on 20 November 2010
I started this book thinking it was an interesting, detailed history of Ancient Egypt "from 300BC to Cleopatra". But perhaps that sub-title should have set alarm bells ringing. Why not "Narmer to Cleopatra; or 3000BC to 30BC? For the first few chapters I was thinking "That's interesting" or "How does anyone know that?". But then the doubts set in. In the attempt to provide an accessible narrative history, Toby Wilkinson has washed away nearly all the ambiguity and careful weighing of fragmentary evidence that's surely an ineveitable part of Egyptology. And for this reader at least, he seemed to lose any flavour of how the nature of Egyptian civilisation changed during the course of 3000 years. (As an example, I read several early parts of the text as implying a monetary economy surely much too early in the story.) Instead of this, read Barry Kemp's "Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization" (preferably the 2nd Edition), or if you must have narrative history, "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt" (edited by Ian Shaw).
on 8 July 2011
To me, Toby Wilkinson has a view of ancient Egypt that must have been shaped by some of Hollywood's best efforts. He appears to see the Pharaohs only as despots who took the produce of the country and gave nothing back. The book even starts with Shelly's 'Ozymandias' (based on one of the worst of the bunch, Rameses II). True, with some Kings, that's exactly how they did behave, but it isn't the whole story and many Kings were worshipped for centuries after their deaths as 'good Kings' who benefitted the land.
Having got my grumble about the book off my chest, it is an excelllent introduction to the history of the Two Lands, from the end of the Predynastic to the coming of the Romans and it is very easy to read. It is well illustrated and the end-notes give good references to other books for those of us who want to know more, and, best of all, it does give a timeline version of events so that we can read about which King followed which and how their reigns differed.
Originally, I only gave it 3 stars, but that was because I disagreed with some of Dr Wilkinson's conclusions - and that was unjust. It does deserve 4 stars, for the clarity of the writing and the general presentation.
If you're looking for an easy to read history of Ancient Egypt that is not a dusty academic tome or a sexed up soap opera then look no further.
Covering some 3000 years through to Cleopatra, Toby Wilkinson's very readable book is as entertaining as it is comprehensive. If you accept that it is personal but solid piece of popular history with all the shortcomings that these books do have, I'm sure you will enjoy it. The writers view that the Pharaohs were little more than tyrants is a perfectly acceptable one considering the huge amounts of manpower demanded by force to fulfil his/her desires. Egypt was not a democracy, it was a self perpetuating autocracy and therefore a dictatorship by default. The masses in such systems are little more than a resource to be used and dictators usually get what they want one way or another, always backed up by military force. There are those who have an opposite view and they are as entitled to theirs as the writer is to his
You're not going to become an expert reading this book but you will become informed enough to decide if you want to read or perhaps study further.
I enjoyed it very much.
on 13 June 2012
This is a truly amazing read.
The author doesn't like the political and economic system of ancient Egypt. The Pharaoes suffered from megalomania, and they suppressed and exploited there population. This we are told at every other page, ad nauseam. It is not surprising, that the rulers of the past do not live up to the standards of today, but it is strangely anacronistic to be told this throughout the book.
Who cares about Wilkinson's moral judgment, except himself?
Worse, after having found out that Ancient Egypt was bad, he loses interest. There are a thousand fascinatiing questions which could have been raised, e.g. the intricate problems of chronology and the question what we know for certain and what are merely educated guesses. But nothing in the book about this. Nor about hieroglyphs. And very little about the economic system (market versus planeconomy, how did they manage without money?). We are told about the system of granarie, but mainly when this system breakes dow And of course: The rulers did not establish the granaries for the benefit of the people, but because they themselves had an interest in it!
There is also very little about everyday life, that is apparantly precluded by the authors vendetta - after so many thousand of years! - against the rulers.
