The Rise And Fall Of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson
One of the more interesting aspects of a whole suite of books that exist on ancient Egypt is the way that the politics of ancient Egypt have come under increasing scrutiny and a celebration of ancient Egypt and its endurance over millennia of history is combined with a sense of unease about the fate of common Egyptians under the rule of various despotic and frequently militaristic rulers. Similarly, the heavy hand of Egypt on neighboring regions, especially Nubia, is something that tends to make Egypt come off as less a beacon of civilization for the world than as an active and oppressive menace to others. It is enjoyable, as a reader with profoundly ambivalent feelings about ancient Egypt, to see others wrestle with the dilemmas of longstanding human patterns of thought and behavior even if Egypt’s culture is fairly alien to our own. Some aspects of human nature, including the desire to dominate others and the struggle to maintain control and legitimacy from generation to generation, are aspects of our contemporary world and have been around for a very long time. This book helps to demonstrate some of the earlier roots of the problems of and cruelty of imperialism on the African continent, a useful antidote to much contemporary identity political folly.
This book is a sizable one at more than 400 pages. The book begins with a timeline, author’s note, and introduction. After that comes the main contents of the book in five parts that span thousands of years of history. The first part of the book looks at the origins of Egyptian culture in the societies that developed first in the Sahara oases and then the Nile River starting in 5000BC that were gradually united together by rulers who viewed themselves as gods on earth who built various structures (including pyramids) to assure their eternal existence (I, 1-5). After that comes four chapters (5-9) that provide the end of innocence at the civil war that ended the Old Kingdom and that led to the Middle Kingdom, where paradise was postponed in the face of cruel and tyrannical government (II) that ended in the bitter harvest of Hykso domination. The author then discusses the power and the glory of the New Kingdom of Egypt in five chapters (10-14) that discuss the re-imposition of order, the pushing of the boundaries of Egypt out in both directions down to Sudan and up to the Euphrates, and that show a golden age that ended in a brutal royal revolution. This is followed by four chapters that discuss the military might of the Ramesides (IV, 15-18), including martial law, periods of war and peace with the Hittites, and the triumph and tragedy of Egypt’s survival in the face of the Late Bronze Age crisis that led to the loss of royal power in the face of military leaders. The fifth part of the book then looks at the lengthy period of change and decay from the division of the Libyan dynasty that took over (19), the tarnished throne fought over by Nubians and others (20), the fickle wheel of fortune (21), the invasion and introspection in late Egyptian dynasties (22), an the long goodbye during the reign of the Macedonians (23), after which the author discusses the end of ancient Egypt (24) (V). The book then ends with an epilogue acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
It is also intriguing, and this book does a good job at bringing it out, that there are a wide variety of rises and falls within ancient Egypt. Even by the end of the Old Kingdom there had been numerous dramatic periods of rising and falling, and the periods of the Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, and various intermediate periods, as well as the period of Late Egypt, offered their own dramatic examples of rise and fall. Whether one looks at the militarism of the 18th and 19th dynasties of the Ramesides, with their rule over Egypt ending in a military coup that divided the country into north and south, or one looks at the circulating short-term pharaohs of the eighth dynasty whose reigns were so ephemeral that they were nearly entirely forgotten in their own lifetime and beyond, there is a lot to reflect on here about the transience of power and memory. If Egypt as a whole has been well-remembered throughout history, there are certainly aspects of Egyptian history that have been hard to remember, and a great deal of the destruction came about from Egyptian rulers themselves, who wanted to efface the memory of less illustrious ancestors whose memory was problematic or who wanted to loot tombs to improve their own wealth. Some things never change.