Unbroken story of human progress
A History of Egypt: From earliest times to the present, Jason Thompson, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008. pp383, 2 maps, 80 b/w photos
With his new book, Jason Thompson attempts the ambitious task of covering the entire span of Egyptian history from its earliest settlers to the present day. This is the first major work of its kind, and it succeeds triumphantly. Never before has any individual tried to provide a comprehensive coverage of Egyptian history from predynastic settlements through the pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras, followed by the Ottoman Turks, the birth of modern Egypt, mid- nineteenth-century Egypt, the British occupation and the parliamentary era through to Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.
How, one might well ask, could a modern historian assume to tackle so wide a range of subjects which are usually divided by scholars into distinct eras? Is it possible to cover a history of the many thousands of years, through great periods of progress and development, others of decline and decadence, in a country that has experienced cultural, political, economic and spiritual growth, as well as subjugation, humiliation and corruption in one form and another?
I began reading Thompson's A History of Egypt with some trepidation and not a little scepticism. Could an American, a khawaga (foreigner), provide an analytical and balanced coverage of the historical events of all periods and, more important, would he manage to trace an Egyptian identity -- because that, I felt, is what a book bearing such a title should convey. Frankly, I doubted that I could give an honest appraisal. For one thing I anticipated an orientalist bias. Thompson's previous published works suggested that the author might be so inclined. After all, he rescued for posterity orientalist Edward William Lane's Description of Egypt (based on notes and views in Egypt and Nubia between 1825 and 1828 that were not published in Lane's lifetime), and wrote the biographies of Lane (whose classic An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians was published in 1836) and Egyptologist Wilkinson ( Sir John Gardner Wilkinson and his Circle).
But I was wrong. A History of Egypt is a remarkable work of synthesis, cohesion, and understanding. "Egypt," he writes in his Preface, "is the most written-about land in the world, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for writers and interest for readers -- but they almost invariably concentrate on one particular period, as if hermetically sealed from each other. Yet few if any lands have as many threads of continuity running throughout their entire historical experience as Egypt. While the country has changed almost beyond recognition, one is repeatedly confronted by the paradox -- indeed the outright contradiction -- that many aspects of Egyptian culture have remained recognisably the same and can be documented across the millennia."
I had only to read a dozen pages before my fears were put to rest. Thompson makes clear that although the Egyptian culture emerged from the general matrix of northern African material culture, it developed early on many of the distinctive features of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. He describes the development, and then acceleration, of predynastic Egyptian cultures (with some stimulus from Mesopotamia) that ultimately led to unification under King Narmer of the First Dynasty. What I liked most about this section was Thompson's final refutation of the notion of a struggle between two competing political entities -- Upper and Lower Egypt. He rightly points out that this was based largely on myth and an ancient Egyptian penchant for duality, and was no longer believed by scholars and not supported by archaeological evidence.
Thompson has travelled widely in Egypt, exploring archaeological sites from the Mediterranean coast to Egypt's southern frontier at Aswan. He has crossed barren deserts to the oases of the Western Desert and Sinai, and has shared these journeys with archaeologists and scholars of various specialisations who have aided his understanding. He has lived with an Egyptian family, his "extended family", in their house beside the mausoleum of Sultan Qaitbay in Cairo, and has had a close-up view of the so-called City of the Dead and its living residents. From ancient monuments and burial grounds to Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic Egypt; from the crowded streets of Fatimid Cairo, along trade routes ancient and modern, to towns and villages all over the country, Thompson has seen it all. He is by no means a specialist in all periods of Egyptian history, but he is observant, he retains information, synthesises ideas, and has writing talent. He paints a wonderfully vivid picture of Egypt's ancient past, its mediaeval chronicle and present-day realities. His History is extremely readable.
