Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt


Our endless fascination with ancient Egypt owes much to the beauty of the tomb paintings, statuary, temple reliefs, and other magnificent artworks that are the legacy of this remarkable culture. But despite the multitude of objects and texts that have survived, questions abound, particularly about the true role of women in Egyptian society. This wonderfully illustrated, brilliantly researched book draws on unpublished material from author Zahi Hawass' own excavations as well as new analyses of older evidence to ...
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Our endless fascination with ancient Egypt owes much to the beauty of the tomb paintings, statuary, temple reliefs, and other magnificent artworks that are the legacy of this remarkable culture. But despite the multitude of objects and texts that have survived, questions abound, particularly about the true role of women in Egyptian society. This wonderfully illustrated, brilliantly researched book draws on unpublished material from author Zahi Hawass' own excavations as well as new analyses of older evidence to penetrate the silent images and paint an astonishing picture of women's lives. Hawass contrasts the stereotype-inspired by such symbols of femininity as the queens Nefertiti and Nefertari-with a more realistic view of the common woman's everyday involvement in matters ranging from family life to dress and adornment to the workplace and the legal system. Lavish photographs of places and objects, many made especially for this book, round out an enthralling, richly textured work.
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Editorial Reviews

Robin L. Sewell
Silent Images is both a scholarly and an accessible survey of the lives of ancient Egyptian women. While queens and other royalty are discussed, the work focuses primarily on the daily life of the average woman as viewed from the perspective of modern Egypt.

The introduction by Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the president of Egypt, points out that women had more rights in Egypt, where they were legally equal to men, than most other women throughout the ancient world. The emphasis of the book, however, is on the role of women in the family.

Silent Images is an attractive and readable book with more than 150 striking illustrations.
Library Journal
When women of ancient Egypt are mentioned, most people think of Cleopatra and Nefertiti, the enduring symbols of femininity and beauty. Hawass, a preeminent Egyptologist and director of the Giza Pyramids, uses both traditional sources and his own recent discoveries to examine women's role in ancient Egypt. Acknowledging that all extant sources were created by men and may be biased, he lays out a fascinating look at an ancient culture. The focus of a woman's life was her family: bearing and raising children and mourning the dead. But she had more autonomy than most ancient women. Unlike her sisters in Ancient Greece and Rome, an Egyptian woman had legal status, including the right to own property and to divorce a husband for "incompatibility." The book's color photographs of wall painting, statues, and landscapes are wonderful in their own right. Very highly recommended for most public and academic libraries.--Mary Morgan Smith, Northland P.L., Pittsburgh Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Written at the request of H.E. Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt, this volume was presented to each of the delegates of the UN's fourth Conference on Women. Hawass, an archaeologist who has done extensive research in his native Egypt, has produced a readable account for the lay reader of the various professions and occupations of women in ancient times, whether as queens, mothers, and wives; their functions at different levels of society; their clothing and adornment; and their role in religion. The superb photographs, reproduced in quality color reproductions, chronicle all types of monuments, great and small, in oversize format (10x12<">). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810944787
  • Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Pages: 207
  • Product dimensions: 10.00 (w) x 12.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

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Chapter One

The historical setting

The emergence of Egypt as home to one of the earliest civilizations was due to the bounty of the river Nile. Flowing north through its cliff-lined valley, the river was the country's natural highway and chief source of water. Each year, in July, the waters rose to cover the land and deposit a layer of rich silt, ensuring the fertility of the coming year. When the inundation receded four months later crops such as emmer wheat, barley, beans and pulses, were sown, none of which needed further watering. The harvest was gathered in the spring, and by the following summer, the land, parched and dry, was waiting for the next flood. Unusually low or high inundations could mean disaster, but normally the land produced more than enough to feed the population. Surpluses were stored for the future and for trade.

The Predynastic Period (5500-3100 BC)

    Early settlements along the high ground at the edge of the valley and beside the Nile may have been seasonal at first. Flint tools, domestic and wild animal bones and pottery speak of a simple farming and hunting economy. By 3500 BC settlements were large and permanent. Simple mud and reed structures housed the living while the dead were buried in shallow pits with a few pots or in deep shafts lined with mud plaster or wood. The larger and better endowed graves denote a more stratified society with an emerging ruling class. Grave goods included flint knives, shell and stone ornaments and grinding palettes, as well as pottery and stone vessels.

