Illuminating history of ancient Egypt, focused on the establishment of the first nation-state and the autocratic rulers who both glorified and abused power.
Egyptologist Wilkinson (Lives of the Ancient Egyptians, 2007, etc.) does a tremendous job of condensing a wealth of material into a tidy volume for the armchair historian and general reader. His thesis is that ancient Egypt set the model relationship between ruler and subject based on “coercion and fear” that would be repeated down to our own times. More than 1,000 years before the great flowering of pharaonic power as evidenced by the pyramids at Giza, the cattle herders had migrated to the fertile Nile Valley and the farmers of the valley had organized into three kingdoms, over which the conquering ruler Narmer first united the regions of Upper and Lower Egypt (lower meaning North, upper signifying South, because of the way the Nile rose). The first leaders of the Egyptian nation-state enlisted an effective use of iconography to assert power, in depictions of godlike leaders in headdress and mace smiting enemies and slaves. This creation of absolute power, the clever manipulation of a written record (hieroglyphics), the exploitation of natural resources, the use of forced labor and the disregard for human life were all hallmarks of the great pharaonic age, and gradually sapped its strength and stability. But not before 3,000 years, which Wilkinson groups into the three traditional kingdoms: Old Kingdom, which consolidated the ideal of divine kingship and closed with civil war; the Middle Kingdom, which saw a flowering of literary texts and craftsmanship, international trade and conquest; and the New Kingdom, eclipsed by invasions and the eventual conquest by Persia and Macedonia. Wilkinson’s impressive depth of knowledge allows him to sift the historical and archaeological records of a staggering 30-plus dynasties, producing a vigorous survey of this unparalleled civilization.
An essential work of Egyptian scholarship with lessons for our time.