepted fixed date of 664 BC (the earliest fixed date in history) backwards into the Bronze Age and the unknown dates for the dynasties and rulers of that era. I say unknown because all dates prior to 664 BC are based on educated speculation. A Test of Time journeyed back in time to the 12th Dynasty in Egypt and to the time of the patriarch Joseph in biblical history.
My next book – ‘Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation’ – simply covered the earlier era not dealt with in the first volume – that is the time of the origins of civilisation in the mountain valleys of Iran, the broad plain of Mesopotamia and the narrow Nile valley. This was triggered by my survey work in the Eastern Desert of Egypt in which you yourself participated. There we found prehistoric rock carvings depicting, amongst other things, thousands of high-prowed boats. For me, these carvings were the key to understanding ‘first contact’ between the civilisations of ancient Sumer and predynastic Egypt. And this became the focus of the Legend book.
The third volume – ‘The Lost Testament’ – was requested by my publisher, realizing that there was a growing demand for a New Chronology version of the Old Testament story. So I took this massive project on and put the final volume in the ‘A Test of Time’ three-part series on the back-boiler for a further four years whilst I rewrote the Bible!
Finally, ten years after the first volume appeared in 1995, I sat down to write ‘The Lords of Avaris’ which dealt with the origins and history of Western Civilisation (what scholars call the Indo-European element in ancient world ethnic culture). This book dealt with the arrival of these Indo-Europeans into the Near East and then went on to eradicate the Dark Ages of Greece and Anatolia.
So the order of the books was not only dictated by the methodology I used to structure the New Chronology but also the ever-changing circumstances you find yourself in when exploring such a vast subject as ancient world history and archaeology.
That’s an incredible journey, and it makes perfect sense to me. Did I ever tell you that I am probably the only person to have read ‘The Lost Testament’ in one sitting? Ok, so I was on a plane from London to LA, but man, that was quite a tour de force!
Tour de Virgin Atlantic more likely! How on Earth did you get through the whole book in 9 hours? Do you speed read? No wonder I had to keep explaining the theory to you over and over again.
Hey! It was closer to 12 hours and I also read it at the airport. Cheap shot.
2. Each of your books is somewhat ‘against the grain’ with respect to Egyptology and orthodox academia in general. In retrospect, has your reputation as a bit of a maverick helped or hindered your career?
It has certainly been a major obstacle, taking on such old chestnuts as chronology and the Bible. Put simply, academics in the historical disciplines do not appreciate radical changes to their comfy and tranquil existence. When somebody like me comes along and questions the very foundations of their subjects, they close ranks and try to ridicule the new proposals, instead of encouraging a re-examination of their long established historical frameworks.
So I have been ostracized for my heretical views and students dare not reference my material in their essays at university. To give an example, one student at Birkbeck College in London told me that he had put a D. Rohl reference in an essay which, as a result, was then given a zero mark, with a warning never to reference me again if he wanted to succeed in his degree. That’s academia for you!
That is so harsh. I would be flattered if I were you.
3. Perhaps the best known objection to your work came from Kenneth Kitchen, the former Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, who had the audacity to wrote that you were ‘98% rubbish’. For those not familiar with the story, what was Kitchen’s primary objection, and how does the whole debate stand today?
This is much too big a subject to go into here.
Absolutely. Absurd to even ask, sorry…
Suffice to say, all of Kitchen’s criticisms have been answered and shown to be no real threat to the New Chronology thesis. And, for the record, at the Reading University Exodus Conference a few years ago, Kitchen conceded that there were now two strong models for dating the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus and the Conquest of the Promised Land – his own Late Bronze Age model and my Middle Bronze Age model. So even the arch enemy of the New Chronology is prepared to acknowledge the case for redating the biblical stories to an earlier archaeological period. The times they are a changing – but very slowly!
Well done! Hey, that’s progress.
Of a kind. It would be nice to think I might still be alive when they all come around to accepting the obvious. I don’t want to be another Galileo, threatened with excommunication and ignored by the Catholic Church for centuries, only to get his long overdue apology from the Pope a few years ago.
I’m sure you will be exonerated much quicker than Galileo!
4. What is your opinion of historical archetypes? Do they exist and if so why, and what purpose do they serve? For instance, were Jesus and Osiris the same sort of archetype as Mary Magdalene and Isis?
