When the third-century B.C. Egyptian historian Manetho wrote “Aegyptiaca,” his dynasty-by-dynasty account of a great civilization, the realm of the pharaohs was already vastly ancient. For Manetho, as for us in the present day, ancient Egypt’s main beguilement was its sheer, strange antiquity. The more we think about that age and strangeness, the more ancient Egypt seems like an exotic fantasy-realm, like something out of Michael Moorcock or M. John Harrison.
“It is extremely difficult to engage with a culture so remote in time and place from our own,” writes veteran Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson in the opening pages of his new book, “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” and hundreds of authors have discovered that difficulty and retreated, baffled, into pseudo-myth and half-hearted mysticism. Luckily, Wilkinson isn’t one of those authors. His 2007 book, “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians,” was an immensely engaging work of informed archaeological reconstruction, and his latest is even better: This a magnificent, illuminating and refreshingly readable overview of the entire phenomenon of ancient Egypt.
Wilkinson’s narrative moves from Egypt’s pre-history to Narmer, the first ruler of the First Dynasty, who came to power around 2950 B.C., to a gaudy pageant of pharaohs, wars, famines, invasions, revolutions and repressions, all the way to the suicide of Cleopatra, after which Egypt passed under a centuries-long “cloud of exploitation” as the storehouse and granary for everybody from the Romans to the Ottomans to the British.
Manetho wrought better than he knew: Most historians of Egypt have followed his lead and grounded their accounts on tales of the great and mighty, on successions of dynasties in the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Advances in Egyptology in the past century have granted a large measure of freedom from this approach, but although Wilkinson’s book has more detail about (and sympathy for) the commoner in the street than any comparable overview I know, it’s still largely the story of kings and queens, of harems and princes and influential palace advisors. Its genius shows most clearly in the way it intertwines those two ends of the social spectrum.
We read stories of social unrest, worker strikes and propaganda campaigns that sound vividly modern. In crafting such a presentation, Wilkinson is going against the grain of much Egypt-writing in the last century, and he knows it. About the Fourth Dynasty king Sneferu, who ordered that he be called netjer nefer, “the perfect god,” Wilkinson writes, “Modern experience suggests that [such] titles are more about brainwashing and subjugation than the expression of popular acclaim. And yet, when it comes to ancient Egypt, scholars still balk at such an interpretation.”
In such an account and throughout this book, Wilkinson’s aim is to demystify his subject without dethroning it in our imaginations. He succeeds completely: There has never been an ancient Egypt more fascinating — and yet more recognizably human — than the one we find in his pages. The usual suspects are here as well. The Great Pyramid of Khufu — so stunning even now, 4,000 years after it was built — is given due stage-time, for instance. We’re told again of its sheer size: “A simple calculation reveals that the builders would have had to set one block of stone in place every two minutes during a ten-hour day, working without pause throughout the year for the two decades of Khufu’s reign (2545-2525).” We revel again in the exploits of Ramesses II against the Hittites. And we’re told in detail the story of Amenhotep IV, the rebel pharaoh who ruled from 1353 to 1336 B.C., took the name Akhenaten, and tried to re-shape the entire theological landscape of the kingdom. Asserting that “The Great Hymn to the Aten” was written by Akhenaten himself, Wilkinson sings its praises: “It is certainly a masterpiece, its rapturous tone and exultant imagery of the creator’s power exerting a profound influence on later religious authors, not least the Jewish psalmists.”
And of course there’s Cleopatra, the thoroughly Greek member of the Ptolemy family whose name will nevertheless forever be linked with all things Egyptian. Wilkinson isn’t star-struck by her as so many other writers have been; she’s merely a coda to his long story, and her association of herself with Isis after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. is met with gentle ridicule: “If Cleopatra had achieved apotheosis, her fellow members of the pantheon were not impressed. Indeed, the gods seemed to have deserted Egypt.”
The favor of the gods did indeed seem to have been withdrawn. Annexation by the Romans ended the ages-long rule of the pharaohs, and a new and less iconic era for Egypt began. In the spring of 2011, the country was once again the center of the world’s attention, as thousands of protesters toppled a government. Wilkinson’s human, scheming pharaohs wouldn’t have recognized the cell phones, but they’d have known the boiling sentiments all too well.
THE RISE AND FALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT
By Toby Wilkinson
Random House. 611 pp. $35