"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.
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