The main problem with moral history is that it makes the author not curious in his subject. Amazing that such a thrilling subject can be made boring.
on 13 September 2010
For anyone interested in the long history of the phaorohs in Egypt and the culture of this fascinating land, this is a wonderful coverage and the detail and colour photos are stunning. It is a long book and can be confusing at times and there are some slow chapters but all told it is written for the non-academic and an enjoyable read
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.
on 27 February 2011
This is a large and comprehensive work covering the whole history of Ancient Egypt. For that it is to be welcomed, as there is no really good up to date and comprehensive account of these fascinating 3000 years. For that reason I bought it. For that reason I read it What a waste of money! What a waste of time
It is seriously flawed. The author is a very poor writer. This work is neither authorative and academic nor merely popularist. The style has the vacuity of the latter, full of asides which are invariably obtrusive and cliched. The writer cannot resist banal comments. You can open the book on almost page and immediately be irritated by its blokey approach. The author is the Jamie Oliver of Egyptology. The work is jejune.
Worse than the writing is the content, or lack of it. This is almost a parody of condescension and prejudice. The assertions made are little more than unsupported conjecture. We should be told the bases on which conclusions are reached or conjectures made, and the two are not distinguished. When phrases such as 'no doubt' are routinely deployed you know that you are very much in an area of doubt. It is the most jaundiced and erroneous depiction of an extraordinary culture.His view of the pharoahs is entirely hostile: they are all tyrants, and their rule entirely despotic. They have no redeeming features. Such a judgment of a great civilisation which endured through millenia is fatuous.
Either the book could have been considerably shorter and tighter, and more lavishly illustrated, or the same length with the verbiage and hostility removed and replaced by better documentation and more balanced analysis and argument. But that would be another and better book by another and better scholar.
This alas is one of the worst and most annoying history books I have ever read.
on 4 June 2014
Egypt is a fascinating country with a fascinating history, so I bought this book with high expectations. And whilst I don't exactly regret it, the experience of reading it left me underwhelmed.
In retrospect, I should have expected nothing else. Three thousand years of history crammed into five hundred pages? That inevitably means that there are gaps, or periods that are glossed over - whole centuries dismissed in a sentence or two, or not even mentioned at all. So many unanswered questions as well. Such as the fact that we are told that Ancient Egypt operated without money, but that nevertheless gold was crucial to their economy.
Mr Wilkinson's writing seems to fall between two stools as well. He is neither rigidly academic or unabashedly populist, He is fond of pithy asides, not all of which are as entertaining or informative as he seems to think they are.
Possibly the most useful section of the book is the Notes, in which he lists other works in the field of Egyptology which (hopefully) are narrower and deeper.
As a broad introduction to the History of Egypt, this book is a valiant attempt. But it seeks to achieve the impossible, and unsurprisingly fails.
on 14 September 2012
On page 10 of this book, Toby Wilkinson describes ancient Egypt as "a society in which the relationship between the king and his subjects was based on coercion and fear, not love and admiration." He then batters the reader over the head with this idea for the next 500+ pages, like Pharaoh Narmer beating Phillistines with his ceremonial mace. Strange that someone should devote his life to studying a civilisation which he evidently so dislikes!
I read this book to complement Paul Kriwaczek's excellent book on Babylonian civilisation, which I've reviewed elsewhere on Amazon. In brief, Wilkinson's book is the precise opposite of Kriwaczek's.
Wilkinson gets bogged down in repetitive details of dynastic successions, wars, and building projects, for which no one ever has any motive other than selfish jockeying for wealth and high status. By contrast, Kriwaczek addresses broad cultural themes, but only briefly mentions the frequent transfers of power from one city state to another because that would be tedious to non-specialists.
