by Toby Wilkinson
Paperback (8 Jan 2013), 656 pages.
Publisher: Random House
In this landmark work, one of the world's most renowned Egyptologists tells the epic story of this great civilization, from its birth as the first nation-state to its final absorption into the Roman Empirethree thousand years of wild drama, bold spectacle, and unforgettable characters.
Award-winning scholar Toby Wilkinson captures not only the lavish pomp and artistic grandeur of this land of pyramids and pharaohs but for the first time reveals the constant propaganda and repression that were its foundations. Drawing upon forty years of archaeological research, Wilkinson takes us inside an exotic tribal society with a pre-monetary economy and decadent, divine kings who ruled with all-too-recognizable human emotions.
Here are the years of the Old Kingdom, where Pepi II, made king as an infant, was later undermined by rumors of his affair with an army general, and the Middle Kingdom, a golden age of literature and jewelry in which the benefits of the afterlife became available for all, not just royalty - a concept later underlying Christianity. Wilkinson then explores the legendary era of the New Kingdom, a lost world of breathtaking opulence founded by Ahmose, whose parents were siblings, and who married his sister and transformed worship of his family into a national cult. Other leaders include Akhenaten, the "heretic king," who with his wife Nefertiti brought about a revolution with a bold new religion; his son Tutankhamun, whose dazzling tomb would remain hidden for three millennia; and eleven pharaohs called Ramesses, the last of whom presided over the militarism, lawlessness, and corruption that caused a crucial political and societal decline.
Riveting and revelatory, filled with new information and unique interpretations, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt will become the standard source about this great civilization, one that lasted - so far - longer than any other.
IN THE BEGINNING
The first king of Egypt
In a tall glass case in the entrance hall of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo stands an ancient slab of fine-grained greenish-black stone, about two feet high and no more than an inch thick. Shaped like a shield, it is carved on both sides in low relief. The scenes, though still crisp, are difficult to make out in the diffuse, hazy light that filters down through the dusty glazed dome in the museum ceiling. Most visitors barely give this strange object a second glance as they head straight for the golden riches of Tutankhamun on the floor above. Yet this modest piece of stone is one of the most important documents to survive from ancient Egypt. Its place of honor at the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, the world's greatest treasure- house of pharaonic culture, underlines its significance. This stone is the object that marks the very beginning of ancient Egyptian history.
The Narmer Palette, as it is known to Egyptologists, has become an icon of early Egypt, but the circumstances of its discovery are clouded with uncertainty. In the winter of a.d. 1897-1898, the British archaeologists James Quibell and Frederick Green were in the far south of Egypt, excavating at the ancient site of Nekhen (modern Kom el-Ahmar), the "city of the falcon" (classical Hierakonpolis). The nineteenth century was still the era of treasure seeking, and Quibell and Green, though more scientific in their approach than many of their contemporaries, were not immune from the pressure to discover fine objects to satisfy their sponsors back home. So, having chosen to excavate at Nekhen, a site eroded by countless centuries and largely devoid of major standing monuments, they decided to focus their attentions on the ruins of the local temple. Though small and unimpressive by comparison with the great sanctuaries of Thebes, this was no ordinary provincial shrine. Since the dawn of history, it had been dedicated to the celebration of Egyptian kingship. The local falcon god of Nekhen, Horus, was the patron deity of the Egyptian monarchy. Might the temple, therefore, yield a royal treasure?
The two men worked away, and their initial results were disappointing: stretches of mud brick wall; the remains of a mound, faced in stone; a few worn and broken statues. Nothing spectacular. The next area to be investigated lay in front of the mound, but here the archaeologists encountered only a thick layer of clay that resisted systematic excavation. The city of the falcon seemed determined to keep its secrets. But then, as Quibell and Green struggled their way through the clay layer, they came upon a scatter of discarded ritual objects, a motley collection of sacred paraphernalia that had been gathered up and buried by the temple priests some time in the remote past. There was no gold, but the "Main Deposit"-as the archaeologists optimistically called it-did contain some interesting and unusual finds. Chief among them was a carved slab of stone.
