For years I’ve loved ancient history without really knowing much about it. I’ve never been able to keep the Babylonians and Assyrians completely straight, let alone the Akkadians, and what any of them have to do with the Sumerians (my knowledge of whom comes primarily from having seen The Mole People at an impressionable age). I’ve never been quite sure of who the Hittites and Amorites and Mittanians and Chaldeans were. Those Sumerian city states have great names like Uruk and Ur and Lagash and Eridu but (apart from Abraham’s alleged origin in Ur of the Chaldees; doubtless he left to escape the mole people) I have no idea which is which or why we should care. The comings and goings of the MInoans and Mycenaeans and Achaeans and Dorians and other proto-Greeks are a mystery to me, providing only a little background for the Iliad and Odyssey and some half-remembered Mary Renault novels.
And then there’s Egypt. Egypt is far more familiar to us American rubes than Babylonians and Assyrians and Mittanians. It’s hard not to be exposed to all sorts of things about Egypt, romantic things like pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut. Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter (“Mo-o-o-ossses…”) are deeply ingrained as my Platonic forms of Pharaoh and Pharaohess (Pharaoness? Pharessa?). But the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for 3,000 years. That is a long time, half as long again as it’s been since it it became part of Rome until now, and apart from “Cleopatra was at the end” all that history is compressed in our collective unconscious into an undifferentiated mass of pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut and Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter.
So when I read about Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, a popular history of the entire civilization, I hied me to the library and found a copy. It serves its purpose well: I’m much clearer—well, somewhat less vague—on what the difference between the Old and Middle and New Kingdoms, and where Memphis was (and why), and who the Hyksos and the Sea People were, and even to a certain extent which king was which and which did what. I know now where the word “Pharaoh” comes from (“Per-aa,” or “Great House,” applied metonymically to its inhabitant) and why (awkwardness about what to call Hatshepsut—there was no such thing as a “Queen”). The book is easy to read, and it zips right along. If you’re looking for a summary of all of ancient Egyptian history, bearing in mind that a “summary of all of ancient Egyptian history” will necessarily be a few hundred pages, this is it.
One of the highlights (I thought) comes at the very beginning of the Egyptian kingdom. Among the artifacts of that era, now a highlight of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (and of Adrian Veidt’s—Ozymandias’s!—office in Watchmen) is the Narmer Palette. That’s “palette” as in a thing for mixing paints, in particular cosmetics; the ur-Eqyptians apparently used them as ceremonial objects in those days, a development of sacred face painting among in nomadic cultures or some such. The Narmer palette (apparently) commemorates the very unification of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt under Narmer, Egypt’s possibly mythical first king and founder of its First Dynasty. The obverse is full of Mespotamian motifs: the king as a bull destroying a walled town, those “serpopards” whose intertwined necks frame the pigment-mixing depression. The reverse is more distinctly Egyptian, with the now-human king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. Although to my untrained and untrustworthy eye there is still some of Mesopotamia there—the king’s calf muscles look distinctly Assyrian to me, and I wonder how much those cows at the top (proto-Hathors, apparently) owe to Mesopotamian predecessors—the Narmer palette represents the very beginning not only of the Egyptian kingdom but of Egyptian, which (again to my untrained eye) remained remarkably consistent for millennia thereafter.
But this isn’t a perfect book. Reading it is a great first step in understanding Egyptian history, but all those kings still blur together. To some extent, I suppose that’s unavoidable—there were a lot of them, after all, and really I don’t know that there is always much to distinguish them. But Wilkinson’s (I hate to say it) somewhat cliched writing doesn’t really help. There are too many “brilliant demonstrations of the unite-and-rule concept” and “brilliant flashes of inspiration” and “brilliant but simple expedients.” I’m sure there is precious little that can really be said about any individual, king or otherwise, especially given Egyptian kings’ perennial habit of erasing all record of their predecessors, but I would desperately like more indivuating details, and anecdotes.
And I’d also like to know more about the Egyptian religion (or should that be religions?). Gods and priests and temples obviously permeate Egyptian history and life, but really all I can say I got from the book is that there were a confusingly large number of gods, whose cults were more or less important in various cities. How did those cults develop, and split and merge, and relate to each other in general? How did perceptions of the gods and details of their cults change over time? What did all those priests do all day, anyway?
So, definite thumbs up, but I am left wanting more. Which is certainly better than left wanting less—