    In the Eastern Desert copper and golddeposits were worked, and from these metals a variety of artefacts were made both for the home market and for export, thus enriching certain communities. Imports included lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, Sumerian artefacts from Mesopotamia, and later, timber from Lebanon.

The Early Dynastic Period (3100-2686 BC)

    As the wealthier tribes dominated the weaker ones, the whole valley gradually polarised into two kingdoms, the northern Delta (Lower Egypt) and the southern valley (Upper Egypt). The act of unification came in about 3000 BC when the south, under the legendary king Menes, overwhelmed the north and established the pattern of unified kingship which was to endure for the next three thousand years. He created a new capital city later called Memphis, 24 kilometers south of modern Cairo, where the Nile emerges from its narrow valley and divides into different branches as it flows into the broad, flat Delta plain.

    The succession of kings who followed Menes were divided in antiquity into dynasties; these have been further grouped into periods of achievement and of decline. Of the Archaic Period little is known apart from the archaeological record. Hieroglyphic texts, which first appear at that time, are mostly labels or perfunctory descriptions. There are brief references to historical events, such as campaigns against the Nubians or the Libyans, but we have no details of the political history of this time.

    The kings of Dynasties 1 and 2, regarded as powerful gods in their lifetimes, were still divine after death and were buried at their ancestral funerary ground at Abydos in large multi-chambered tombs. In the central chamber their bodies were placed within wooden coffins, and each tomb was covered with a tumulus. Some of these tombs were surrounded by the graves of attendants who accompanied their masters into the Afterlife. The kings' funerary palaces near the cultivation are impressively large mudbrick enclosures. At the Memphite burial ground of Saqqara, huge mastaba (bench) tombs were built for the nobility along the escarpment, suggesting a well-organized controlling administration.

    Gunter Dreyer, a German Egyptologist currently excavating the royal tombs of Dynasties 1 and 2 at Umm al-Qaab (Abydos), has discovered that writing was known to the Egyptians 150 years before the unification of the Nile Valley. In addition, the name of Djoser was found inside the tomb of his father Khasekhemwy, proving that Djoser was the founder of Dynasty 3. Dreyer also discovered that the Egyptians made human sacrifices during this period.

The Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC)

    Dynasty 3 marks the beginning of one of the most dynamic periods. King Djoser (2667-2648 BC) set a new style of funerary monument, and, combining the funerary enclosure with the tomb, built a massive six-stepped pyramid of stone, 60 meters high, dominating a complex of ceremonial courts and structures. These were clearly intended for the use of the king in the Afterlife as none of them are functional, being merely ornate facades or narrow corridors added to solid rubble-filled cores.

    His successors emulated this example but failed to finish their monuments, although the last king of this dynasty, Huni (2637-2613 BC), is credited with beginning the pyramid at Meidum which his successor completed as the first smooth-sided pyramid. Both the step and the true-sided pyramid seem to be concrete images of the cosmological myth that all life came forth from the primeval mound. As the matrix of life, this mound was also seen as the means of rebirth, and it was therefore fitting that the king, the source of prosperity in this life, should be buried within a symbol of future life.

    Pyramid building reached its apogee in Dynasty 4. During his long and active reign, Sneferu (2613-2589 BC) built himself two pyramids at Dahshur. It was his son, Khufu (2589-2566 BC), benefiting no doubt from the experience of his predecessors, who erected the largest and most perfectly constructed pyramid, the Great Pyramid at Giza. Until this century, this was the largest building in the old world, whose dimensions, precise orientation and meticulous masonry still astonish.

    The straight rows of courtiers' tombs around the pyramid—east for the king's relatives and west for the nobility—suggest a centralized and tightly controlled government, as well as an efficient and wealthy economy. The titles of the officials tell us of the organization which achieved these stupendous monuments but nothing about the actual logistics of building them.

    Next to the Great Pyramid Khufu's son, Khafre, built the second pyramid, only slightly smaller than his father's. His son, Menkaure, added the third, diminutive pyramid. All three pyramid complexes included a mortuary temple, causeway, and valley temple, built from locally quarried limestone with casings of finer Tura limestone or Aswan granite. In one of the nearby quarries at the foot of the desert escarpment a knoll of rock was sculpted into the Sphinx, a figure with a lion's body and a king's head, who guards the necropolis. A god in its own right, and later identified with Harmakhis, `Horus-on-the-Horizon,' it was worshipped in a small temple built in front of the forepaws.

