on March 21, 2011
Despite having a doctorate in early American history, I have been fascinated with Ancient Egypt since I can remember. And, having read Toby Wilkinson's earlier works (Early Dynastic Egypt and Genesis of the Pharaohs, in particular), I knew that I would have to read this latest interpretation of the course of ancient Egyptian history. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is nothing short of magnificent, with a narrative thread focusing on both the glorious and gritty sides of Egyptian life as fostered by the Egyptian state's exertion of coercive power.
Organized chronologically, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt returns time and again to the problems of state power. States rise and fall, power ebbs and flows: Egypt's leaders attempted to uphold the forces of truth and order against those of chaos and disarray. To do so required developing state infrastructures and means of coercing the appropriation of both labor and material goods to build the glorious monuments that so capture the public's imagined Egypt. From the pyramids to Abu Simbel, the projection of Egyptian glory depended on breaking the backs of the people who toiled incessantly in service to the state. Indeed, the twin themes of ideology (religion, royal divinity) and administration (bureaucracies, taxation, etc.) repeatedly resurface to highlight just how the state secured support for its regime and managed that support. When both aspects of state control broke down, Egypt entered periodically into times of disorder and chaos.
Readers expecting a romantic view of Ancient Egypt focused on the archaeological treasures will probably be disappointed to be reminded of the costs of Egyptian grandeur. Readers hoping for a more cultural approach to Egyptian history--an extended exploration of religion, art, music, and the like--will probably be less satisfied with Wilkinson's focus upon the state. To be sure, Wilkinson brings these matters up when they are needed but gives them no extended treatment. The excellent bibliography and notes, however, do provide additional resources to investigate topics of interest; moreover, the notes detail Wilkinson's own interpretive engagement with Egyptian historiography, making his book much more valuable to others besides the casual reader.
Despite the book's populist tone, readers may be put off by content density of some chapters. At times, a bewildering array of names and places rush off the page, forcing the reader to consult his handy copies of The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt or the Penguin Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Those without sufficient reference material would perhaps have been well served by a glossary, which, although it does lengthen the book, does provide readers with a handy reference when there are simply too many names to conjure with. The writing style itself is fairly popular, with few words that might trip up readers. Frequent references to British history--especially comparisons to how monarchies have exercised state power across the ages--might be off putting to many American readers, but, it seems to me that the implied arguments by analogy do serve a purpose in highlighting how states have little changed since the Ancient Egyptians invented statehood. Color and black and white illustrations, along with excellent maps, complement the narrative.
Overall, Toby Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt seems to combine the best features of the histories that I've come to love. Its accessibility and charm reminds me of Barbara Mertz' Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, while its scholarly insight and argumentation make me think of Barry Kemp's Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. To me, the joy of a book is being able to re-read it and come to new insights and appreciation each time and I am sure that such will be the case with The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.
on April 1, 2013
Toby Wilkinson is a superbly talented writer. He knows how to tell a story, and how to write history as the exciting series of stories that it is. In this book he delivers the wonders and mysteries of ancient Egypt to the popular reader with depth and grace. This is simply a joy to read. Curl up in a comfortable chair and dig in. ---- I'm so thrilled with this book that I'm devouring it as if I were eating chocolate. It will make a perfect gift for young adults in the family who have not yet discovered the tantalizing beauty of ancient Egyptian culture. And it is a marvelous book for anyone who wants to be up to date on the latest discoveries and revelations. How thrilling to read about the monoliths of Nabta Playa, as well as to revisit the familiar stories of Akhenaten and Tutankhamen, Ramses II and Ramses III and move on to the great and seductive Cleopatra with prose that just rolls so beautifully along. ---- I'm so glad we have a writer of this knowledge and skill to deliver the great story of the Nile valley to new generations. ---- I haven't enjoyed a book on Egypt or archaeology so much since I read "Lost Worlds" when I was a kid. And this is fact filled, accurate, current, comprehensive and rich --- as well as being fun.
I remember wondering as a small boy about life in the kingdoms of ancient Egypt. Maybe it was Sunday school lessons, Moses, and all that, but the Egyptian period of human development has always had me in its spell.
And Wilkinson's book makes the spell even deeper. His story begins with Narmer, the first king of a more or less united Egypt and continues through the pyramidal age to the New Kingdom and its fully fleshed art, architecture, literature, government and religion. Wilkinson takes us from there through Egypt's wars with Abyssinia and Persia, Alexander the Great's appearance and ends with the Roman conquest of Egypt and Cleopatra's death. Rather than a dry litany of dates, names and events, the author retells the story of a culture. He has an agenda here, and he doesn't try to hide it, but that's where the story lies.