When Thompson was first approached by Mark Linz, the director of the American University in Cairo Press, to write this book, he at first declined -- probably because he saw it as too daunting a task. Challenged and encouraged, he eventually decided to take on the brief because, as he himself puts it, "It was an opportunity to address readers who want an introduction to the major epochs in Egyptian history and the elements of continuity and transition between, and to supply travellers to Egypt with historical background to the places they visit." He starts, appropriately, with a chapter on the Nile because, he writes, "To envision Egypt historically, and to understand its geographical essence, one must think first about the Nile." In his concluding chapter he again talks about the Nile, in this case the harnessing of its waters by the High Dam and the burdens being placed on the river today.
The author must be congratulated for dispensing with the traditional division of pharaonic history into Great Periods followed by Intermediate Periods. In presenting the predynastic, early dynastic and intermediate periods as preludes to Great Periods, he traces tradition through change and continuity, and avoids the questionable, and often debatable, dynastic framework of modern scholars. "The ancient Egyptians... were unaware of such periodisation and likely would have thought it unreflective of the times in which they lived," he writes.
I particularly liked Thompson's description of the ancient Egyptian state being embodied in the king and the pharaoh, and that the concept of maat -- variously translated as "truth", "order", "proper behaviour", and "justice" -- was, above all, the Egyptian way of doing things. In describing the prodigious demand for artistic productions to adorn palaces and temples, he points out that: "Art was not practiced for art's sake... nor did artists enjoy the special status they acquired in early modern times from the Renaissance onward. They were craftsmen like any others ..." Unlike the relatively anonymous craftsmen, however, "their literary counterparts often achieved significant and lasting levels of individual recognition." The author gives due attention to the scribal profession.
Thompson is clearly comfortable writing about pharaonic Egypt, the achievements of its succession of kings, the conquest by the Hyksos who subjected the country to the humiliation of foreign occupation and "altered Egypt's attitude towards the outside world" We learn of its long- awaited liberation from foreign rule, its strong government in the 18th Dynasty under Amenhotep III, with expansive trade and an artistic and architectural revolution. Thompson describes the country's halting recovery from Akhenaten's religious revolution, when the capital was moved from Thebes to Amarna, which he summarises as "... another intriguing episode in ancient Egyptian history where the ending is not fully known."
Ptolemaic Egypt, when Macedonians ruled as divine kings of Egypt and were addressed as pharaohs, had their names written in hieroglyphs (never hieroglyphics stresses Thompson!) in royal cartouches, is an excellent chapter. "It has often been said that the Ptolemaic system was so thorough that the Romans left it mostly intact when they took control of Egypt," he writes, adding that the statement does not quite hold up under detailed examination but is nevertheless indicative of the efficiency of Ptolemaic exploitation. Thompson points out that beneath the Hellenic veneer, Egyptian culture and society continued to retain its vitality, diversity and creativity, and that the old Egyptian aristocracy was not destroyed during three centuries of Ptolemaic rule. He adds that although Greeks and Romans in Egypt brought their own ideas about religion, and about life after death, "these notions inevitably took on Egyptian trappings over time, and, moreover, Egypt made a strong impression on Roman culture.
Few Roman emperors came to Egypt, even though it was Rome's most important province. The most sensational visit, according to Thompson, was Hadrian's eight to ten-month tour in AD 130 -- 131, a relatively orderly time in the history of the Roman empire. He contrasts this with the military rule of Septimius Severus and his heirs "when Egyptians were harried with increasing demands for money and goods from the army in addition to regular taxes". Under Diocletian, the size of the Roman army was doubled and Egypt was split into six separate provinces, but his reforms came at a heavy financial price to the people of Egypt. As the demands of taxation, civic duties, and conscription became ever more oppressive, increasing numbers of Egyptians fled their homes and villages to seek refuge in the countless tombs and caves that honey- combined the cliffs above the river valley. "In fleeing the vicissitudes of this world, it was only a step to move towards contemplation of the next," Thompson writes, adding, "This was the genesis of the anchorite movement, one of the many contributions Egypt made to the development of Christianity".