I think I get your drift. The historian in me says that there was a Jesus Christ and, surely, a Mary of Magdala, who I have no problem accepting as the Rabi’s wife. Can’t see what all the fuss is about. Why on Earth shouldn’t Jesus have a Mrs Christ? Preferential to the ‘gay Jesus’ model don’t you think?
But I also believe that the ‘God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit’ is a direct steal from ancient Egyptian religion. The original trinity was Osiris, Horus and Isis, but the patriarchal religion of Christianity didn’t like the female goddess element (again just like the Magdalene) so they neutered her and turned the third member of the triad into a bloody dove! Crap.
Jesus, as the ‘son of God’ is a dead-ringer for Horus the son of Osiris and Isis. And the Black Madonna is surely taken from the fecundity figure of Isis as the suckling mother-goddess. The fact that Mary Magdalene had her role posthumously usurped by Mary, mother of Jesus, is just another example of patriarchal Christianity doing down the role of women in the early church, replacing a real woman (in every sense) with a subservient, acquiescent, supposed virgin who wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of the early church fathers (not mothers please note).
5. Conversly, your research, particularly as conveyed in your lectures, has helped identify the historical aspects of certain would-be mythical figures. Tell us your thoughts about Horus, Osiris and Isis. Did any of these hallowed figures from mythology have their origins in real flesh and blood historical figures?
Yes, I believe so. Try these out for size.
Horus in ancient Egyptian means ‘the far distant’ and that is the epithet given to all three Mesopotamian Flood heroes – Atrahasis, Ziusudra and Utnapishtim. Did Horus come to Egypt from afar?
Osiris is the Greek pronunciation of ancient Egyptian Asar and Asar was a god associated with the Mesopotamian city of Eridu, to which Sumerian legend attributes the first kingship on Earth. I believe it was also the place where the first ziggurat was built, which became the archetype for the Tower of Babel story.
Isis was always associated with the Sumerian goddess Inanna who is also identified with Astarte (and Yahweh’s consort Asherah). Who her human counterpart was in ancient Sumer I cannot tell you, but Inanna was originally a mountain goddess whose image was brought down from Aratta beyond the Zagros mountains. So she could be Ninhursag (Lady of the Mountain Peaks) and therefore just one step away from the primary female of Genesis – Eve (Hawwah) – and the original great Mother Goddess.
6. Your work chronicles thousands of years of human history, using a wide variety of archeological evidence and original source material. Why do you think there are no references, particular in the Bible, to the pyramids of Egypt?
Because the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt took place long after the Old Kingdom pyramids were built. The Israelites did not build the pyramids, as the Bible makes abundantly clear. They built ‘store-cities’ in mudbrick and were also domestic slaves working for the great agricultural estates (as in the case of Joseph). The period when Egypt had large numbers of domestic servants bearing Hebrew and Semitic names was the Second Intermediate Period (13th to 15th Dynasties = Middle Bronze Age), not the Old Kingdom when the Giza pyramids were constructed.
Ok, but the pyramids existed long before this time, and Egypt is not far from the Holy Land. And they are certainly iconic monuments from the past, no? Has that never stuck you as peculiar, that they were never mentioned in biblical texts of any kind?
Not really. Why should they be? Do the Jewish exiles living in Babylon mention the mighty ziggurats all around them? No. The only structure that the Bible mentions, that I can immediately think of, is the Tower of Babel, and that was right at the beginning of human civilisation, long before the period of ‘Israelite’ history. Where are there mentions of ANY other foreign monuments?
7. This conversation reminds me to ask you, after all these years, who do you believe was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and why?
Without landing you with another long answer – Pharaoh Dudimose of the late 13th Dynasty, because that is when, in my opinion, the Israelites abandoned the city of Avaris where they were concentrated during the Middle Bronze IIA period. This is also about two generations before the cities of Palestine were destroyed (the Conquest) and the cult sites associated with the Israelites (such as Shiloh and Shechem) were founded (in the Middle Bronze IIB). The date of the Exodus would have been 1447 BC or thereabouts and the New Chronology explains how that date can be reconciled with the time of the late 13th Dynasty pharaohs in Egypt.
8. Your work in the Eastern Egyptian Dessert – as described in your 1998 book, ‘Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation’ and also in the comprehensive survey report of the region that you edited, has revitalized a fascinating area of study – and one that has been largely ignored until recently. Has your hypothesis that this region was in fact, visited by Mesopotamian adventurers, who dragged their boats through the wadis en route to the Nile Valley, changed in any way?
Not really. But the evidence goes far beyond what was discovered in the Eastern Desert, involving art-history and Mesopotamian artefacts found in the Nile valley, as well as mythology and legend.
9. I am reminded of a trip to the Eastern Desert with you and first time visitor, the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, who later published his theories in his 2003 book, ‘Genesis of the Pharaohs’. One night, after a day of cataloguing the wadi rock art, I recall him expressing his uneasiness with the lack of Sumerian-influenced archaeology in the Eastern Desert, and his belief that your theory would resonate stronger if there was more physical evidence. In hindsight, what are you thoughts on this observation?
I think it is important to stress that deserts, through which travellers journey, rarely produce ‘archaeology’. By their very nature, such journeys are ephemeral. Nobody stops to erect a great stone monument when his purpose is to get through that inhospitable environment as quickly as possible. Why on Earth should they leave physical evidence behind? Yet I believe that they carved these great high-prowed ships as a ‘Kilroy was here’. The area is also huge and unexplored, even today. And so we have hardly scratched the surface of what’s out there.
The fact is that Mesopotamian artefacts and art and ideas and technologies do appear in southern Egypt in this period (Nakada II & III) and these things had to have got there somehow. The early Mesopotamians possess reed ships and travelled to the Indus Valley (Pakistan) from Mesopotamia (Iraq), so why not to Egypt? This is much safer and easier than travelling by land through the lawless terrain of the Levant (Syria, Palestine) and north Sinai. The question isn’t if it could be done but whether it was done.
10. Returning to your 2002 book, ‘The Lost Testament’, was an incredibly ambitious work, tracing the five-thousand-year history of the people of the Bible – a theme that reoccurs throughout your work. How does a researcher reconcile his faith with the evidence that you have raised for an historical rather than mystical Old Testament? Is it possible to be impartial and objective about the Bible whist having religious conviction?
I am not what you would call ‘a believer’, so it is difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of a researcher trying to reconcile his faith. The truth is the truth and, if I have any ‘religion’, it would be a belief in the absolute necessity to search for historical truth. That is what fascinates me and drives my passion for the ancient world. What I say to Christians and Jews who come to my lectures and ask why I don’t have ‘faith’ is that, by definition faith is a belief in something that can’t be proved. I only believe in what can be proved or at least what makes most historical sense of the evidence. But I am happy for others to take what I do as a reinforcement of their faith.
What I can’t stand are scholars who deny the historical evidence (which, in fact, supports their religious beliefs) because their academic reputations are more important to them than their faith. What sort of Christian academic would deny the growing evidence for a true biblical history simply because he didn’t come up with the evidence himself, preferring to live with a ‘fictional’ or ‘metaphorical’ Bible rather than admitting that he had been wrong all his academic life?
11. How has moving from England to Spain influenced your research?
There are no archaeological or historical library resources here where I live in Spain, so it is virtually impossible for me to keep up with the latest research. Sadly, all I have now is my library of 2,000 volumes, which is now six years out of date. I feel a bit like the great archon Solon who, having drawn up the laws of Athens, had to leave his homeland for ten years of exile abroad whilst the Athenians argued and squabbled over his writings, only safe to return once the dust had settled. I am just hoping that I don’t have to spend more than a decade in exile before the New Chronology earns some respect from academia. But maybe that is a forlorn hope.
That’s a funny but apt analogy. I’m sure acceptance is right around the corner…
12. What about the ‘Cup of Saint Lawrence’? When we toured the Spanish region of Aragon a few years ago and you seemed taken by the legend of the Spanish native who was entrusted with a sacred chalice before being martyred in 258 AD. What else can you tell us about your research in this area?
A huge amount of research on this subject has been done in the years since we went to San Juan de la Peña in Aragon together. But it is all top-secret, so I am not going to give the game away here!
Hey! Your silence speaks volumes about the importance of this research. Shame you can’t give us a glimpse of it, but I understand…
13. How about Rennes-le-Chateau? We toured the region on that same trip and met with the late Jean luc Robin. For you, what, if anything, did Berenger Sauniere discover?
