Book Review: The Rise And Fall Of Ancient Egypt

The Rise And Fall Of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson

Although Egypt and Egyptology are certainly very popular subjects, there is a striking lack of history books that seek to tackle the entire scope of ancient Egyptian history.  There are some obvious reasons for this.  Perhaps the most obvious is that as ancient Egyptian history expands for a period of more than three thousand years, from the beginnings of the dynastic period of Narmer around 3200BC or so to the fall of Ptolemeic Egypt to the Romans around 30BC or so.  During this lengthy period of history Egypt was filled with a lot of dynasties (obviously) and there were a lot of different periods to cover, not all of which are particularly well preserved and all of which require a great deal of primary and secondary research to master.  Whether one is interested in Egyptian military history, of which the sources are not necessarily straightforward or entirely reliable, or matters of Egyptian culture and religion, all of which face their own difficulties as an area of study, it is very difficult to master enough of the historical and archaeological record in order to write a competent or excellent work such as this one is.  And so there are few books that seek to do what this book does, and present in one volume the broad scope of ancient Egyptian history.

This book is almost 500 pages long of narrative material and contains 25 chapters divided into five parts so that the broad narrative flow can be maintained.  This book begins with a timeline, an author’s note, and an introduction that expresses the author’s view of Egyptian history in the broad scope.  After that the author begins with the pre-dynastic, early dynastic, and Old Kingdom period of Egypt from 5000-2175BC (I), with five chapters on Egypt’s beginnings (1), the Pharaoh as God incarnate (2), absolute power (3), the view of Egypt as heaven on earth in early texts (4), and the search for eternity that led to the construction of the pyramids (5).  After that the author discusses the loss of innocence in Egypt during the First Intermediate, Middle Kingdom, and Second Intermediate periods (II), with chapters on the civil war that divided Egypt (6), the postponing of paradise in the brutal reign of Middle Kingdom Pharaohs (7), the face of Egyptian tyranny (8), and the bitter harvest of Hykso domination (9).  After that the author looks at the militaristic peak of the early New Kingdom (III), with chapters on the brutal restoration of power by the Eighteenth dynasty (10), their push of boundaries into Asia and well into Nubia (11), the use of force to protect king and country (12), the Golden Age of Egyptian history (13), and the royal revolution of Akhenaten (14).  After that the author explores the military might that provided Egyptian survival during the difficulties of the rule of the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties (IV) from 1322-1069BC (IV), including the martial law that met Egypt after the rise of Seti I (15), the war and peace that met Ramses II (16), the triumph and tragedy of Egyptian power at the end of the 13th century (17), and the double-edged sword of Egyptian reliance on military strength during the reign of Ramses III and his successors (18).  Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the long decay of Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period (V) and periods of foreign domination that followed, including chapters about Egyptians division under the Libyan rulers (19), the the tarnished throne that was fought over by Libyans and Kushites (20), the fickle wheel of fortune that accompanied the reign of the Saite kings (21), the invasion and introspection that led to periods of intermittent freedom and rule by Persia (22), the long goodbye under the Ptolemaic period (23), and the end of Egyptian self-rule under Cleopatra as the Romans took over (24), after which there is an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, and index.

A measure of this book’s accomplishment, at least to me as a reader, was the way in which I was able to feel a certain sense of sorrow and loss at the way that Egypt ruled, especially when it came to the fate of common people forced to deal with autocratic elites who lacked a strong sense of legitimacy, and a certain understanding of why it is that Egypt’s politics and history are often romanticized by those who think of a powerful state capable of creating lasting monuments is a decidedly good thing.  The author appeared to express an ambivalence between Egypt’s achievements in splendor and majesty throughout parts of its history and a feeling of frustration at the way that elites ate and parties and squabbled over various titles while the Egyptian people were ground into the sands through lives of crushing labor and privation.  To capture the narrative sweep of three thousand years of history while simultaneously preserving the human interest of what is being told is a challenging task, but one that this book manages to succeed very well at, and that is something that I think is worth celebrating and appreciating.  If you want to read one giant book about Egyptian history, this is a great one to start with.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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