Wilkinson is looking through time from the vantage of a twenty-first century writer, one who sees the evolution of a culture in which some people become more important than others. These elites use humanity's tendency to fear to subjugate them, to keep them under royal and religious thumb. The four thousand years of Egypt's rise and dominance and its subsequent fall, then, are the product of this abuse of masses of humanity for the benefit of the few.
What's unexamined are the stories buried in the developments Egypt gave birth to: building techniques for its massive structures. A unique written language. An enduring religion that has given subsequent religions many of its tenets, cloaked in newer cultural clothes. A central governmental structure not unlike our modern ones. Art. Medicine.
The lesson drawn from Wilkinson's examination of these four millennia? That even in a culture based on subjugation of the masses, much good arose and endured, and from that good the structure of today's reality has been drawn.
Wilkinson is a gifted writer, despite what appears in the first hundred or so pages to be a political rant disguised as history. I suspect he realized early in the book's development that readers would understand without the editorializing, that there was much more to tell of this culture than the enduring story of man's dominance of man.
on July 4, 2011
Before I visited Egypt in 2010, I looked for books about ancient Egypt. While there were works on portions of ancient Egyptian history and about certain figures like Cleopatra, Akhenaten, and Rameses II, there was no book that covered the whole period. This book came out a year later and was everything that I had been looking for. Wilkinson covers the history of Egypt from prehistoric times until the time of Cleopatra. While other historians focused mainly on the Pharaohs and the nobility (and Wilkinson does not ignore those subjects at all), Wilkinson also takes time to describe the lives of average Egyptians. He also discusses ancient Egyptian literature and poetry; how the Pyramids were built; and how the Egyptian army was maintained, trained, and armed. Wilkinson does an outstanding job of covering all aspects of ancient Egypt. However, not only is the book comprehensive, but it is also well written and enjoyable to read. This book is simply the best of its kind on the subject.
on April 15, 2012
Toby Wilkinson is of the opinion that his fellow Egyptologists tend to look at Ancient Egypt through rose tinted glasses (p.9) and he is going to correct it by producing a balanced account about the history of this ancient civilization. This seemed promising - my main interest in recent years has been in the study of religion and its impact through the ages and I have little patience, possibly to a fault, with hagiography masquerading as objective history. My authors include atheists, believers and (my own preference), agnostics. I have a couple of bookshelves covering the history of Ancient Egypt by authors from around the mid nineteenth century, through the "golden age of Egyptology" and right up to the 21st century. Maybe I have been very lucky in my choice but I cant truthfully say that in the modern works I have read there is any noticeable tendency to whitewash as Toby Wilkinson suggests and neither does he actually provide anything substantial to support his allegation. In the absence of supporting evidence Toby Wilkinson appears to be doing what many of us tend to do: projecting our own mindset onto others.
Many approaches have been used to analyze A.E: A journey into our sub-conscience, humankind in its childhood and so on but a model which leans heavily towards a politico-historical treatment at the expense of spiritual beliefs and ethical development, in a society which was to a large degree a theocracy, seems dubious to say the least. The author continuously passes value judgments on an ancient civilization but doesn't explicitly declare which measuring rod he is using. For me the only objective way of doing so is by comparing Ancient Egypt with other contemporary civilizations or, even better, with what went before in the Nile valley. When hunter gathers first got together for their common good and took the first faltering steps towards what we call civilization one of the prime reasons must surely have been mutual protection from covetous eyes that saw the gift of the Nile as something desirable and, if needs be, to be taken with force. Even within the limitations of this book it would seem from the available information that the institution of a monarchy provided a point of unity which, when strong, afforded the average person some feeling of protection for themselves and their families from foreign invasion. When the monarchy was strong so was Egypt.
It is the institution of the monarchy which is the particular focus of what I take to be the authors 21st century value judgments projected back in time and beginning around 3000 BCE. Negative epithets abound. A few from the early pages which appear throughout the book that relate to the kings and life of the common people are given at the end of this review.(1)
In the authors mind there is nothing good to say about the Ancient Egyptian monarchy, anything good is simply suppressed or an evil motive imputed to any actions that appear demonstrably good. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that empires do not last when their internal structures become so corrupt - they collapse sooner rather than later - but here we have an institution that lasted millenia.