    Important discoveries have been made at Giza, among them the tombs of the pyramid builders located to the south of the Sphinx. A settlement has also been found under the villages near the pyramids, and a pair-statue of Rameses II made of red granite has been recently unearthed near the base of the south side of Menkaure's pyramid.

    The pyramids of Dynasties 5 and 6 are poorly-built. At this time, columns of hieroglyphs first appear on the walls of chambers within the king's pyramid. These are religious texts designed to secure the necessary powers for the king to pass into the Underworld as a powerful god.

    In this period, sun-temples first appear, their chief feature being a squat, tower-like structure with a pyramid-shape top. It seems that the nation's religious focus was shifting away from the cult of the dead and deified king to the sun cult of the god Re. Wonderful reliefs and life-like statues adorned the royal monuments, including details of trading expeditions to Lebanon, Nubia, and Punt. Both the sun-temples and the pyramid complexes were endowed, theoretically in perpetuity, with large estates whose produce maintained the cults and supplied the revenue for the personnel employed. In effect, they became important economic units, with extensive storerooms and workshops, redistributing much of the produce of the country.

    The king's family and court officials were usually buried near their monarch. The increasing size and complexity of these private tombs, with their wonderful scenes of everyday life, indicate that wealth and power were gradually less concentrated solely in the family of the king. Reliefs become more detailed and biographical inscriptions record military and trading or mining expeditions in the north-east, in Nubia and in the Eastern Desert. There is even an occasional hint of political conflicts or scandals within the government. Scenes of everyday life sculpted on the walls of tombs ensured a magical supply of commodities needed for the double or ka of the dead owner.

    As the body was thought to be essential for the welfare of the spirit or ba, various precautions were taken to ensure its survival. The dead were now mummified, a process of drying out the body and preserving it with unguents and oils before it was wrapped in linen bandages. In addition, statues of the deceased were often included in wealthier tombs, to act as a substitute should anything happen to damage the body. This practice gave rise to amazingly lifelike and beautiful portraits.

    Twenty Old Kingdom blocks carved with delicate relief were recently found under thirty meters of sand to the south of the causeway of Sahure. Perhaps the most evocative scene is that of a group of men bending in the direction of the pyramid. Courtiers and high officials, and men with their hands placed on their knees or raising their hands in a begging gesture, are also depicted. The latter are Bedouins, weakened by hunger. The inscription written above them reads, `pyramidion in three great halls.' This scene is a prototype for one found in the causeway of Unas at Saqqara which is often assumed to represent a famine, even though a famine did not hit Egypt during the reign of Unas.

    Two other tombs have also recently been found at Abu Sir. One, dating from Dynasty 26, belonged to Iuf-ka, who held the title `Director of the Palace,' while the other is that of Qar, the vizier of King Pepi I. At Saqqara, the mummy and tomb of Tetiankhkem, a son of King Teti, have also been found.

    The site of the capital of Egypt in the Archaic period, Ineb-hedj, the `White Wall,' has been located in the northern area of the Saqqara site. Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom, was situated at or very close to the pyramid site, the king having built his palace near his mourtury temple. Since the whole pyramid site was a national project, the capital would therefore be intimately associated with the king's building. This theory is supported by a reference in the Abu Sir Papyri that indicates that Djed-Kare-Isesi lived in a palace near his pyramid. The discovery of the settlement at Giza also suggests that the administrative town was located near the palace and the pyramid.

    Towards the end of the Old Kingdom, some of the nobles and provincial governors were buried in rock-cut tombs near their home towns, indicating a less strictly centralized government and the emergence of provincial ruling families.

The First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BC)

    When the Memphite government collapsed at the end of Dynasty 6, it ushered in a century of famine and trouble. Perhaps it was the long reign of Pepi II (2278-2184 BC)—over ninety years according to ancient sources—that weakened the reins of central government, or a series of low or destructively high Nile floods, bringing famine. Large-scale buildings and works of art cease, and it is probable that the pyramids were entered and robbed at this time. It was not until the country was reunited under a new line of kings from the southern city of Thebes in Dynasty 11 that its former prosperity was regained under the Middle Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC)

    One of the first acts of the Middle Kingdom kings was to consolidate their hold on the country by establishing a new royal residence and seat of government near Memphis, at Lisht. The precise location of the new capital, Ititawi, is not known, but it probably lay very close to the pyramid of Amenemhat I at Lisht. Here Amenemhat I, the first king of Dynasty 12, built his poorly preserved pyramid, using blocks taken from the older pyramid complexes at Saqqara and Giza to enhance and sanctify his edifice. His son, Senwosret I (1965-1920 BC), followed suit and successive kings of this dynasty built their monuments at Dahshur, Lahun and Hawara, designed with elaborately hidden entrances and a maze of false corridors and chambers to confuse tomb robbers. None of these pyramids has survived well. Built with time and labour-saving rubble or mudbrick cores, they collapsed when their white limestone facing was robbed for re-use in later periods.

