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,