I have problems with his selective use of sources. Whilst he accepts and uses Herodotus as an authority for the cruelty involved in Pyramid building, and by innuendo takes it as being representative of all the kings he misses out what Herodotus says in the same passage. "Till the death of Rhampsinitus [I.e upto the reign of the Giza pyramid builders], the priests said, Egypt was excellently governed, and flourished greatly" which doesn't fit in with the authors take. Amidst all the attempts to portray the Giza workmen as being once again the downtrodden subjects of the Pharaoh (sinisterly "the official record is predictably silent about how many died during the building of the Great Pyramid" p87) he cannot see the contradiction in those same workmen describing themselves as the "Pharaohs Drunkards" p84 which isn't indicative of people bemoaning their hard conditions in the "cramped barracks at the end of another day of toil on the Giza plateau" p89 The author is so taken by Herodotus, albeit through selective quotation and mistranslation, that he writes a "humbling" acknowledgement: "It is a salutary lesson that the ancients were often far clever than we give them credit for." Why miss out another ancient Greek historian who wrote of Ancient Egypt and love of Egyptians for their kings:
"Because the kings treated their subjects so justly, the affection the people had for their princes was stronger than the love between the closest relatives ever was. Not just the community of the priests, but all Egyptians did not care as much for their wives and children and their other goods as they cared for the welfare of their sovereigns. Therefore, the wisest of the known kings have preserved the native order, for as long as the legal institution we have just described, existed." Diodorus Siculus Historic Library Vol 1, Chapters 70 and 71
The author takes the texts associated with the workers village of Deir el-Medinah, and the disorder and economic chaos around the coming of the Iron Age, as a prime example of how corrupt the state was. The author asserts that the tomb robbers cared not for theological niceties p. 375 when the burned the coffins but fails to point out, what others note, that they might have intended to destroy the afterlife of the mummies so retribution would not follow. It could well have been a theologically driven act (Paul Johnson goes so far as to suggest they might have been followers of Set). He fails to see the contradiction in his thesis of the supposed fear and loathing of despot kings with the demonstrable love the villagers had for King Ahmose. Nor can he see that workers being able to go on strike is not indicative of the all embracing fear driven totalitarian state he describes.
He thinks, without giving evidence, that dwarves were used as figures of fun thus signifying the decadence of the pharaohs p. 89 but fails to point out that King Unas is shown as a dwarf entertaining the Gods nor does he mention the high position they could reach in society such as Seneb of the 4th dynasty who was priest of the funerary cults of Khufu and Dedefre (they were thought to have divine connections) nor does he mention how those who were physically or mentally disabled were defended in the Instructions of Amenemope. No mention of the how the blind also had an honored place in society as harpers. Can the British rugby players who threw dwarves about for entertainment in Australia in 2011 be viewed as representing the decadency of our 21st century western civilization?
For an author who continuously (albeit indirectly, and with heavy innuendo) passes value judgments there is a surprising lack of analysis of what the Ancient Egyptians held to be good and not so good. The extensive surviving Maat literature is given scant attention and it is easy to conclude that maybe it doesn't accord with the authors own take on the reality of Ancient Egyptian values as expounded, for example, in the so called Negative Confessions from the Book of Going Forth into the Day and the instructional texts.
Paul Johnson emphasized in his own excellent work "The Civilization of Ancient Egypt" that it is simply not possible to write an account of this people which decouples history from the religious beliefs which permeated so much of their culture and everyday life. In my opinion Johnson assertion is amply proven by this book. Contrary to what this author asserts Egyptologists of all generations have pointed out the good with the bad but this book, in essence, only the bad is recounted in an ideologically driven work. Simpson in his 1970 book "The Ancient Near East" noted an emerging trend with the modern student generation, growing up in technological society and computer age, of treating this part of the world and epoch as a form of oriental despotism. Up until this book I can't say I have ever noticed this in the modern works by Egyptologists however, I sincerely hope that in an age when we deliver "freedom" and "democracy" to lands by cruise missile and xbox360 type controllers, where the the realities of war are virtualised as a form of entertainment, where "free-markets" come with mass unemployment that this book doesn't signal that Simpson's comments are a prophecy fulfilled. Budge pointed an Ancient Egyptian drawing that showed the head of Horus and Set sharing the same body and as others have pointed out both deities reflect contrary states that coexist in each human being. I certainly recognize them in myself. For me the main failing of this book is the predominance of Seth and is thus an example of what Ancient Egyptians recognized as isfet. I hope the author at some point will release a revised edition of the book that will be more Maat like, i.e balanced.