Kriwaczek uses his imagination to empathise with ancient people, while never presenting his conjectures as established facts. Wilkinson interprets everything as evidence for his one theme- the brutality of the Pharaohs and the misery of their subjects. He shows no capacity to empathise with a different mindset. for example, he sees a Pharaohs' large force of bodyguards as evidence for their unpopularity and hence need for protection. Being British, Wilkinson knows very well that our own Queen is guarded by whole regiments of ceremonial troops, besides armed police, despite being very popular with the general public. Royals may be guarded because they're genuinely valued, and because any harm to them would humiliate the whole nation. Wilkinson makes no attempt to put himself into the mindset of people for whom (to quote Bob Marley) "Allmighty God is a Living Man." He compares Ancient Egypt to Communist dictatorships, yet never considers the fact that Stalin's subjects genuinely revered him. Even now, Stalin is very popular among older Russians, despite change of regime and freer access to alternative views of history. If millions of modern Russians can still genuinely revere Stalin, surelt Bronze Age Egyptians could have genuinely seen their Pharaoh as an incarnate God and believed that his powers upheld the entire nation including themselves?
Wilkinson tells us hardly anything about the daily life of the people. If I'd only read this one book I still wouldn't know what clothes they wore, what they ate or drank, or what they looked like. How "black" were they? Did they really shave their heads and if so why? What did they do for entertainment? We know they had dancing girls and musical instruments but Wilkinson says nothing. (Doubtless he knows for a fact that those dancing girls were thoroughly miserable!)
He discusses Akhenaten, the heretic Pharaoh, as merely an eccentric aberration after which life returned to normal. Actually there's a convincing theory that Akhenaten's monotheism may have been preserved by some followers who later became the dominant "Levite" tribe in Israel, giving rise to the legend of Moses and the Exodus. He briefly mentions the Exodus story but states that "Egyptian records are silent" on this subject- though he insinuates that they wouldn't have recorded it anyway. This is thoroughly dishonest. Wilkinson knows that the whole of Sinai and Palestine were under Egyptian control at the supposed time of the Exodus, therefore it could not have happened as stated in the Bible because the Israelites would have only been passing from one bit of Pharaoh's empire to another. Since the Exodus story is one of the best-known elements in Egyptian history, this should have been discussed.
The other thing that everybody knows about Egypt is that they built pyramids. Again, the discussion of the Great Pyramid is inadequate, full of conjecture, and skates over or ignores serious controversies. How come the Egyptians' greatest achievements occured so early in their history? How did they align the "air shafts" on particualr stars? Why- if the Great Pyramid was really built by Khufu- does it contain no inscriptions? If it was really a tomb, why has it no large chambers for treasure? A good historian asks questions, even when (or especially when) there are no conclusive answers. As regards the issue of rain erosion on the Sphinx (suggesting it's much older than supposed, Wilkinson deals with this question by totally ignoring it- like other mainstream Egyptologists!
Finally two specific examples to illustrate the absurd lengths to which Wlkinson's bias leads him. He quotes Herodotus as an authority on Khufu (who lived 2,000 years before him) stating that Khufu was a tyrant. Well Herodotus also states that Khufu paid for the pyramid in part by prostituting his own daughter. At least Herodotus is entertaining but this tale is hardly likely- who would her clients have been- and if Khufu was such a tyrant why didn't he just take their money? Secondly, if you see this book in a shop check out the ancient picture on page 52 which Wlkinson labels as "human sacrifice in the first dynasty". In fact the picture shows three crudely drawn stick figures, one standing, one sitting, and one kneeling. They could be doing anything! But Wilkinson's morbid imagination has convinced him that the standing man is about to slit the kneeling man's throat and pour his blood into a bowl!
The only point in this book's favour is that unlike Kriwaczek's book, he provides a detailed timelne.
on 15 April 2012
Toby Wilkinson is of the opinion that his fellow Egyptologists tend to look at Ancient Egypt through rose tinted glasses (p.9) and he is going to correct it by producing a balanced account about the history of this ancient civilization. This seemed promising - my main interest in recent years has been in the study of religion and its impact through the ages and I have little patience, possibly to a fault, with hagiography masquerading as objective history. My authors include atheists, believers and (my own preference), agnostics. I have a couple of bookshelves covering the history of Ancient Egypt by authors from around the mid nineteenth century, through the "golden age of Egyptology" and right up to the 21st century. Maybe I have been very lucky in my choice but I cant truthfully say that in the modern works I have read there is any noticeable tendency to whitewash as Toby Wilkinson suggests and neither does he actually provide anything substantial to support his allegation. In the absence of supporting evidence Toby Wilkinson appears to be doing what many of us tend to do: projecting our own mindset onto others.
