John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom is the second volume of his who-knows-how-many volume history (this is the latest one published). After the silent archaeology of the first volume, this one takes the reader into written history, with the first hieroglyphics… which it turns out, just mean that there’s even more to be misunderstood.

So the book follows two tracks, really. One is the straight history of this time period, the shifting patterns of architecture and geography, of Egyptian exploration and interaction with other cultures, of the fall of the Old Kingdom and the slow rise and eventual fall of the Middle Kingdom. And this is much like the first volume—cautious interpretations based on frustratingly incomplete archaeological evidence (though there’s a lot more available here, including written texts).

The second track, though, is the historiography of ancient Egypt, which ends up being something of a history of 18th and 19th century European attitudes toward Egypt. Romer talks about the mystical view of ancient Egypt that dominated attitudes for so long, and how that collided with the reality of actual history; about the flowering of Egyptology after Napoleon’s invasion opened up the floodgates of ancient artifacts being stolen and brought back to Europe; about the ways those artifacts were misinterpreted through an also ahistorical lens of Greek classicist fetishism; about the decipherment of hieroglyphics, the establishment of schools of philology, the creation of the very modes of historical investigation that dominate universities to this day; and about the racial theories that rose in German schools that eventually fed into the Nazi self-conception.

The history is interesting, seeing the evolution of the Egyptian state and culture over a millennium or so; and Romer particularly draws in recent discoveries and findings to paint an updated picture of what we know. (It seems ridiculous that we know more about 2000 BCE now than we did 20 years ago, but it’s nevertheless true.) The historiography, though, is fascinating—when you’ve grown up with a kind of ambient background view of what “ancient Egypt” is, seeing how that vision was constructed, and the political and cultural forces that drove that construction and popularization, is eye opening; it goes beyond “oh yeah, people believed some incorrect things that we don’t believe anymore” into explaining how and why they got to those beliefs (and makes one wonder what wild blind spots we still have, even as we can so easily make out those of the past).

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in ancient Egyptian history, and I hope a third volume appears sometime soon.


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