Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Like many, I had an Egyptomania phase in my youth. King Tut and the pyramids and gleaming gold are a hard siren's song to resist for a kid. My love of ancient history, including Egyptian, has never really faded, though, as evidenced by the many hours I spend watching horridly-CGIed documentaries on The History Channel and Discovery, and The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson has only renewed my ardor for the land Herodotus called "the temple of the world and the gift of the Nile."

Wilkinson takes on one of history's most daunting challenges: a comprehensive, one-volume history of ancient Egyptian civilization from prehistory to the death of Cleopatra, written for a popular audience. 'Tis surely a feat nearly as audacious and mind-boggling as the building of the pyramids themselves! But, like the pyramids, it was accomplished, and accomplished with sublime results. Quite simply, this is one of the best history books I've ever read.

Wilkinson eschews the typical "pyramids and Tut" version of Egyptian history. Indeed, his is an eye-openingly revisionist take. The pharaohs are as adept at casting about themselves a spell of mystery and romance today as they were in their own. We still think only of glorious statues and glittering treasure and all-powerful, but benevolent, god-kings. But they were autocrats, and like all autocrats were quite capable of using ruthless force and flagrant propaganda to bend people to their will. The life of a common Nile farmer was one of toil and disease and probably early death working land that wasn't his but rather the king's and often being conscripted into still-more toil in the grandiose construction projects the kings commanded to praise their own power and ensure their eternal life. If he did not mind this life, if he though his lot was fine, it was because his religion and his society had been carefully constructed to make him think this. And Egyptian history wasn't the placid, unchanging one often think of, and desperately projected by the Egyptians themselves, but full of rebellions, coups, invasions, and conquest.

And yet... To psychoanalyze every pharaoh, priest, and vizier over the course of 3000 years of history as megalomaniacal and cynical tyrants seems to carry things bit too far. Rulers can be just as inculcated with religious and cultural propaganda as anyone, and their own individuality must be considered. Also, as highly structured and bureaucratic as ancient Egypt was, the modern totalitarian regime, with its access to mass media and technology, can be orders of magnitude more intrusive and oppressive than the dreams of the most total autocrat in ancient history. Though the points that he makes about the darker side of pharaonic rule are an important corrective that points us towards a fuller picture of ancient life, one gets the feeling that Wilkinson himself knows that such comparisons can only be taken so far. I think he throws out comparisons to modern dictators like Kim Jong Il specifically for effect. Often grand statements about Egyptian totalitarianism are soon nuanced. And as he also points out, for all its inequality, the pharaonic system did bring order, stability, and widespread, if not exactly equitably shared, prosperity for centuries at a time.

Indeed, the resilience and power of its culture, which seduced and coopted conqueror after conqueror, and the fact that its general system of administration endured through all its trials and tribulations, point to the conclusion that it was well-suited to the needs of its people and environment. Ancient Egyptian culture was much more flexible and open than it even itself admitted. As gung-ho as they were to think and display themselves as a static, unchanging land, nothing can truly set itself outside the streams of history. Egyptian culture changed and adapted itself many times in response to new conditions, new ideas, and new threats, even as it cloaked them in trappings of the past. And not just conquest and conflict, but peaceful immigration, brought with them new peoples, ideas, and technologies. Despite its official xenophobia, which in some eras was incredibly strong, Egypt actually was quite cosmopolitan, multicultural, and welcoming of settlers... on its own terms. The sheer weight of its antiquity, ancient even in ancient times, and splendor almost inevitably assimilated those who came there, though.

I do wish to take issue with the designation of Cleopatra's death and the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire as the end of ancient Egypt. Of course, to go farther would be adding to an already long chronicle, and Wilkinson is keeping with the general scholarly and popular consensus. However, I've always thought it was an erroneous demarcation. Roman emperors were often depicted as pharaohs and even continued the tradition of monumental building. More importantly, and as Wilkinson himself again and again stresses, what defined ancient Egypt more than anything else was its religion and its culture, neither of which ceased to exist the moment Cleopatra clasped an asp to her bosom. Tombs, monuments, and temples continued to be built and maintained for several hundred years. It is the triumph of Christianity that, in my totally non-professional view, really is the defining end of pharaonic civilization. But even thehn, though Egypt enthusiastically and rapidly converted, likely due in part to similarities between its own native religion and Christianity (the Christ-Mary/Horus-Isis relationship, the belief in immortality), the last hieroglyphs weren't carved until almost 400 AD, and Isis and other Egyptian gods were worshiped into the 500s despite the official closing of the temples. That, in my opinion, was the true end of Ancient Egypt.

Wilkinson's skills as a writer are remarkable. He doesn't bog down in the technical, yet never dumbs things down. Somehow, he makes what could have been an eye-glazing march of names and dates into a well-paced and compelling narrative. His command of the scholarship is total, and his ability to convey that information amazing.

Superficially, the gold and blue cover is elegantly attractive, the paper of the book delightfully creamy and aromatic, and the maps and illustrations, both black-and-white and full-color, are both stunning and informative. Enjoyable, engaging, and riveting, even the most casual (or not-so-casual) Egyptologist would find this book well worth the read.

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