Many approaches have been used to analyze A.E: A journey into our sub-conscience, humankind in its childhood and so on but a model which leans heavily towards a politico-historical treatment at the expense of spiritual beliefs and ethical development, in a society which was to a large degree a theocracy, seems dubious to say the least. The author continuously passes value judgments on an ancient civilization but doesn't explicitly declare which measuring rod he is using. For me the only objective way of doing so is by comparing Ancient Egypt with other contemporary civilizations or, even better, with what went before in the Nile valley. When hunter gathers first got together for their common good and took the first faltering steps towards what we call civilization one of the prime reasons must surely have been mutual protection from covetous eyes that saw the gift of the Nile as something desirable and, if needs be, to be taken with force. Even within the limitations of this book it would seem from the available information that the institution of a monarchy provided a point of unity which, when strong, afforded the average person some feeling of protection for themselves and their families from foreign invasion. When the monarchy was strong so was Egypt.
It is the institution of the monarchy which is the particular focus of what I take to be the authors 21st century value judgments projected back in time and beginning around 3000 BCE. Negative epithets abound. A few from the early pages which appear throughout the book that relate to the kings and life of the common people are given at the end of this review.(1)
In the authors mind there is nothing good to say about the Ancient Egyptian monarchy, anything good is simply suppressed or an evil motive imputed to any actions that appear demonstrably good. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that empires do not last when their internal structures become so corrupt - they collapse sooner rather than later - but here we have an institution that lasted millenia.
I have problems with his selective use of sources. Whilst he accepts and uses Herodotus as an authority for the cruelty involved in Pyramid building, and by innuendo takes it as being representative of all the kings he misses out what Herodotus says in the same passage. "Till the death of Rhampsinitus [I.e upto the reign of the Giza pyramid builders], the priests said, Egypt was excellently governed, and flourished greatly" which doesn't fit in with the authors take. Amidst all the attempts to portray the Giza workmen as being once again the downtrodden subjects of the Pharaoh (sinisterly "the official record is predictably silent about how many died during the building of the Great Pyramid" p87) he cannot see the contradiction in those same workmen describing themselves as the "Pharaohs Drunkards" p84 which isn't indicative of people bemoaning their hard conditions in the "cramped barracks at the end of another day of toil on the Giza plateau" p89 The author is so taken by Herodotus, albeit through selective quotation and mistranslation, that he writes a "humbling" acknowledgement: "It is a salutary lesson that the ancients were often far clever than we give them credit for." Why miss out another ancient Greek historian who wrote of Ancient Egypt and love of Egyptians for their kings:
"Because the kings treated their subjects so justly, the affection the people had for their princes was stronger than the love between the closest relatives ever was. Not just the community of the priests, but all Egyptians did not care as much for their wives and children and their other goods as they cared for the welfare of their sovereigns. Therefore, the wisest of the known kings have preserved the native order, for as long as the legal institution we have just described, existed." Diodorus Siculus Historic Library Vol 1, Chapters 70 and 71
The author takes the texts associated with the workers village of Deir el-Medinah, and the disorder and economic chaos around the coming of the Iron Age, as a prime example of how corrupt the state was. The author asserts that the tomb robbers cared not for theological niceties p. 375 when the burned the coffins but fails to point out, what others note, that they might have intended to destroy the afterlife of the mummies so retribution would not follow. It could well have been a theologically driven act (Paul Johnson goes so far as to suggest they might have been followers of Set). He fails to see the contradiction in his thesis of the supposed fear and loathing of despot kings with the demonstrable love the villagers had for King Ahmose. Nor can he see that workers being able to go on strike is not indicative of the all embracing fear driven totalitarian state he describes.
