Nile: A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past And Present, by Toby Wilkinson
One of the hazards of writing books with an agenda in mind is sometimes things change to make that agenda ring more than a little bit hollow. Like all too many other writers, the author makes a great deal of hay out of the Arab Spring protests that overthrew the existing Egyptian government and that led to an election that chose a president from the Muslim Brotherhood who was all too quickly overthrown by a return to military rule, and though the author acknowledges this in an afterword, he did not change his book to reflect the fact that history did not follow the tendency he thought it was going to. Writing with progress in mind is tough to do in light of humanity and it certainly shapes this book in negative ways. What could have been seen as a deeply interesting book about the importance of the Nile to Egyptian history down to the present day is harmed a bit by the author’s desire to shoehorn this theme into a mistaken idea of the course of politics. Such matters as who rules in the present day and whether Egypt is on a path towards representative democracy as the author might wish to hope are best left for false prophets and not for historians.
This book is between 250 and 300 pages long and is divided into ten chapters. The book begins with a map of the Nile River and a preface. After that the author talks about the Nile as Egypt’s Eternal River (1), however much that might be threatened at present. This is followed by a look at Aswan (2) and the question of the river’s source. After that the author looks at the deep south where Egypt begins, mostly in obscure towns and villages (3). This is followed by a chapter on Luxor as a city of wonders (4) and then on Western Thebes’ realm of the dead (5). After that there is a look at Qift and Qena as the center of Egypt as well as important provinces (6) that have always remained provincial. Then come chapters on Abydos (7), as a place of religious mysteries, as well as a look at Memphis as a cradle of religion (8). The book then contains two chapters about the Fayum (9) and its role as a lake in Egypt’s desert as well as Cairo (10) as Egypt’s capital. The book ends with a postscript, timeline, notes, suggestions for further reading, acknowledgements, and an index.
It is a shame that the author finds it necessary to talk so much about politics, because at the heart of this book is an account of the author’s interest in the Nile and in its complex history. The author chronicles a mixture of generally obscure places along the course of the Nile downstream from Aswan to the delta, including small villages that have never had a great deal of political power but whose importance to Egyptian economics has always been high. This is a reminder that there has often been a disconnected between people of power and the places that provide the resources for those in power. Those areas which hold political power have often been fought over and thus have often have had periods without population due to their being fought over. The author explores famous and obscure people and places, pointing out places that are worth seeing that tourists seldom see, and thus doing service to the hipster intended audience who like to go off the beaten path and see what glorious of ancient Egypt remain largely unknown despite many who go there.