The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt
Random House: 615 pp., $35
Published barely a month after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, Toby Wilkinson’s magisterial “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” has a news hook that its author presumably did not foresee. Yet his somber appraisal of the world’s first nation-state paints a disquieting picture of cultural, economic and political strategies that sustained a brutal centralized authority for 3,000 years — strategies that are not necessarily as dead as the pharaohs. Wilkinson, a distinguished British Egyptologist, underscores throughout his detailed text the contemporary relevance of a system with prehistoric origins.
As Wilkinson carefully notes, the world of the ancient Egyptians — ruled by divinely ordained monarchs — was very different from that of their modern descendants.
Nonetheless, certain ideas echo through the centuries, beginning with the notion, fostered by early rulers after the unification of Egypt under a single king in 2950 BC, that “opposition to the king or his regime was tantamount to nihilism.” More recently, when Vice President Omar Suleiman attempted to discredit the demand for Mubarak to resign by dubbing it “a call for chaos” and praising the president as “a father” to the Egyptian people, he rang contemporary changes on a very old belief that only a strong ruler holds back the forces of anarchy.
The common people didn’t necessarily buy it even during the Old Kingdom, when forced labor was used to build majestic monuments that proclaimed the king’s glory, climaxing in the middle of the third millennium BC with the Great Pyramid of King Khufu. Memories of the terrible conditions endured then were bitter and long-lived; the Greek historian Herodotus reported 2,000 years later, “the Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mention [Khufu], so great is their hatred.” Indeed, not long after Khufu’s reign it became clear that this massive building program was economically unsustainable; successors favored less expensive temples stressing the king’s sacred nature and his unique relationship with the gods, “subtle theology in place of naked displays of power,” Wilkinson writes with customary tartness.
The economic system remained the same no matter what the justification: a centrally controlled command economy supported by national taxation and directed by an elite of priests and officials. Initially composed of royal relatives, the bureaucracy was gradually opened up to career professionals dependent on the ruler’s favor and thus less likely to scheme against him. They kept the system more or less functioning even when a series of weak rulers led to the civil wars that ended the Old Kingdom. By the time central control was reestablished in the Middle Kingdom, diminished royal authority had prompted sweeping religious change.
“Ideas of a transcendent afterlife in the company of the gods spread through the general population,” writes Wilkinson. “A stark division that had existed between the king and his subjects since the dawn of history had been demolished.”
Hope for a better life after death encouraged submission to the powers that be: That this happy end was not reserved solely for the king caused members of the elite to feel free to interfere when hereditary monarchy proved fragile. The 18th Dynasty — a period of rule that includes some of the most famous kings — renewed the cult of the pharaoh (a gender-neutral title coined by Hatshepsut’s advisors to mask her unwomanly assumption of power) as Egypt’s armies marched into the Near East. But when “the heretic king” Akhenaten died, after an unpopular attempt to impose monotheism stirred unrest, courtiers, priests and officers in the professionalized army maneuvered the succession of the 9-year-old son of a minor wife, “young enough to do their bidding.” After Tutankhamen’s brief reign, a general seized power and held it securely enough to pass the throne to a fellow general, adopting him as a son to bolster Ramses I’s legitimacy. This marks the period known as the New Kingdom.
“The New Kingdom was the age of the soldier,” Wilkinson writes. “From humble beginnings the Egyptian army swiftly established itself as one of the most influential groups in society.”
To maintain its influence, the army served foreign strongmen as Egypt’s empire crumbled in the face of repeated onslaughts by newly powerful peoples such as the Assyrians and the Persians. By the time Alexander the Great crossed the Egyptian border in 332 BC, Wilkinson sardonically notes, “As it had shown time and again, the Egyptian military … had one overriding wish — to align itself with the winning side.”
The protesters in Cairo who embraced the 21st-century Egyptian army for refusing to back Mubarak would do well to remember this.
Much has changed since Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC marked the end of the last dynasty to rule before Egypt’s conquest by Rome Wilkinson’s rich portrait of ancient Egypt’s complex evolution over the course of three millenniums cannot be reduced to an object lesson for people living 2,000 years later — or, more accurately, its lessons are not for Egyptians alone. The pharaohs may have been the first to invent “a political creed [harnessed] to a national myth,” but they were hardly the last. Wilkinson’s unsparing account reminds us that we should always look beyond a society’s comforting myths and dazzling monuments to examine its actual deeds.
“The study of ancient Egyptian civilization,” Wilkinson writes, “exposes the devices by which people have been organized, cajoled, dominated, and subjugated down to the present day.”
Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.