He thinks, without giving evidence, that dwarves were used as figures of fun thus signifying the decadence of the pharaohs p. 89 but fails to point out that King Unas is shown as a dwarf entertaining the Gods nor does he mention the high position they could reach in society such as Seneb of the 4th dynasty who was priest of the funerary cults of Khufu and Dedefre (they were thought to have divine connections) nor does he mention how those who were physically or mentally disabled were defended in the Instructions of Amenemope. No mention of the how the blind also had an honored place in society as harpers. Can the British rugby players who threw dwarves about for entertainment in Australia in 2011 be viewed as representing the decadency of our 21st century western civilization?
For an author who continuously (albeit indirectly, and with heavy innuendo) passes value judgments there is a surprising lack of analysis of what the Ancient Egyptians held to be good and not so good. The extensive surviving Maat literature is given scant attention and it is easy to conclude that maybe it doesn't accord with the authors own take on the reality of Ancient Egyptian values as expounded, for example, in the so called Negative Confessions from the Book of Going Forth into the Day and the instructional texts.
Paul Johnson emphasized in his own excellent work "The Civilization of Ancient Egypt" that it is simply not possible to write an account of this people which decouples history from the religious beliefs which permeated so much of their culture and everyday life. In my opinion Johnson assertion is amply proven by this book. Contrary to what this author asserts Egyptologists of all generations have pointed out the good with the bad but this book, in essence, only the bad is recounted in an ideologically driven work. Simpson in his 1970 book "The Ancient Near East" noted an emerging trend with the modern student generation, growing up in technological society and computer age, of treating this part of the world and epoch as a form of oriental despotism. Up until this book I can't say I have ever noticed this in the modern works by Egyptologists however, I sincerely hope that in an age when we deliver "freedom" and "democracy" to lands by cruise missile and xbox360 type controllers, where the the realities of war are virtualised as a form of entertainment, where "free-markets" come with mass unemployment that this book doesn't signal that Simpson's comments are a prophecy fulfilled. Budge noted Ancient Egyptian drawings that showed the head of Horus and Set sharing the same body and, as others have pointed out, both deities reflect contrary states that coexist in each human being. I certainly recognize them in myself. For me the main failing of this book is the predominance of Seth and is thus an example of what Ancient Egyptians recognized as isfet. I hope the author at some point will release a revised edition of the book that will be more Maat like, I.e balanced.
(1) "sinister", "absolute power", "untrammeled exercise of political and economic control" p81, "relentless rise of state control", "life of subjugation", "a life of fear", "grim and shocking" p. 51 "the relentless rise of state control" p. 52, "Tyrants and megalomaniacs" p. 73 "brainwashing and subjugation" p. 74, "repression" and "brutality" p74, "snuff out" local autonomy p74, "vaunting ambition" p. 76 "despotism, pure and simple" p. 77 cattle are fed "preferentially" compared to the pharaohs human subjects p.77, "wether the populace liked it or not" p78, The pyramids are "folies de grandeur" p. 87 "megalomaniac tyrant" p. 87, "megalomaniac tyrant with scant regard for human life" p87, "ultimate projection of absolute power" p87, "opulence" and decadence" p89, "naked displays of power" p94, "tyranny" p94, "greasy pole of career advancement" p98, "wallow in pampered luxury" p98, "life was mean and miserable" p98, "an effete royal court steeped in pampered privilege" p99, "overpaid and overbearing bureaucracy" p100, "style over substance" p101, "chilling" p103, "despotic monarchy" p105, "human bauble" p111, "our rose tinted view of Ancient Egypt" p118 "despotic, autocratic rule" p118, "tinpot dictator" p122,