A History Of Ancient Egypt: Volume 1: From the First Farmers To The Great Pyramid, by John Romer
One of the biggest faults of his history is something that a reader can learn from, and that is the fault of chronological snobbery. Over and over again in this book, the author first will comment in a negative fashion on the supposedly pseudoscientific writing of some previous historian of Egypt and use the world biblical as if it was a bad thing, and then turn around make the same sort of speculations and ad hoc rationalizations that those ancient historians did, just with different bogus and pseudoscientific worldviews in mind. This book would be a lot shorter without its frequent criticisms of other writers, and would be a lot better if the author had some self-awareness to figure out that the desire to create narrative, the same desire that led to the creation of this book, is a general human tendency, and the less than praiseworthy aspects that exercise the author so much are present in a less well-recognized form in the author’s own narrative, a narrative that is no less speculative because the author simply has different grounds for speculating and different views of what constitutes sufficient authority than was the case before. The author would do well to recognize that it is wise to show a gracious attitude towards the follies and foibles of others in the knowledge that others may be thus encouraged to be gracious towards one’s own.
This book is about 400 pages long and it is divided into five parts, covering a span of history of about 2500 years or so of ancient Egyptian history. The book begins with a preface, and then the first part of the book discusses how it is that Egyptian culture developed in the predynastic period (I), with chapters that discuss life in the Faiyum from 5000-4000BC (1), ancient Egypt in the Neolothic age (2), changes in lower Egypt in the late 5th millennium (3), the culture of the Badarians (4), life in Upper Egypt from 4000-3500 BC (5), death in Upper Egypt in the predynastic period (6), copper, trade, and cultural influence in the late predynastic lower Nile valley (7), and the political changes of the late predynastic period (8). This is followed by several chapters that look at how Pharaoh was made between 3200 and 3000 BC (II), including a look at the scorpion and hawk (9), the coming of hieroglyphs (10), Narmer’s palette (11), Naqadan resettlement and migration (12, 13), accounting (14), and rite and sacrifice in the early Egyptian state (15). After this there is a look at the making of the Old Kingdom (III) over the first 350 years of its existence, with chapters on the Serekh tomb (16), the first dynasty royal tombs (17), the lost second dynasty (18), trade in Egypt over the first three dynasties (19), the political history of the 1st and 3rd dynasties (20), and court life (21). The fourth part of the book looks at the Step Pyramid (IV), with chapters on Djoser’s kingdom (22), visions of the pyramid (23), views of the hidden god (24), and the supposed effects of the pyramid (25). The fifth and final part of the book then looks at how the main age pyramids were built (V), with chapters on the provinces (26), court and country (27), high society (28), a passion for building for Sneferu (29), the origins of Egyptian religion (30), and the perfect pyramid of Khufu (31), after which there is a chronology, bibliography, list of maps and figures and plates, and index.
When one takes out the unpleasant and combative tone of this work, there remains a great deal of information that is genuinely of interest. The author, despite his flaws, has managed to create a work that gives a lot of detail, insofar as the surviving remnants of material culture allows us to have detail, about very obscure aspects of ancient Egypt. If the narrative here is not entirely based on the court life of Egypt’s rulers, and if it is somewhat repeated because the author goes over different narrative threads consecutively rather than simultaneously, and if the author makes some speculative interpretations of material remains in light of his own worldview and perspective (like everyone else does), this book does offer genuine enjoyment. It is only a shame that this book would have offered a great deal more enjoyment had the author shown a bit more humility and a bit more graciousness. It is striking that in a work of such historical ambition that the most tricky aspect of the verse is its tone, and the author’s hubris as someone who thinks he has mastered the past better than past generations only to prove himself to be just the same sort of historian as they were.