There was no doubt about what sort of object they had found. A shallow, circular well in the middle of one side showed it to be a palette, a grindstone for mixing pigments. But this was no workaday tool for preparing cosmetics. The elaborate and detailed scenes decorating both sides showed that it had been commissioned for a much loftier purpose, to celebrate the achievements of a glorious king. Beneath the benign gaze of two cow goddesses, a representation of the monarch himself-shown in the age-old pose of an Egyptian ruler, smiting his enemy with a mace-dominated one side of the palette. The archaeologists wondered who he was and when he had reigned. Two hieroglyphs, contained within a small rectangular panel at the very top of the palette, seemed to provide the answer, spelling out the monarch's name: a catfish ("nar" in the Egyptian language) and a chisel ("mer"): Narmer. Here was a king previously unknown to history. Moreover, the style of the carvings on the Narmer Palette pointed to a very early date. Subsequent research showed that Narmer was not just an early king; he was the very first ruler of a united Egypt. He came to the throne around 2950, the first king of the First Dynasty. In the mud of Nekhen, Quibell and Green had stumbled upon ancient Egypt's founding monument.
Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson Copyright © 2011 by Toby Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Change is something we all accept as part of contemporary life, so the apparent rigidity and stasis of the ancient Egyptian state is difficult for us to grasp today. Over three thousand years of recorded history, from the emerging authority of the so-called King Scorpion to the final days of doomed Cleopatra, ancient Egypt shows a remarkable continuity in its culture, language, and mode of governance. What was the reason for the inviolacy of their core beliefs, and why, when so advanced, vigorous, and innovative, did they choose to remain mired in their own well-worn rituals and decaying social order when the rest of the world, slowly at first, began to develop their own dynamic civilizations?
To Dr. Toby Wilkinson, an impressively credentialed Egyptologist, asking these questions is essential to understanding ancient Egyptian history and, in his doorstopper-length work The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, he proposes a relatively simple, sensible answer: the history of ancient Egypt is the history of a small, narrowly concentrated group of elites brutally exercising their power over a whipped, starved, and constantly downtrodden populace. He states this argument, more or less, right in his introduction:
"From human sacrifice in the First Dynasty to peasant revolts under the Ptolemids, ancient Egypt was a society in which the relationship between the king and his subjects was based on coercion and fear, not love and admiration - where royal power was absolute and life was cheap."
If you can accept this thesis, and can also accept Wilkinson's occasional overstatement of it, then you will find The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt not only a satisfying and comprehensive survey on ancient Egypt but also a narrative tour de force dramatically following the deeds and misdeeds of thirty centuries of Pharaohs, priests, architects, generals, barbarians, peasants, and rebels. General audiences should have no problem being engrossed by this book, though the reader should keep in mind what to expect from historical writing.
Wilkinson approaches Egypt through the lens of modernity. He constantly compares the rulers of ancient Egyptian to modern day dictators; Hitler, Stalin, Kim Il Sun, and Nicolae Ceausescu are mentioned in discussing the kind of rule the Pharaohs provided. To Wilkinson, all aspects of the Egyptian culture were informed by the dictatorial, authoritarian nature of the monarchy. Religion, deeply integral to the native Egyptian way of life, was a means to power; while the priesthood, in Wilkinson's eyes, was closer to a tax shelter than a sacred institution. Even Egypt's great monuments, its pyramids and tombs and great temples, were nothing more than symbolic representations of the Pharaoh's total control over his subjects. One particularly striking passage underlines the author's attitude towards the grand monumentalism of the Egyptian society; describing the royal palace of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, he pauses on the floor decoration in the main courtyard:
"The main route used by the king had a plastered pavement painted with images of foreigners. This allowed Akhenaten to trample his enemies underfoot as he went about state business - 'the unselfconscious trumpeting of official brutality.'"
Readers who have read much about Russian history or the French Revolution may notice a familiar tendency in this work, a desire on Wilkinson's part to paint the state in question as a villainous autocracy and then, having deemed it as such, to moralize on its failings. This is not enough to ruin all of his good, detailed work or to derail the fast-paced, no-time-to-catch-a-breath narrative, but it can make the book seem rather one note at times. At these moments, I wished Wilkinson had developed a more well-rounded picture of the culture rather than hammer on one aspect constantly.
