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The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs Hardcover – April 12, 2002

4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Writing a history of the development of the ancient Egyptian mind," wrote the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt a century and a half ago, is "an impossibility." Today, observes Jan Assmann, we know "infinitely more about Egypt" than did the scholars of Burckhardt's day. But, even so, the ancient Egyptian mind continues to elude us.

Turning to what he calls "the hidden face of history," Assmann explores the meaning of the Egyptian past to the ancients themselves. For them, history, that chronicle of pharaohs and empires, began with the recognition that humans, not gods or demigods, controlled earthly affairs. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the time of the Ptolemy dynasty, the idea of the state was central to Egyptians' view of themselves in the world. With this centralized power, Assmann argues, grew other ideas, such as the notion that the stone of the pyramids was "an eternalized form of the body" and that our short time on earth was "something more akin to a dream than to reality." Full of learned discussions on such matters as the origins and development of hieroglyphic writing and the evolution of funereal architecture, Assmann's book offers a fascinating view of ancient history, and of ancient ways of thinking. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Originally published in 1996, this is both an intellectual history of ancient Egypt and an exploration in which "the course of events forms the backdrop and the discourses generating and reflecting meaning occupy the front of the stage." In other words, here's a book about history and how it's made and interpreted as much as it is about Egypt. Assmann's dense and scholarly tome draws on a wide variety of sources, from literature and archeology to iconography, to trace a portrait of Egyptian civilization from 5000 B.C.E. to the beginnings of Christianity. It has no central thesis, as such, but examines a fascinating array of material, some of it well known (Piye's victory stele) and some of it more obscure (a wide variety of hymns and literary lamentations). The translation is by and large excellent, and yet the book is still rather difficult to wade through. The author's preoccupation with theory may trouble readers who are accustomed to a more narrative presentation; his application of the concept of Cosmotheism is traditional, for example, and so the introduction of terminology like Cosmohermeneutics seems to complicate things unnecessarily. Assmann (Moses the Egyptian; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt) is a distinguished Egyptologist, and this book will appeal greatly to the field's academics and professionals, as well as seriously dedicated Egyptophiles. Unfortunately, one of the major attractions in any publication on ancient Egypt is absent good photographs of the culture's spectacular legacy in art (there are only eight illustrations). There are, however, endnotes, a basic chronology, and a useful key to the Egyptian gods.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (April 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805054626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805054620
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #248,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book attempts to reconstruct the ancient mind set of the Egyptians, in so far as possible, and relate it to our own. Assmann writes "ancient Egypt is an intellectual and spiritual world that is linked to our own by numerous strands of tradition." He discusses, for example, the influences of works such as "The Admonitions of Ipuwer" [13th cent.BC]on Bertold Brecht who used parts of it in his play "The Caucasian Chalk Circle". He explains the most important Egyptian philosophical concept "ma'at" or "connective justice" (illustrated in "The Eloquent Peasant" a Middle Kingdom work but holding "for Egyptian civilization in general" in terms of the ideas of both Karl Marx and Nietzsche.
Most importantly he shows what the Egyptian state really stood for as opposed to the false images found in Old Testament propaganda that mispresents Eqypt as an oppressive slave state. "The Egyptian state." he says, "is the implementation of a legal order that precludes the natural supremacy of the strong and opens up prospects for the weak (the 'widows' and 'orphans') that otherwise would not exist."
Unlike many who think that the revolution initiated by Akhenaten perished with him, Assmann presents evidence that its main principles survived in other religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well in secular venues from Greek philosophy "to the universalist formulas of oun own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg."
It is possible that many of the ideas of "Christianity" were originally formulated by the Egyptians.
Today we know more about the Ancient Egyptians than ever before so we should "attempt to enter into a dialogue with the newly readable messages of ancient Egyptian culture and thus to reestablish them as an integral part of our cultural memory."
I have only skimmed the surface of this important book. Anyone who wants to understand ancient Egypt must read this book."
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By kaioatey on February 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover
It is hard to imagine how transient and fleeting our civilization is. A hundred years has seen a shift from the Sand Creek massacre, where Christian priests were scalping Native American women and children to nominal civilization with universal suffrage. A thousand years ago Europe itself was in Dark Ages of barbarism and chaos. A modern day European has no connection to the Langobards, Alemani, Thracians and Visigoths. In contrast, the ancient Egyptians had known three thousand years of relative continuity and self-identity so that the people born in the New Kingdom could identify themselves with the texts, narratives and beliefs from the Middle and the Old. What made possible this amazing continuity? Who were these people and how did they look at life? Jan Assman, a Heidelberg University professor and one of the most eminent Egyptologists of our time has written a superb book on this topic, a book that addresses key elements of time, memory, free will and historical continuity that are ever so relevant today. I found it difficult to put down.

According to Assman, life for the ancient Egyptian was a fellowship, a connectedness. This connectedness was maintained by harmony and justice (ma'at) a key organizing principle that can perhaps be regarded as the Egyptian version of Tao or perhaps the Navajo idea of `hozho'. Harmony makes community possible and is synonymous with law, security and order set by a centralized state. The failure to realize this interconnection of life results in loneliness and death. Maat is ensured by the State: all common, shared things, depend on the state: language, knowledge, and memory.
The Egyptian state was founded on an unshakable faith in the immortality of the soul and the prospect of future judgment.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fascinating book, with thorough look at cultural history of ancient Egypt that is fascinating. This is not a history of pharaohs and tombs, so much as a story of the growth of the mind of a country that lasted thousands of years. It's written in a very scholarly tone and is a bit tough to read, but it's a great resource.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Assmann is very theoretical but offers many different ways at looking at Anicent Egypt. His writing centers around memory in Egypt, since it Ancient Egypt really didn't follow a time line. This very indepth book and not a light read, but good none the less.
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