(1) "sinister", "absolute power", "untrammeled exercise of political and economic control" p81, "relentless rise of state control", "life of subjugation", "a life of fear", "grim and shocking" p. 51 "the relentless rise of state control" p. 52, "Tyrants and megalomaniacs" p. 73 "brainwashing and subjugation" p. 74, "repression" and "brutality" p74, "snuff out" local autonomy p74, "vaunting ambition" p. 76 "despotism, pure and simple" p. 77 cattle are fed "preferentially" compared to the pharaohs human subjects p.77, "wether the populace liked it or not" p78, The pyramids are "folies de grandeur" p. 87 "megalomaniac tyrant" p. 87, "megalomaniac tyrant with scant regard for human life" p87, "ultimate projection of absolute power" p87, "opulence" and decadence" p89, "naked displays of power" p94, "tyranny" p94, "greasy pole of career advancement" p98, "wallow in pampered luxury" p98, "life was mean and miserable" p98, "an effete royal court steeped in pampered privilege" p99, "overpaid and overbearing bureaucracy" p100, "style over substance" p101, "chilling" p103, "despotic monarchy" p105, "human bauble" p111, "our rose tinted view of Ancient Egypt" p118 "despotic, autocratic rule" p118, "tinpot dictator" p122,
on February 2, 2012
It took me 3 tries to find a book that would offer a fun, comprehensive tour of Egyptian civilization, from its origins in prehistory to its end with Cleopatra 3000 years later. The two previous books I read were deadly dull, one the driest of academic treatments (The Oxford History), the other a scholastic mess, ANcient Egypt; the former got mired in esoteric academic controversies while the latter was so flavorless and elementary as to bore completely. In contrast, this book offers snapshots of the dynasties and how they evolved, gives an interpretation of the religion and what drove the civilization, and makes hard judgments as to the type of society it was. All in wonderfully vivid, crisp prose. While written by a scholar for accuracy, it appeals immediately and effortlessly to laymen. The result is a genuine masterpiece that I was beginning to fear was impossible to achieve.
The root of the civilization began in the south along the Nile during the 4th millenium BCE, from cow herders who discovered how to apply farming techniques in the valley that flooded with fertile silt at the beginning of every growing season. This origin explains one of its oldest symbols associated with Pharaohs: the herding staff in one hand, the lash in the other. Though it began with a number of kingdoms, they were slowly consolidated under military leadership, extending north to the Mediterranean Sea. As it expanded, the empire incorporated local deities into their polytheistic pantheon as a way of co-opting the loyalty of conquered locals, resulting in a huge collection of gods, sacred animals, and stories, many of them resembling Greek and even Christian traditions later. Not only was Egypt protected by natural barriers, but it was organized into one of the most effective early autocracies, mobilizing vast wealth and manpower over a coherent and safe region.
Wilkinson explains the ideology of the state with wonderful succinctness. The pharaoh was variously the embodiment, reflection, and instrument of the Gods on Earth, a keeper of the balance of nature whose power came at the price of showing the proper deference to the Gods in ritual, the erection of massive architectural tributes, and the maintenance of the economy. A large part of this was their work and life after death, when they exercised their right to join the Gods as immortals. It was an extremely hierarchical theocracy, with everyone serving their parts, at least at first in sincere belief. It was a complete system that supported autocracy, was supposed to guarantee food and the weather, and that protected Egypt's security. Of course, if nature or events didn't cooperate, the Pharaohs found themselves in danger rather quickly.
Their works were unique in world history, massive undertakings on a scale never before seen or some would argue since. The largest 2 pyramids in Giza (after a notable debacle in the desert because too much weight was amassed on softer ground) took the work of 10,000 men over 20 years of labor! While the Giza pyramids were never surpassed, the Egyptians built almost constantly for 3000 years. They also developed jewelry, mummification techniques, and a complex writing system that conferred power of the rare literate scribes who kept the most meticulous records of early antiquity.
The contours of the state wavered between centralization and delegation that led to 2 breakdowns of authority over intervals of over 1000 years, with dark ages that could last centuries as central power re-consolidated itself. The Pharaohs were hereditary autocrats, constantly expanding outwards, and later they came from the military, as restorers of order. It was only after 2100 years that the ideology itself began to break down, beginning first with the military Pharaohs who emerged after the collapse of the Rameside dynasty, accelerating as Egypt fell to a succession of foreign invaders, ending finally with its incorporation into Rome. In the last 900 years, the erosion of ideological beliefs led to a series bizarre cults that lacked spirit and became industries, in which cats, baboons, and ibexes were worshipped and mummified. This kind of cycle should give anyone pause when thinking that our way is the right way and will endure in the vastly diverse panorama of human possibility. Yes, it is Ozymandias.