The best parts of the book come as the Egyptian empire begins to fall apart; here Wilkinson can only accuse the native rulers of incompetence and not outright totalitarianism. Instead of following the increasingly irrelevant native kings, he extends his focus to include the outside invaders who, one after another, would come to gain and lose control over the Egyptian state. Here are exotic and scarcely-understood peoples; the hording, disorderly Hyksos, the mysterious Sea People, the exotic, agnostic Libyian chiefdoms, the half-Egyptianized Kushans, the expansive, paternalistic Persians, and finally the fractious, incestuous Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies. All these groups come and go from the story relatively quickly, but, perhaps for the very reason that their motives can be less easily parsed, they all seem more well-rounded and human than do the book's primary subjects. The end of Egypt's story - the rise of Rome, Cleopatra, and so forth - is more alive with human drama than any other part of the book, and through those events the reader is shown how Egypt becomes part of the Roman Empire and how its history enters the larger stream of the history of the West. A small coda details how Napoleon's conquests invigorated Egyptian studies and how resonances from that time still inform our lives today. In the end, Wilkinson's ancient Egypt is one of anxiety and terror, and there is not a chapter in the book that does not reinforce that sentiment. In his unsentimental and distinctly modern telling of the story of Egypt, however, I feel for the first time that I can approach ancient Egypt not as a jumble of myth but as a real, living, human society.
Reviewed by Kevin Bartolotta
The Sunday Times (UK)
Absolutely divine ... a thorough, erudite and enthusiastic gallop through an astonishing three thousand years.
Starred Review. An essential work of Egyptian scholarship with lessons for our time.
Starred Review... this book will serve as a standard for general readers and college students alike who seek to be immersed in the 3000-year pageant of Egyptian civilization. Highly recommended for Egyptophiles and all public and academic libraries.
Starred Review. [A] penetrating and authoritative overview of a violent ancient civilization often revered by contemporary scholars and enthusiasts.
This superbly written survey is ideal for general readers and likely to engender controversy among specialists.
The Observer (UK)
I had always presumed, before I read Wilkinson’s book, that it was impossible to write a history of Egypt which combined scholarship, accessibility, and a genuine sense of revelation. I was wrong.
The Scotsman (UK)
Not just the pyramids but the politics; not just war and religion but livestock and labour relations: the whole astonishing story meticulously researched and enthrallingly told.
The Times (UK)
Egypt has for the past four thousand years been much vaunted, much debated ... Toby Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt [adds] impressively to this tradition.
Oxford Times (UK)
Take this great book with you on your next boat to Egypt.
One of the most difficult things to keep straight about ancient Egypt is its dynastic chronologies, thirty-three families of rulers over thousands of years, full of contradictions, inaccuracies, and outright lies. To offer some assistance I have included an incomplete list of the important dynasties, with a few details about each period; relevant Pharaohs, important events and so forth, from Wilkinson's timeline.
First Dynasty. c.2950-c.2750 BCE
The unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Third Dynasty, c.2650-c.2575 BCE
Notable for the construction of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, one of the first pyramids.
Fourth Dynasty, c.2575-c.2450 BCE
The apex of the pyramid age; construction of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx.
The Seventh Dynasty
Never happened, chalk it up to creative bookkeeping.
The Eleventh Dynasty, c.2080- c.1938 BCE
Egypt's first major civil conflict, a period of great religious as well as political strife, as the Pharaoh's religious mandate to rule was constantly questioned.
Seventeenth Dynasty, c.1630-c.1539 BCE
Invasion and foreign occupation by The Hyksos, Egypt's first outside conquerors. Eventually repelled.
Eighteenth Dynasty, c.1539-c.1292 BCE
Notable for the reign of Akhenaten (c.1353-c.1336 BCE), who banned the native religion and attempted to instate an official monotheism. Also, saw the reign of the boy-king Tutankamun.
Twentieth Dynasty, c.1190-c.1069 BCE
Egypt's golden age, rule under Ramesses and his various successors.
Twenty-fifth Dynasty, c.728-657 BCE
Invasion and rule by the Southern Kushites; political power rests mostly in the hands of the priesthood.
Twenty-Seventh Dynasty, 525-404 BCE
Invasion and rule by the Persian Empire. A canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea is completed (a precursor to the modern day Suez Canal which follows a different path).
Thirtieth Dynasty, 380-343 BCE
The last period in which a native Egyptian monarch rules the state.
Macedonian (32nd) Dynasty, 332-309 BCE
Alexander the Great's conquest over Egypt.
Ptolemaic (33rd) Dynasty, 305 to 30 BCE
The final Pharaohs of Egypt. Ethnically Greek, this dynasty ends with the absorption of the Egyptian state into the Roman Empire.
Images (top to bottom): Step Pyramid of Djoser, Sphinx, Akhenaten, Alexander the Great.