The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson
I remember wondering as a small boy about life in the kingdoms of ancient Egypt. Maybe it was Sunday school lessons, Moses, and all that, but the Egyptian period of human development has always had me in its spell.
Wilkinson’s book makes the spell even deeper. His story begins with Narmer, the first king of a more or less united Egypt and continues through the pyramidal age to the New Kingdom and its fully fleshed art, architecture, literature, government and religion. Wilkinson takes us from there through Egypt’s wars with Abyssinia and Persia, Alexander the Great’s appearance, and ends with the Roman conquest of Egypt and Cleopatra’s death. Rather than a dry litany of dates, names and events, the author retells the story of a culture. He has an agenda here, and he doesn’t try to hide it, but that’s where the story lies.
Wilkinson is looking through time from the vantage of a twenty-first century writer, one who sees the evolution of a culture in which some people become more important than others. These elites use humanity’s tendency to fear to subjugate them, to keep them under royal and religious thumb. The four thousand years of Egypt’s rise and dominance and its subsequent fall, then, are the product of this abuse of masses of humanity for the benefit of the few.
Still, there are the developments Egypt gave birth to: building techniques for its massive structures. A unique written language. An enduring religion that has given subsequent religions many of its tenets, cloaked in newer cultural clothes. A central governmental structure not unlike our modern ones. And then there's art and medicine.
The lesson drawn from Wilkinson’s examination of these four millennia? That even in a culture based on subjugation of the masses, good arose things and endured, and from that good the structure of today’s reality has been drawn.
Wilkinson is a gifted writer, despite what appears in the first hundred or so pages to be a political rant disguised as history. I suspect he realized early in the book’s development that readers would understand, without the editorializing, that there was much more to tell of this culture than the enduring story of man’s dominance of man.
My rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars