Born in 1909, Edwards was educated at Merchant Taylors', where he mapped out his future scholarly career by becoming interested in Hebrew and Arabic, and then at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read for the Oriental Languages Tripos. When in 1934 he joined the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities of the British Museum, his attention turned to ancient Egypt, especially its language. As early as 1937 he translated Egyptian texts for the catalogue of the British Museum exhibition of sculpture in the collection of G. S. Gulbenkian.
Edwards belonged to the generation of distinguished British Orientalists who, because of their specialised knowledge, spent the Second World War in the Middle East. He was seconded to the Foreign Office and served in the British Embassies in Cairo and Baghdad and later in the Secretariat in Jerusalem. His stay in Egypt engendered his interest in pyramids. When, after the war, he returned to the British Museum, he published The Pyramids of Egypt (1947), one of the most widely read books on ancient Egypt, in which he hits on a formula which combines readability and popular appeal without conceding any scholarly accuracy.
Edwards's bibliography runs to some 80 publications. The Pyramids of Egypt is a legend and many of us associate personal memories with it; I remember vividly haggling over the price of my first paperback copy in a back-street shop in Cairo in 1963. In his Oracular Amuletic Decrees of the Late New Kingdom (1960), Edwards published a collection of unusual papyri inscribed in hieratic in the British Museum. The range of his know- ledge was formidable and often took one by surprise; for example, he contributed to K.A.C. Creswell's monumental study of Islamic architecture by identifying pharaonic material re-used in later buildings of Cairo.
Edwards was essentially a museum man, a library scholar and an organiser, rather than a field-worker, although he took part in the excavations at Sesebi and Amara, in the Sudanese Nubia below the 3rd Nile Cataract, in 1937-38. His influence on British Egyptology from the 1950s until the late 1980s was considerable. From 1962 until 1988 he served as Vice-President of the Egypt Exploration Society, a British organisation devoted to the study of ancient Egypt. He was an influential representative of the subject in the British Academy of which he was elected a Fellow in 1962.
He had no hesitation when asked to serve Egyptology in more humble capacities: he was a member of the Committee of Management of the Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 1970 to 1984. His contributions at the committee's meetings were a model of how to combine the scholarly authority, diplomatic skill and gentle persuasion required to deal with a group of Oxford academics. In 1988, Egyptologists recognised his contribution to the subject by presenting him with Pyramid Studies and other Essays, written in his honour by 36 of his colleagues.
Edwards was internationally recognised and respected perhaps more than any other of his British contemporaries, especially in the United States and France, but also by smaller Egyptologically interested nations such as Austria and the Czech Republic. His lecturing skills were renowned for clarity and wit. Many international honours were bestowed on him. Less glamorously, for many years he chaired the Committee for the Annual Egyptological Bibliography, an essential tool for Egyptological research.
Even in advanced age, Edwards lost little of his infectious enthusiasm for the subject. I remember how at the 1976 Egyptological Congress in Cairo he was only too happy to skip one afternoon's papers to go to the desert near Abu Rawash, north-west of Cairo, where an Egyptian colleague wanted to show us what seemed like the remains of a new pyramid. He bore the discomfort of a bumpy trip in a jeep without complaint, and reminded us that during the war he had to make the same journey without knowing the precise position of local minefields.
In his retirement years, his involvement in Egyptology, especially at international level, continued, albeit at a more easy-going pace, and was enjoyed by him more than ever. When his failing eyesight made it impossible to keep up with new publications, he courageously set out to record his memoirs, a task he successfully completed a few weeks ago and to the publication of which a younger generation of Egyptologists may look forward with happy anticipation.
In his later years, Edwards was recognised as Egyptology's elder statesman and his experience and advice were in great demand. He was especially proud of serving on the combined Unesco and Egyptian Ministry of Culture Committee for saving the monuments of Philae (for which the funds were partly raised by the Tutankhamun exhibition in London).
Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards, Egyptologist: born London 21 July 1909; Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities, British Museum 1955-74; FBA 1962; CBE 1968; CMG 1973; married 1938 Elizabeth Lisle (one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 24 September 1996.Reuse content