From 1971 to 1999, every calendar year without exception, Elton John had a top 40 hit on the American pop charts, a record of consistent success that will likely never be equaled. The last of these hit singles was a duet with country singer LeAnn Rimes called “Written In The Stars,” a song from an unlikely source, a popera by Tim Rice based on “Aida,” which itself sprang from the 19th century efforts of Europeans to explore and understand Egyptian history  and also to dig the Suez canal to increase the flow of trade and thus the economic strength of European empires. The career of a pop musician and the efforts at understanding and appropriating the culture of an ancient empire may appear very different matters but they are not as different as they appear at first glance. After all, celebrities live in a world where their name recognition is short and fleeting and they try with a great deal of effort to remain in the public eye to the point where their name and reputation are lasting, and the rulers of the ancient world were similarly aware of the need to keep their names before succeeding generations on palaces and monuments and public art lest others should forget that they exist.
This is not an idle fear. The absence of documentary evidence leads later generations to believe that certain things never existed. For example, despite the frequent mentions of the might of the Assyrian empire in the Bible, skeptics claimed that because they saw no physical evidence of Assyrian ruins that the empire did not exist. Of course, in the 19th century the finds of Nineveh and other Assyrian cities demonstrated that the Bible’s historical accounts of the might of the Assyrian empire was in fact accurate and that the Bible should have been taken as a valid historical account. Similar complaints can be held against the Bible concerning its vague references to Egyptian Pharaohs until the Late Intermediate Period after Shishak, until one realizes that the Bible follows the practice of Egyptian historiography rather than deliberate vagueness about the names of important ancient rulers. Given the paucity of sources that can be found from ancient history and the fact that nearly all of them have obvious religious biases, similar to the religious or anti-religious biases that can be found in virtually any kind of literature for the simple reason that our worldview and perspective greatly shape the sort of works that we create, it is remarkable that the Bible is not given the respect it deserves in this light.
But beyond that, there are other issues with the survival of people throughout history. The enemies to memory are truly immense. Ancient and contemporary regimes have long sought to airbrush the accounts of their times, getting rid of uncomfortable realities, even to the point of defacing monuments and statuary and tampering with documentary evidence to eliminate inconvenient names. Whether it is Egyptian rulers seeking to destroy every trace of their predecessors to get rid of awkward questions about their own legitimacy or Communist post-purge edits of photographs to get rid of eliminated political leaders, deliberate hostility is a major enemy of historical memory. We cannot be sure, no matter our successes, that others will let our deeds and words and even memory remain. The ties we have to the minds of future generations are sometimes quite tenuous, and no amount of celebrity can save someone from the threat of oblivion.
Nor is deliberate hostility the only reason knowledge may be lost. The ravages of time are fairly efficient in wiping away most visible signs of the post. Paper dissolves into scraps, data degrades, tombs are looted or buried under immense quantities of sand and soil, cities are destroyed, rivers rush out of their banks and destroy the monuments we worked so hard to build, and tastes and fashions change and that which was popular in one age become embarrassing and forgotten in a later one. Time erodes away at that which we think to be solid. And even this is not sufficient to account for the problem of oblivion because some people may not be sufficiently well known to have drawn attention in their own time but their works become so well known after they are dead that the few scraps of information we have about them take on extreme importance, as is the case with commoner geniuses like William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, whose lives have been cloaked with a great deal of supposition and myth and speculation to fill the gap of documentary evidence and their own writings about themselves.
We may all wish to have our words and deeds written in the stars to shine for ages and ages to come, but often our deeds are written in the sands. We may be remembered for only a small portion of our life, or not at all. We are like children on the seashore building castles in the sand or writing our names and those of others down, hoping to leave a mark, only for the tide to wash it away when we have scarcely finished writing or building. Whether we have enemies who would wish to destroy all trace of our existence or the threats to being remembered are the ravages of time, or whether we are not remembered because our deeds and words and lives were simply not recorded at all to begin with because we were invisible and unimportant to the powers that be, whatever memory is to last about us and about our lives is dependent on the workings of God’s divine providence. And even if we are fortunate enough to leave a mark upon history, others may simply choose to disbelieve what was written and to write their own works out of their own private ideas and theories that bear no resemblance to what actually happened. Once we are no longer alive, we cannot speak out against the lies that others may wish, for whatever reason, to spread against us. We can only hope that someone will care about the truth and speak out on our behalf.
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