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The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs Hardcover – 27 Sep 2002

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 513 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Company Inc (27 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805054626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805054620
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 4.2 x 24.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,575,126 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Praise for Jan Assmann: "Jan Assmann is one of the most talented historians of the ancient world."-Saul Friedlander

About the Author

JAN ASSMANN, a world-renowned professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and winner of the prestigious German Historians Prize, he has taught at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Rice, the Getty Research Center, the British Museum, and the Royal Anthropological Society. He has published, among other works, Moses the Egyptian and The Search for God in Ancient Egypt.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Iset TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 3 Jun 2012
Format: Paperback
Jan Assmann delves beyond Egyptian history into the history of how the Egyptians thought about themselves and viewed the world and their own history. Assmann supports his points with plenty of examples from Egyptian literature and art, and presents a rather convincing case. At times he can get rather into the technical theory side of things, however for the most part his explanations are surprisingly clear - he takes the time to explain what can sometimes initially seem pretty alien concepts and thought processes, and can present elucidating comparisons and examples to familiar modes of thought - although one of his favourite comparisons was to biblical tradition and ancient Judeo-Christian perspective, and I didn't always agree with the comparison. Also, upon finishing the book, I felt that Assmann's final section was too short, cramming in the last 1000 years of pharaonic Egyptian history into a mere 40 pages or so - I definitely felt that the examination of the Late Period and Ptolemaic rule was too brief and didn't cover enough. Overall however, full of insight and well-executed.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3 reviews
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
The Egyptians and Ourselves 13 Oct 2005
By Thomas Riggins - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book attempts to reconstruct the ancient mind set of the Egyptians, in so far as possible, and relate it to our own. Assmann writes "ancient Egypt is an intellectual and spiritual world that is linked to our own by numerous strands of tradition." He discusses, for example, the influences of works such as "The Admonitions of Ipuwer" [13th cent.BC]on Bertold Brecht who used parts of it in his play "The Caucasian Chalk Circle". He explains the most important Egyptian philosophical concept "ma'at" or "connective justice" (illustrated in "The Eloquent Peasant" a Middle Kingdom work but holding "for Egyptian civilization in general" in terms of the ideas of both Karl Marx and Nietzsche.
Most importantly he shows what the Egyptian state really stood for as opposed to the false images found in Old Testament propaganda that mispresents Eqypt as an oppressive slave state. "The Egyptian state." he says, "is the implementation of a legal order that precludes the natural supremacy of the strong and opens up prospects for the weak (the 'widows' and 'orphans') that otherwise would not exist."
Unlike many who think that the revolution initiated by Akhenaten perished with him, Assmann presents evidence that its main principles survived in other religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well in secular venues from Greek philosophy "to the universalist formulas of oun own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg."
It is possible that many of the ideas of "Christianity" were originally formulated by the Egyptians.
Today we know more about the Ancient Egyptians than ever before so we should "attempt to enter into a dialogue with the newly readable messages of ancient Egyptian culture and thus to reestablish them as an integral part of our cultural memory."
I have only skimmed the surface of this important book. Anyone who wants to understand ancient Egypt must read this book."
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Great book 19 Feb 2006
By kaioatey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
It is hard to imagine how transient and fleeting our civilization is. A hundred years has seen a shift from the Sand Creek massacre, where Christian priests were scalping Native American women and children to nominal civilization with universal suffrage. A thousand years ago Europe itself was in Dark Ages of barbarism and chaos. A modern day European has no connection to the Langobards, Alemani, Thracians and Visigoths. In contrast, the ancient Egyptians had known three thousand years of relative continuity and self-identity so that the people born in the New Kingdom could identify themselves with the texts, narratives and beliefs from the Middle and the Old. What made possible this amazing continuity? Who were these people and how did they look at life? Jan Assman, a Heidelberg University professor and one of the most eminent Egyptologists of our time has written a superb book on this topic, a book that addresses key elements of time, memory, free will and historical continuity that are ever so relevant today. I found it difficult to put down.

According to Assman, life for the ancient Egyptian was a fellowship, a connectedness. This connectedness was maintained by harmony and justice (ma'at) a key organizing principle that can perhaps be regarded as the Egyptian version of Tao or perhaps the Navajo idea of `hozho'. Harmony makes community possible and is synonymous with law, security and order set by a centralized state. The failure to realize this interconnection of life results in loneliness and death. Maat is ensured by the State: all common, shared things, depend on the state: language, knowledge, and memory.
The Egyptian state was founded on an unshakable faith in the immortality of the soul and the prospect of future judgment. Interestingly, these ideas are also central to Christianity, but not the Old Testament (a tribal document devoid of the concept of life after death or notions such as kindness, or lovingness).

The Egyptians identified covetousness, greed, as the source of all evil. Keeping greed in check required constant effort. The great countergod of the E. pantheon, Seth is:

"He who is content with separation and hates fraternization;
he who only supports himself on his [own] heart among the gods"

very modern, this guy Seth. Would feel very comfortable in Wal-Mart or NYSE. Or the blood diamond merchants of Antwerp. There is great sophistication in using language and thinking in Middle Kingdom, when we observe a universal political education, indoctrination and propaganda. Religion itself required a great mnemonic effort on the part of the pharaoh and the priests; including ritual practices that we might call magic, as thoughts and dreams were very real to E. - so real, that evil in the sphere of language and imagination is given greater prominence than bad deeds; figurines found in pots made of burnt clay had inscribed curses against:

"All bad words, all bad speech, all bad imprecation,
all bad thoughts, all bad plotting
all bad battle, all bad plans, all bad things,
all bad dreams, all bad sleep."

Assmann emphasizes that human equality is a fundamental principle of Egyptian society. Unlike the Vedic Indians with their castes, and the Greeks with their free citizens and slaves, the Egyptians did not see existing differences between rich and poor, strong and weak, as part of the creation... "I have made each man the same as his neighbor", says Amon Ra, the sun god. The king is advised to `appoint his officials solely on the criterion of ability'. Inequality was seen as a product of covetousness, the "greed of the heart". Hardheartedness, selfishness and megalomania were universally condemned. These differences are traced back to the "heart" -to human free will. In fact, the idea of a "heart-guided individual"is central the Middle Kingdom.

Assman is ever so careful to evade a (self-imposed) 'hermeneutical trap', avoiding any temptation to actually 'feel' what Egyptians themselves might have felt or experienced. Conequently, while the book has many fascinating pages, it lacks a certain depth that could only come from the author's 'tuning in' into phenomenology of subjects he has devoted his life to studying.

Anyway, I liked the chapters on the two Transitional Periods, and the descriptions of the Hyksos (who, according to Assman were related to the Jews), the Nubians and even references from the Greeks; what I missed was more information of the Assyrian and Persian conquest and more information about the Egyptian religion. Here are "Instructions for King Merikare":

"Beware of unjust punishment.
Kill not, for that cannot be useful to you.
Punish with beatings and prison:
By this the land will be well founded. [...]
Kill no one whose spiritual strength is known to you
With whom you have sung scriptures
Who has read in the book of trial and can walk freely in the sacred space.
For the soul returns to the place it knows.
No magic can hold it back
It reaches him who gives it water.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Deeply Theoretical 29 May 2009
By Deirdre Jones - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Assmann is very theoretical but offers many different ways at looking at Anicent Egypt. His writing centers around memory in Egypt, since it Ancient Egypt really didn't follow a time line. This very indepth book and not a light read, but good none the less.
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