Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson

Today I'm looking at a history of Ancient Egypt that covers history from the early origins of the Egyptian kingdom in the 3000s BCE up to the first century BCE with the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire. When dealing with a history of literally thousands of years obviously this is a very broad overview rather than a detailed history, which is further hampered by the fragmented nature of the information available. Compared to the biography of Hatshepsut which went into the life of not just Hatshepsut but her stepson and heir as well, this book takes a far more general approach. However, Wilkinson does have the advantage of drawing upon the centuries of written records and archaeological evidence to piece together the story of ancient Egypt.

For the most part Wilkinson does a pretty good job of talking about the history of Egypt and it's very obvious that he's spent many years in the field of Egyptology. Wilkinson relies not only on the written record but on artifacts ranging from temples to tombs to grave goods to ordinary items. Based on the fact that someone was able to write an entire book about Hatshepsut while Wilkinson barely mentions her at all, it suggest to me that Wilkinson picked and chose from what he thought were the most significant pharaohs to talk about rather than going into detail about all of them. Even when details are available (which apparently are in some cases) to go into detail about every pharaoh would be a much larger book. Because I know basically nothing about ancient Egypt I'm unable to comment one way or another on Wilkinson's decisions.

I will say that there were some comments that left me a little concerned, especially a comment Wilkinson made about the names of pharaohs sounding juvenile to modern English ears and offhandedly saying that maybe the cosseted lifestyle of the Egyptian royalty created a band of decadent and infantile pharaohs. This argument is so facile that I can't believe it ever made it past the editor, much less was included in the book. Even as a joke this comment is incredibly insensitive and makes me really concerned about Wilkinson. I know this is a really small and specific thing to worry about, but it feels like a really big deal to me.

There were a few other comments that concerned me but not as great as the comment about Egyptian names. Wilkinson placed a large amount of emphasis on the Israelites and their Bronze Age kingdoms. Now because I haven't studied a bunch of ancient history outside of Rome, I don't know the status of the Bible as a historical source but I know that it can't be taken as complete historical fact. However based on what I read Wilkinson seems to take the Bible as historical fact and seems to get downright confused when Egyptian sources don't mention King Solomon. He actually seems to get offended when the first Egyptian source that mentions the tribe of Israel only as a minor enemy. Except for all we know at this time Israel was a minor tribe, not a kingdom receiving ambassadors from the major powers of the ancient world.

I'm assuming that Wilkinson does a good job assessing the Egyptian sources but his comments raise some concerns on my part. Because I know so little about this I'm going to say for now this seems a good general overview but if I get more information I may have to change my analysis.

- Kalpar

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