To cover interesting or consequential monarchs, Wilkinson focuses on a number of them in greater detail, such as Akhenaten, the monotheist heretic and father of Tutankhamen, or Cleopatra as the last one of all. He never gets mired in academic proofs, yet provides an accurate and balanced picture that is beautifully written.
Many reviewers appear put off by the author's criticisms of the society, i.e. that it was a brutal autocracy, even a proto-totalitarian state. I would defend his right to make such judgments because they come from a lifetime of study and teaching. Besides, they stimulate further inquiry rather than glibly cut off avenues, the mark of a great educator. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
on June 26, 2011
If you're looking for a comprehensive chronicling of ancient Egypt's political developments, beginning with the Predynastic period and ending in the Ptolemaic, I would highly recommend this, but this isn't really for those more interested in Egypt from a cultural perspective. Wilkinson does an excellent job relating to us the political evolution, conflicts, and other struggles faced by the Egyptian state, but he doesn't go into nearly as much depth about the Egyptians' daily life (not that the latter issue is a major flaw, as there is plenty of information about Egyptian culture in other sources).
Nor is this a book for those with an overly sentimental attitude towards ancient Egypt. Wilkinson, who admits near the beginning that he has grown increasingly uneasy about the subject of his research, places heavy emphasis on the Pharaohs' self-serving and tyrannical behavior and the Egyptians' military atrocities. As someone who has been fond of Egypt since learning about it in second grade, I must confess that I found Wilkinson's account a little unsettling but sobering.
My main criticism of "Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt" is how he handles the issue of race. Although Wilkinson never explicitly assigns a particular ethnic classification to the Egyptians (unless you count his statements that the Nile Valley was a crossroads between continents), he does emphasize the "blackness" and Africanity of the Kushites near the end, which gives you the inaccurate impression that the Egyptians themselves were not really African or what we would call "black" today. That is, however, a minor caveat about an otherwise solid book.
on March 4, 2013
I read this book back-to-back with the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. This was by far superior for me as someone who did not have any expertise in the subject. It is very easy for authors writing about ancient Egypt to turn their works into a series of chapters about long-lost architectural sites and shards of pottery.
Toby Wilkinson instead has written a book accessible to outsiders, giving readers just enough of the archeology to understand the significance of artifacts such as the Narmer Palette. More important, the key events and personalities of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms make an appearance here; you understand the relevance of key figures like Ramses, Akhnaten, and Tutankhamen not only for the architectural and archeological relics they have left behind but for their political and social significance for Egypt.
In addition, this book is written in a readable style; it is, of course, a footnoted work and has a substantial index. However, it is designed for the general reader and is a quick read, particularly given the 3,000 years of history which it covers. Moreover, Mr. Wilkinson avoids needless digressions into academic debates which interrupt the flow of the story, while still acknowledging the uncertainty that encompasses all of Egyptology.
I strongly reccomend this book for anyone searching for a survey book on Egyptian history.
on December 16, 2015
This is a very readable overview of ancient Egyptian history, from the origins of civilization to the death of Cleopatra (so it covers more than the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom.)
Wilkinson writes in a very accessible style. The book's start is a little dry, due to the scarcity of written sources for that era, but soon the rulers of Egypt become real people, and one gets a sense of both their personalities and the challenges they faced.
Wilkinson challenges some old ideas about ancient Egypt, namely how isolated and happy it was in the days before the Hyksos invasion, and he is pretty convincing.
I really liked that he went beyond the end of the New Kingdom down to the start of Roman domination, as this fit the history of ancient Egypt into a bigger picture of the ancient world for me.
Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in the land and time of the Pharaohs.
on May 16, 2011
Toby Wilkinson's "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt" is a journey through the centuries and even the millennia to bring to life long dead pharoahs and the remarkable civilization they ruled. It's hard to believe that more time passed between the reign of the first pharoah, Narmer, and the reign of the last, Cleopatra, then from the time of Cleopatra to our day. This civilization is truly ancient.
Although king-(and in some instances, Queen) oriented, Wilkinson provides fascinating descriptions of nobles and commoners, and what is clear is that the farmer, mine worker, artisan and other Egyptians lived lives that were nasty, brutish and short. Of course, the king couldn't care less, concentrating on his monuments, religion, burial tombs and wars.
The non-specialist will be amazed at how much scholars can read from hieroglypics, even going back to the beginning of history, which makes Ancient Egypt truly an open book. Wilkinson, one of the great scholars of Ancient Egypt, is quite clearly a young man, in his prime. I eagerly await his next offering, perhaps taking Egypt to the dawn of Islam.
There's still a lot buried beneath those sands.