In my opinion he found a cave, whilst walking in the valley below Rennes, and in it he uncovered a cash of gold coins stashed there by the monarchists during the French Revolution. He then spent much of the wealth indulging his fantasies by leaving clues to the little mystery he found himself at the heart of. The secret is not only to be uncovered in the church of the Magdalene but also in the Magdala Tower which he constructed on his estate. I also believe that Sauniere was a dark character with leanings towards the occult. Rennes today is, of course, a magnet for warlocks and witches, which I think is no coincidence. It is not a comfortable place to visit, never mind investigate.
14. I recall your respect for the Mayan calendar and the controversial ‘long count’. What, if anything, do you believe will happen in 2012?
It just so happened that the last Mayan world end was in 3,113 BC, which was the date I had come up with for the Great Flood mentioned in the book of Genesis. That coincidence interested me. So, if we are talking about booking front-row seats to the next world end in 2012, count me in. I’d much rather go out in a blaze of catastrophic glory than a sad whimper in an old folks home.
But remember that our AD chronology is six years out (Christ having been born in 6 BC!), so does that not mean that the next Mayan world end already took place (or didn’t) in 2006???
And didn’t Malachy prophecy 2016 AD for the fall of Rome (i.e. the collapse of the Catholic Church) – the ‘Man of the Olive’ (Benedict XVI) being the last Pope before the Anti-Christ? Now that would be worth witnessing!
True. Slightly bent and morbid, but yes, I agree!
15. Switching gears completely, tell us about your career before Egyptology – that of a progressive rock star! Any chance of a reunion?
I think you have been consulting the runes Andy!
Maybe, maybe not.
Yes, Mandalaband has reformed after 35 years and is about to complete the recording of two new albums. You can learn more at the Mandalaband MySpace site. Needless to say, the theme of the first album is ‘BC – Ancestors’, all about the ancient world, whilst the second album ‘AD – Sangreal’ is about the Holy Grail, but from the Romano-Spanish tradition as opposed to the British Arthurian tradition.
I love it. We need more concept albums, I feel. We really do. And that second album, with its Romano-Spanish Grail themes, I will be listening to that closely for references to Saint Lawrence.
He is now a bit-part player in this huge story, which has relentlessly grown like a Frankenstein’s monster over the years since we had our little adventure in Spain and the Languedoc. But I will always love his dying line (has to be one of the best anyone has come up with) as he was slowly roasting to death on a grid of iron, watched over by Emperor Valerian’s torturers – ‘Turn me over, I’m done on this side’.
Eeek, that is a good one!
16. Sadly, today’s consumer seems to want to listen and watch rather than read. Would you agree?
And, in fact, you have been involved with some highly successful and polished documentaries, such as the Channel Four and Discovery Channel series, ‘Pharaohs and Kings’ and the documentary ‘In Search of Eden’. Why have we not seen more from you in recent years in this media?
Because TV has become lowest-common-denominator viewing. We have dumbed down to the degree where so-called ‘Reality TV’ dominates the schedules and good history documentaries have become a thing of the past. Even the documentary channels dress up their pop-up-book Egyptology with Moroccan two-bit actors parading around in chiffon costumes as they pout their way through columned halls of polystyrene made for the movie Asterix and Cleopatra. If you make shallow Disneyesque programmes, don’t expect intelligent adults to watch. To be honest, I am pretty sure it’s not just me who thinks this way. I bet most of your readers do as well. What needs to be done is that all the Commissioning Editors who pay huge sums of money out for this trash need to be sacked and a few adult programmers hired to replace them. Then I might actually get a chance to make some more thinking-man’s documentaries. There are lots more where the programmes you mention came from!
Well put. I could not agree more.
17. What’s next for David Rohl? Tell us about your next book or project.
No more books (apparently nobody reads history anymore). No more documentaries on the horizon (see above). Just retirement. My god, sent out to pasture at the age of sixty – what a bummer! Then again …???????
Ok, rub it in. Retirement, I don’t believe that for a second. But I am jealous that you can even consider it. Listen, thanks for inspiring so many, including myself, with your unique brand of scholarly but questioning research.
It has been a pleasure … I think!