    The warlike tribes in Nubia, which had caused havoc during the previous period, were subdued by the powerful kings of Dynasty 12, and a line of massive mud-brick fortresses was built at the second cataract to control the Nile route. Part of this activity was doubtless to secure the lucrative gold sources in Nubia, and the wealth thus obtained is visible in the prosperity of the period and in the material remains. The delicate sculptured reliefs and superb statues are equal to anything from the Old Kingdom.

    Of political events only the outlines are known. It seems that the first ruler of Dynasty 12 was murdered while his son and co-ruler Senwosret I was on campaign, but the succession was not interrupted. The greatest Middle Kingdom ruler was Senwosret III (1874-1855 BC) who consolidated Egyptian authority in Nubia and effected a change in the system of government at home whereby the power of the provincial families was curtailed. His son Amenemhat III (1855-1808 BC) sponsored a great land reclamation project in the Fayoum, where he built several monuments, including his pyramid, and was later worshipped.

The Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC)

    Middle Kingdom prosperity was interrupted by a period of stagnation and fragmentation. The kings of Dynasty 13 came and went with astonishing rapidity but the country seems to have been ruled effectively at first by a line of strong viziers. However, immigrants from the north-east known as the Hyksos settled in the Delta, bringing with them a new art of warfare using chariots and horses. They gradually set up a separate kingdom in the eastern Delta region, fragmenting the country again and threatening Egypt's security. At the same time Nubia broke away from its Egyptian overlords and formed a powerful independent kingdom in the south.

The New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC)

    Once again, it was a family from Thebes who finally drove out the Asiatics from the Delta and reunited Egypt. This marks the beginning of the New Kingdom, the period of the greatest expansion and prosperity of ancient Egypt.

    The early years were spent in consolidating Egypt's frontiers. A succession of strong warrior kings, Ahmose (1550-1525 BC), Thutmose I (1504-1492 BC) and his grandson, Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), campaigned in Syria-Palestine and subdued the fractious city-states there. A system of vassal-states was organized, paying handsome tribute to Egypt but essentially self-governing. At the border with Nubia the old Middle Kingdom frontier at Semna was regained, and the boundary pushed even further south. Nubia was annexed and administered directly from Egypt; her gold resources were ruthlessly exploited and Egypt grew prosperous on trade and tribute from north and south. Even the anomalous rule of Queen Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC), who declared herself king against all traditions, saw extensive building and sea-borne trade with Punt.

    The only major upheaval during this period was the radical religious change wrought by Amenhotep IV (1352-1336 BC), or Akhenaten as he called himself. This king chose to elevate the sun's disc, Aten, to a preeminent position as his personal god, and tried to eliminate the existing pantheon at least from the official religion. He did not succeed. Akhenaten's successors abandoned the new royal residence he had built at Amarna (Barry Kemp, excavating at Amarna, has been able to reconstruct the plan of the capital of Akhenaten), and restored the traditional cults of the Egyptian pantheon, and with them the time-honored basis of the economy and culture of the land.

    The new wealth is seen in the tremendous building activities of this period, especially in the expansion of the great national shrines, preeminent among which was the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. Much of the booty of war and the tribute which followed was endowed to this temple, and the power and influence of its priesthood grew. In fact, by the end of the period they challenged the authority of the king.

    The kings chose to be buried, not in pyramids, but under a pyramid-shaped mountain in a remote valley in Western Thebes—the Valley of the Kings. Their progressively grandiose mortuary temples lined the desert fringe overlooking the Nile valley. The one tomb that survived almost intact, that of Tutankhamun, displays the incredible wealth with which they were interred. Some of this wealth filtered down to the nobility, as is clear from the range of beautifully decorated tombs which stud the hills behind Thebes. These belong to the elite of an efficient civil service which lasted virtually unchanged for five hundred years.

