Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ancient Egypt: Tyranny and Dark Ages

I read Toby Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt last week, just for a change. I like to read history of all kinds, and ancient history can have extra freshness and variety in the human drama simply because of its disorienting distance from us.

The book is a relatively detailed political history of ancient Egypt, pharaoh by pharaoh and dynasty by dynasty. Wilkinson says after a career studying the period, he has grown "increasingly uneasy about the subject of my research."

Scholars and enthusiasts alike are inclined to look at pharonic culture with misty-eyed reverence. We marvel at the pyramids, without stopping to think too much about the political system that made them possible. ... From human sacrifice in the First Dynasty to a peasants' revolt under the Ptolemies, ancient Egypt was a society in which the relationship between the king and his subjects was based on coercion and fear, not love and admiration - where royal power was absolute and life was cheap.

The ancient Egyptians invented the concept of the nation-state that still dominates our planet, five thousand years later.

So he aims to give a more balanced view of Egyptian civilization.

It really helps to have a historic framework to understand the evolution of the culture. It would be hard to understand Greece without having some sense of the chronology of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, or Rome without knowing about the decline of the Republic and the main events of the empire. So I found it very interesting to have a better sense of what was going on in the Old Kingdom or New Kingdom. A walk around the Egyptian rooms of the Met is more rewarding.

What does not fully come across, however, is why the remarkable achievement of the Old Kingdom arose so suddenly.

The surprising fact is the era of the pyramids arrived only three hundred years after the first historical pharoah, Narmer, comes to power. Narmer initiated what we call the First Dynasty in 2950 BC. Djoser built the first major pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, arrives in 2650. Khufu, the Fourth Dynasty pharoah who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, came to the throne in 2545. That is still very early in the span of Egyptian history. The sequence of dynasties does not end until Cleopatra and Rome's final conquest in 30 BC.

Wilkinson concentrates on the fact that the institutions of kingship seem to have appeared almost fully grown. But how could even tyrannical kings turn a valley full of agricultural villages into a society capable of creating staggering engineering projects whose scale and precision still baffle us almost five thousand years later? Astonishing organization and technical achievement seem to appear fully grown as well.

What made Egypt different? it isn't clear from the book. Political tyranny alone can hardly account for it, otherwise most tyrants since would have similar edifices.

The other thing I am left with is a sense of some of the gaps in historical knowledge, most of all the invasions of the Sea Peoples in the Twentieth Dynasty, 1190-1069. We came across this catastrophe before in the history of the Mediterranean. Most of the shore of the Great Sea was burned. Civilization collapsed across much of the area. Mycenae fell. The Hittite Empire fell. The great trading cities of the Lebanese Coast like Ugarit were burned to the ground.

It was the first terrible dark age in history.

Throughout the Near East, palls of smoke hung in the air where once there had been hubs of commerce and culture. Rich palaces and famous cities lay in ruins. (p328)

And we know so little about who the Sea Peoples were, or where they came from, or what motivated their invasions. Interestingly, it is about the same time as the traditional date for the siege of Troy.

Driven from their homelands (unknown, but possibly the western Mediterranean or Anatolia) by drought, famine and the desire for a better life, and possessed of a fierce and warlike nature, the Sea Peoples had proved an unstoppable force...(p329)

Rameses III won a battle against them in the Nile Delta and spared Egypt the fate of other eastern Mediterranean civilizations. But foreign trade with the shattered remainder of the region had been lost . Egypt never really reattained the splendid peaks of her civlization.

One book I read years ago was The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology). I don't remember much of it right now, but it's on my shelf and i should take another look.

It's sad, isn't it, that there is an infinity of things to read, a sea of knowledge which overwhelms any one person. And you know you'll never get to read more of a small fraction of what matters. And what you do read you tend to forget over time.


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