Friday, 11 May 2012

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

At 513 pages, this is a mammoth of a book, but it flows remarkably well. The detective work involved in Egyptology is communicated very well, with events, upheavals and changes deduced from seemingly insignificant pieces of evidence, such as the Narmer Palette, a grindstone for mixing pigments, the decoration for which symbolizes the unification of Egypt 5000 years ago.

The endurance that the Egyptian state had is incredible. The ideal of one pharaoh ruling by divine right throughout the Upper and Lower lands lasted for over 3000 years, and a strong Egypt bounced back time after time, returning after civil wars, invasions by the sea peoples, the Nubians, the Persians and the Greeks before falling to the Romans.

Wilkinson is especially good at revealing the dark side of Egypt, the side one rarely sees in documentaries or rough summaries of the period. For example, the pyramids. Often held up as being the willing work of a people who adored their pharaoh, it should be remembered that one had no choice. If you were conscripted, you had to work on the ridiculously grand designs of, what was in effect, tyranny. He compares the great pyramid of Giza to Nicolae Ceau┼čescu's Palace of the People, and sees the pyramids as the beginning of the obsession dictators have with immense buildings. Nevertheless, the figures behind the Great Pyramid still inspire awe: 481 feet high (the tallest building in the world until the Eiffel Tower); 2,300,000 blocks of stone; covering thirteen acres of land; 4,500 years old and a construction time of only 20 years (using 10,000 workers). The Arabs have a proverb: Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.

Yet, to look at, the pyramids are a distinct disappointment (speaking from personal experience). Elegance and taste are not words that could be applied. Wilkinson covers both sides of the coin in all cases of Egyptian history, the ups as well as the downs, and there were an awful lot of downs. For example, the life expectancy of your average Egyptian, working the land, was just 35, whereas a pharaoh could live to be 90 (Ramses the Great). So, while I remember about two of the hundreds of names mentioned, I still find that this book has been an enlightening read, giving an excellent base from which to launch into further reading. 7.8/10. 

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