    The tombs in the Valley of the Kings were excavated and decorated by a specialised workforce amongst whom were some of the finest sculptors and draughtsmen in Egypt. They lived with their families in the village known by its modern name of Deir al-Madina, located in a secluded desert valley at the southern end of the Theban necropolis. The relative affluence of the inhabitants and the unusually high literacy of its menfolk, if not also its women, has resulted in the survival here of an extraordinary amount of written material. The records from this village are one of the most important literary sources about day-to-day life in ancient Egypt.

    In Dynasties 19 and 20, kingship and the capital passed to families from the Delta, who moved the chief residence to the north, but continued to be buried in the south, at Thebes. Seti I (1294-1279 BC) followed in the tradition of Dynasty 18 rulers by undertaking an extensive building program, and military campaigns into Syria where the Hittites were threatening Egyptian interests.

    His son, Rameses II (1279-1213 BC) so fulfilled the ideal of Egyptian kingship as a great warrior and statesman and a prolific family man (he had approximately one hundred children) that his name was synonymous with Kingship for generations. The most notable events of his long reign were the conflicts against the Hittites, eventually resolved by a peace treaty which was ratified by a diplomatic marriage to the Hittite king's daughter.

    Rameses II's heirs tried in vain to imitate his successes, but external events were against them. Movements of landless peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean, the `Sea Peoples,' were disrupting trade and stability, and although their attacks against Egypt in the 13th and 12th centuries bc were unsuccessful, economically the country was in decline. By the end of the period there are references to civil unrest, incursions by desert raiders, fraud, and repeated tomb robbing. Outside Egypt, control over Syria-Palestine was lost as the city-states were overrun and destroyed by newcomers. To the south, Nubia broke away under the leadership of the former Egyptian viceroy.

The Third Intermediate Period (1069-747 BC)

    The decline at the end of the New Kingdom foreshadowed the period of fragmentation, when the Delta was ruled by men of Libyan origin and the south became virtually independent under the High Priests of Karnak. With the exception of Sheshonq I, who campaigned against the new kingdom of Israel, the Egyptian rulers confined their activities to home affairs. Most of this three hundred-year period is marked by continual friction with the south and with rival dynasties in the Delta. Few new buildings of this date have survived. As an indication of the legendary status of Rameses II, most of the buildings at Tanis, the new capital of Dynasty 21, were constructed from monuments of that king dismantled at his now abandoned residence and rebuilt on the new site.

The Late Period (747-332 BC)

    The fragmentation and subsequent weakening of the country encouraged intervention from an unexpected direction. In the eighth century, a new line of kings from Kush in Nubia, Dynasty 25, was accepted first at Thebes as legitimate rulers, and then throughout the country. They inaugurated a renaissance, initiating many new building works and repairing existing structures, as well as copying older works of art and texts.

    During the seventh century bc, however, Egypt became increasingly drawn into foreign conflicts. Assyria followed up repeated threats by invading and eventually sacking the country. The Kushite kings retreated south and the Assyrians appointed a local ruler from Sais to be king, who became the founder of Dynasty 26 when the invaders withdrew. Contacts with Europe were increased when Greek trading posts were opened in the Delta and Greek mercenaries were employed in the army. Over a century of relative peace brought prosperity as Egypt was able to resist foreign ambitions.

    In 525 BC the Persian king Cambyses (525-522 BC) ended this period of independence, and Egypt became part of the massive Persian Empire. Local rebellions were followed by severe repression and not until 404 BC was the country free again under the native rulers of Dynasties 28, 29 and 30. This brief interlude is marked by increased building activities, interrupted when the Persians succeeded in re-capturing the country briefly for a ten-year period. They were finally ousted by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Suzanne Mubarak 14
Acknowledgments 15
Introduction 16
The Historical Setting 18
I Ruling Queens 26
II Royal Ladies 38
III Palaces and Harems 56
IV Love and Marriage 72
V Motherhood and Children 82
VI The Lady of the House 98
VII Dress and Adornment 112
VIII Women in Society 124
IX Working Women 138
X Women in the Workmen's Community at Giza 148
XI Religious Life 158
XII Death and the Afterlife 172
XIII Art and Beauty 188
Chronological Table 202
Famous women of ancient egypt 204
Bibliography 205
Index 206
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