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.