Thompson's chapter on Coptic Egypt is strong. He points out that Egypt "was one of the first and most fruitful fields for Christian conversion and the establishment of Christian institutions." Thompson says much of the orthodoxy of Christianity "was hammered out in Egypt in the first catechetical schools, which were established in Alexandria," and that "far from being an exotic, isolated offshoot, Egypt was first a nursery and then a pillar of the early Christian Church". He draws attention to a fact not widely known -- that the first major heresy to shake the church was entirely Egyptian in origin. It concerned the nature of Jesus Christ and was a feud between two Alexandrian churchmen, Arius and Athanasius (who eventually became bishop of Alexandria and was later canonised). Thompson stresses that one of Egypt's most important contributions to Christianity was the institution of monasticism; that early on Egypt developed an intimate association with the Holy Family based on the passage in the Gospel of Matthew; and that even as the Christians triumphed in Egypt, "they found the positions of the Egyptian church and the See of Alexandria threatened by imperial politics and the upstart city of Constantinople." This rivalry found expression in the Monophysite controversy, which led, eventually, to the separation of Coptic Orthodox Christianity from mainstream Christianity. In 570, Egyptian Christians took the decisive step of appointing their own patriarch.
On his vast canvas Thompson's oversights, if there are any, are trivial and not worth mentioning. What is worthy of note is that Egyptian history can be treated as a whole, and that, by drawing on historical scholarship as well as his own research, Thompson has written a one- volume narrative of the extraordinarily long course of human history by the Nile.
With the Arab conquest and the withdrawal of the Byzantine army, we come to Thompson's chapters on the Advent of Islam, followed by The Fatimids and Ayyubids, The Mamluks, and Egypt in the Ottoman Empire. The historical analysis presented here is compelling. Thompson starts with Mohamed and his message, moves on to the foundation of the city of Fustat and the building of the first mosque in Africa, describes the various periods of Egyptian history when the rulers were first governors for the caliphs (of Damascus and Baghdad respectively), and then Caliphs in their own right under the Fatimids. We then have a sequence of rulers as diverse as the Libyans, Kushites and Persians in ancient times; they are the Kurdish ruler Saladin; Turkish and Circassian Mamluks; and Egypt under the Ottoman Turks. The author points out that, until fairly recently, early Ottoman history has received less than its share of attention from modern historians, and he sets out to rectify this omission. He writes that the impact of Ottoman influence on the urban fabric of Cairo was at first almost imperceptible, but that over time it became an integral part of the visual presentation of the city.
"The Egyptians have their past all around them, and they generously share it with those who read about it and who visit their country," Thompson says. "Therefore those of us from abroad should bear in mind that Egyptian history is ultimately the property of the Egyptian people, past and present, and treat it with the respect, indeed the reverence, that it deserves."
His chapter on The Birth of Modern Egypt, following Bonaparte's 1798 expedition and Mohamed Ali's glorious rule, is followed by chapters on Mid-Nineteenth-Century Egypt and The British Occupation of Egypt, which are, understandably, not written in such depth as earlier periods, because, after all, we are now in familiar territory. "A bit more space is devoted to the past two centuries," Thompson explains, "not because they are intrinsically more important but in order to bring the picture into sharper focus as it approaches the present, thereby emphasising the connectedness of this moment to the totality of the Egyptian past. The detail then dissolves around the end of the twentieth century as recent history merges into current events".
A History of Egypt is an important book, a distinguished work of scholarship and of understanding. It provides an engaging one-volume narrative of the extraordinarily long course of human history, tracing how Egypt emerged from predynastic kingdoms, through pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine, Coptic, mediaeval Islamic, and Ottoman eras, to its nation-state status in the 21st century.
Let me add that the book is timely. The National Museum of Egyptian History on the pyramid plateau at Giza is well on its way to completion, and it, too, will cover under one roof the whole span of Egyptian history from the most ancient past to the present.
Reviewed by Jill Kamil
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