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This article was published 25/3/2011 (2340 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt
By Toby Wilkinson
Random House, 611 pages, $35
Recent events in Egypt, culminating in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, largely as the result of popular indignation and revolt, have provided a rather fortunate news hook for this magisterial work of popular history.
Neither author Toby Wilkinson, an academic at England’s University of Cambridge, nor his publishers, likely expected Egyptian politics to take a significant turn at the time of publication.Neither author Toby Wilkinson, an academic at England's University of Cambridge, nor his publishers, likely expected Egyptian politics to take a significant turn at the time of publication.
Nevertheless, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt highlights several themes prevalent in the Middle Eastern nation's history that will almost certainly play upon the minds of those who followed Mubarak's downfall.
At 486 pages (not including notes and indices), the book is a daunting read, to be sure. But Wilkinson's narrative is clear, refreshing and, at times, amusing. His take on Egyptology and Egyptian history is not only relaxed and approachable, but also entertaining.
His passion for the country, and for espousing its history, is evident from the outset: his narrative comes to life as he shares the complexities of society centuries old.
Of course, the New Kingdom -- the period between the 16th and 11th centuries BCE, wherein lived such luminaries as Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Ramesses -- receives particular attention, as it well should.
Here, after a period of significant upheaval, Egypt once again returned to a position of power in the Mediterranean and the Near East.
Even so, Wilkinson's aim to provide "a balanced picture of Egyptian society" alongside his decision to cover the entirety of Egypt's history, from prehistoric tribal society circa 5000 BCE, to part of the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, is a welcome change.
It illustrates that Egypt was not always a mysterious land of pharaohs and pyramids, as portrayed by scholars and enthusiasts who "are inclined to look at pharaonic culture with misty-eyed reverence."
As Wilkinson takes pains to note, the ancient Egyptians' world was very different from that of their modern descendants.
Certain themes, however, reverberate through Egypt's history, beginning with the (enforced) belief, fostered following the kingdom's unification under a single king in 2950 BCE, that "opposition to the king or his regime was tantamount to nihilism."
In fact, 400 years later, at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu decided to reinforce his position by taking on a new epithet -- "the perfect god" -- terminology that Wilkinson succinctly notes continues to reverberate in both ancient and modern societies in titles such as "father of the nation" and "dear leader."
The power of the military, a theme in Egyptian history past and present, came starkly to the fore in the New Kingdom.
Wilkinson states that "from humble beginnings the Egyptian army swiftly established itself as one of the most influential groups in society."
In fact, the military has, it seems, always played a role in remarkable periods of Egypt's history.
Under Seti I, of the Ramesside Dynasty (1290-1279 BCE), the kingdom once again began to use its military might to establish itself in the eastern Mediterranean.
Military power was again at the forefront more than 1,000 years later when, in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great crossed into Egypt.
Wilkinson notes "as it had shown time and again, the Egyptian military ... had one overriding wish -- to align itself with the winning side."
One suspects that the protesters in Cairo, who embraced the Egyptian army for refusing to back the recently departed president, would do well to remember this in the near future.
Propaganda, too, another theme in Egyptian history, appeared early on: at the Battle of Kadesh cira 1274 BCE.
Ramesses II claimed an extraordinary victory against Hittite forces. He made full use of an "orchestrated barrage of propaganda," an essential tenet under the pharaonic state.
It was a theme repeated again and again over the subsequent centuries, most notably by the Ptolemaic dynasty, from 305 to 30 BCE, in its attempts to legitimize its position.
In all, Wilkinson's consideration of what may well have been the first "nation-state" presents an engaging and enthralling illustration of Egypt, from its earliest incarnation, through to beginning of its position as Rome's breadbasket.
Moreover, it paints a picture of cultural, economic and political strategies that sustained an autocratic regime for thousands of years.
It is an all too common picture, perhaps, even today: the strategies used to so great effect by the rulers of ancient Egypt are not necessarily as dead as the pharaohs themselves.
Perhaps more pertinently, and in relation to recent and ongoing events in the Middle and Near East, we should be more aware that "autocratic regimes live and die by force, and ancient Egypt was no exception."
Matt Gibbs is an assistant professor in the classics department at the University of Winnipeg.