Egypt's Making: The Origins of Ancient Egypt 5000-2000 BC 2nd Edition
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`... much careful work has gone into both the highly articulate text and the carefully chosen illustrations ... presented with clarity and commitment.' - Antiquity
`Michael Rice achieves his declared intention of creating the work as "a celebration of most ancient Egypt, the origins which appear to me to be without precedent or equal."' - The Lady
` ... a thoughtful and original contribution to a neglected field.' - History Today
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While it does contain a good deal of newer information, and many of the illustrations are a considerable cut above what we find in Hoffman, I was more disappointed than anything else. Rice wastes a great deal of ink in paeans to his idealized notions of Old Kingdom Egyptian culture, repeatedly lionizing it as "pristine" and its state as "benign". He's an unabashed elitist, praising Egypt for its innovative and stabilizing ascription of divinity to the person of the king. Yet, all this is contradicted by his very own evidence and inferences. He ascribes to Mesopotamia a massive amount of influence over the developing Egyptian state, including the niched palace and mastaba facades that were so characteristic of Egyptian architecture that a stylized drawing of one was used to enclose the king's name before the advent of the cartouche in epigraphy. The Egyptian state's benignity is contradicted by clear evidence of the sacrifice of the king's servants and retainers in order to accompany him to the grave; this is waved away as "un-Egyptian", although given the disparate chronology he's not bold enough to ascribe this to Mesopotamian influence. The conventional image of the Egyptian king bashing in an enemy's head with a mace, as a depiction of military victory, has its prototypes in this time with the Narmer Palette, but he doesn't allow that to disturb his idealized pristine state either. (To be sure, if the alternative was to get my head bashed in, I might agree the guy with an army is a god too. How benign of him.)
It's strange that, while a certain amount of Mesopotamian influence is undeniable, Rice finds it difficult to account for how it reached Egypt by either land or sea. But he's also eager to describe Early Dynastic artifacts of lapis lazuli, apparently not noticing it must have been brought there from its sole source in antiquity, Badakhshan, considerably more distant from Egypt than, say, Uruk. Surely this cried out for some consideration, if transmission of the clear Mesopotamian influence in artifacts like the "Two Dogs" palette from Nekhen was such a puzzler.
Rice's eye can discern individual details in the most conventional of sculptures. He claims to see clear individual characteristics in Predynastic art the rest of us strain to distinguish, from certain features of Narmer (can't be bothered to look it up to verify exactly what he said right now) to stress or worry in the features of Senwosret. And are we really to believe that Old Kingdom Egyptian sculpture rivaled that of Classical Greece for naturalism? Hardly.
While his footnotes are not exactly sparse, it's not too uncommon that his unattributed ideas which "some have said" lack citations, leading one to suspect that, at least occasionally, the "some" is Rice himself. He claims to understand the psychology of the average Old Kingdom Egyptian, ascribing to them a complacency and self-satisfaction that theirs is the best of all possible lands. He never considers that he might be reading ideas into royal sculptures that aren't there, or taking royal propaganda as objective fact.
His last section, a diversion into a Jungian analysis of Egyptian culture, was unreadable. It was just too much to swallow, and had nothing at all to do with what I was interested in.
I suppose there are some who might find this book more useful than not, but there were times when I found it hard to believe this was a book written by an adult and intended for an audience of other adults.
But the book does have flaws, not least of which is Rice's unquestioning acceptance of conventional dates and dating-systems. Rice appears to be unaware of the fact that Egyptian chronology, as we now find it, has no scientific basis. The First Dynasty of Egypt was originally placed in the fourth millunnium BC (by Eusebius) because he, along with Jewish chroniclers, wished to tie in the history of the Bible with that of Egypt. In doing so, they made Menes, the first pharaoh, identical to Adam, the first man, and therefore placed him in the fifth or fourth millnnium (estimates varied) BC. And that is the position (subject to minor amendment) that he still occupies. The irony, of course, is that this mistaken attempt to sycnronize Egyptian and Israelite histories has obscured the very real contacts that existed between the two peoples, and made proper synchronization all but impossible.
Take for example the Mesopotamian influence on early Egypt. This sounds remarkably like the culture-bearing migration from Mesopotamia to Egypt and Canaan recorded in the biblical story of Abraham. The two were never connected, of course, because the Abraham story is placed by conventional historians a thousand years after the founding of Egypt's First Dynasty. Yet it can be shown that everything, absolutely everything, about the Patriarch epoch, the epoch of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, indicates that it belongs in the Early Bronze Age. The Patriarch narratives are full of references to cultural and religious practices which point clearly in this direction. Among the most notable of these are: (a) Human sacrifice (mentioned in the Abraham story and the birth legend of Moses); (b) Religious use of ziggurats and pyramids (Jacob's "stairway to heaven", at the top of which was the "house of God".); (c) Mention of cosmic catastrophes (In Abraham, Joseph and Moses narratives); (d) References to Cosmic Pillar or Tower, and its destruction (In Abraham narrative).
It is in fact with Abraham that Hebrew history first connects with Egypt - and the connection was established, it appears, right at the beginning of the histories of the two peoples. We might note, for example, the striking phallic associations of both Abraham and Menes, the first pharaoh. The name Abraham actually means "father of many", and the Patriarch initiates the custom of circumcision, whilst the Egyptian Menes (or Mena or Min) clearly takes his name from the phallic god Min, who was also associated with circumcision and was perhaps the most important deity in Egypt at the beginning of the First Dynasty. Similarly, Jewish legend recalls that Abraham entered Egypt during the reign of the first pharaoh, and emphasizes that, when he arrived, the Egyptians were virtual barbarians, and to the Patriarch went the credit of teaching them the rudiments of civilization. (See Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews).
All this dramatically calls to mind the evidence of archaeology, which has revealed a culture-bearing migration from Mesopotamia to Egypt just before the beginning of the First Dynasty, which Michael Rice has so ably illustrated.
If "Abraham" then, or the Abraham epoch, was contemporary with Menes, the first pharaoh, this has dramatic consequences for the whole of Egyptian and Hebrew history. Most immediately, it implies that the Patriarch Joseph, who brought the Hebrew tribes into Egypt, be identified with the Egyptian seer Imhotep, who laboured for pharaoh Djoser at the start of the Third Dynasty. Imhotep was the greatest and most celebrated of all Egyptian seers, who solved the crisis of a seven-year famine by interpreting Djoser's dream. In precisely the same way, biblical history tells us that, about two centuries after Abraham, a young Hebrew seer named Joseph became vizier to the pharaoh after solving the crisis of a seven-year famine by interpreting the king's dream.
Removing a thousand years from Egyptian chronology therefore seems to have the effect of producing a precise match between the histories of the two neighbouring peoples. And the matches continue through subsequent centuries. These however are missed by Rice and by all mainstream Egyptologists, who remain wedded to a chronology based ultimately on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis (though they are unaware of this).