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An absolutely first-rate longitudinal history of a unique civilization,
This review is from: THE RISE AND FALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT BY Wilkinson, Toby A. H.( Author)Hardcover on Mar-15-2011
It took me 3 tries to find a book that would offer a comprehensive tour of Egyptian civilization, from its origins in prehistory to its end with Cleopatra 3000 years later. The two previous books I read were deadly dull, one the driest of academic treatments (The Oxford History), the other a scholastic mess, ANcient Egypt; the former got mired in esoteric academic controversies while the latter was so flavorless and elementary as to bore completely. In contrast, this book offers snapshots of the dynasties and how they evolved, gives an interpretation of the religion and what drove the civilization, and makes hard judgments as to the type of society it was. All in wonderfully vivid, crisp prose. While written by a scholar for accuracy, it appeals immediately and effortlessly to laymen. The result is a genuine masterpiece that I was beginning to fear was impossible to achieve.
The root of the civilization began in the south along the Nile during the 4th C BCE, from cow herders who discovered how to apply farming techniques in the valley that flooded with fertile silt at the beginning of every growing season. This origin explains one of its oldest symbols associated with Pharaohs: the herding staff in one hand, the lash in the other. Though it began with a number of kingdoms, they were slowly consolidated under military leadership, extending north to the Mediterranean Sea. As it expanded, the empire incorporated local deities into their pantheon as a way of co-opting the loyalty of conquered locals, resulting in a huge collection of gods, sacred animals, and stories, many of them resembling Greek and even Christian traditions later. Not only was Egypt protected by natural barriers, but it was organized into one of the most effective early autocracies, mobilizing vast wealth and manpower over a coherent and safe region.
Wilkinson explains the ideology of the state with wonderful succinctness. The pharaoh was variously the embodiment, reflection, and instrument of the Gods on Earth, a keeper of the balance of nature whose power came at the price of showing the proper deference to the Gods in ritual, the erection of massive architectural tributes, and the maintenance of the economy. A large part of this was their work and life after death, when they exercised their right to join the Gods as immortals. It was an extremely hierarchical society, with everyone serving their parts, at least at first in sincere belief. It was a complete system that supported autocracy, was supposed to guarantee food and the weather, and that protected Egypt's security. Of course, if nature or events didn't cooperate, the Pharaohs found themselves in danger rather quickly.
Their works were unique in world history, massive undertakings on a scale never before seen or some would argue since. The largest 2 pyramids in Giza (after a notable debacle in the desert because too much weight was amassed on softer ground) took the work of 10,000 men over 20 years of labor! While the Giza pyramids were never surpassed, the Egyptians built almost constantly for 3000 years. They also developed jewelry, mummification techniques, and a complex writing system that conferred power of the rare literate scribes who kept the most meticulous records of early antiquity.
The contours of the state wavered between centralization and delegation that led to 2 breakdowns of authority over intervals of over 1000 years, with dark ages that could last centuries as central power re-consolidated itself. The Pharaohs were hereditary autocrats, constantly expanding outwards, and later they came from the military, as restorers of order. It was only after 2100 years that the ideology itself began to break down, beginning first with the military Pharaohs who emerged after the collapse of the Rameside dynasty, accelerating as Egypt fell to a succession of foreign invaders, ending finally with its incorporation into Rome. In the last 900 years, as ideological beliefs eroded, led to a series bizarre cults and lacked spirit and became industries, in which cats, baboons, and ibexes were worshipped and mummified. This kind of cycle should give anyone pause when thinking that our way is the right way and will endure in the vastly diverse panorama of human possibility.
To cover interesting or consequential monarchs, Wilkinson focuses on a number of them in greater detail, such as Akhenaten, the monotheist heretic and father of Tutankhamen, or Cleopatra as the last one of all. He never gets mired in academic proofs, yet provides an accurate and balanced picture that is beautifully written.
Many reviewers appear put off by the author's criticisms of the society, i.e. that it was a brutal autocracy, even a proto-totalitarian state. I would defend his right to make such judgments because they come from a lifetime of study and teaching. Besides, they stimulate further inquiry rather than glibly cut off avenues, the mark of a great educator. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.