From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt

Article excerpt

From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt. By Donald B. Redford. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Pp. i-x, 218; index, 4 maps, 38 figures. Pp. x, 218. $44.95.

This book is a timely contribution to the rapidly growing literature on Nubian and Sudanese studies, not to mention study tours and museum exhibits that feature these areas. The realization that non-Egyptian Africa has "classical" traditions distinct from those in Egypt has also given rise to fascinating inquiries about the concepts of race and identity along the Nile valley as well as some of the controversies about a "Black Athena." This evolution is a function of expanded archaeological work, and multidisciplinary Nile valley studies, including more anthropology, history, and political documentation, especially in the wake of the Nubian relocation and salvage projects as well as the political independence of Sudan and civil rights movements in the world. On top of this, the varied disciplinary interests on which Nubian and Egyptian studies are founded will strongly influence the research paradigms and viewpoints. Thus, central to these inquiries is an awareness of the paradigms and viewpoints of many observers, from Nubiacentric to Egyptocentric, multicentric, and others.

It is always important to know the background and training of an author, but in this case it is even more essential. Redford comes trained as an Egyptologist and archaeologist focused on the ancient Mediterranean and classics. His sources are mainly derived from epigraphy and excavation. Redford views Nubia though the lens of "dark-skinned" Nubians versus Egyptians. Thus the discussion of whether Egypt is in Africa, or Africa is in Egypt, is carried on.

My own training is in the anthropology of Africa in general, and Nubia in particular. In this field "race" is scientifically considered clinical and sociocentric, but with a genetic foundation in phenotypes. I have long viewed Africa as multiethnic, multiracial, and multilingual. Professionally, I have spent about equal time in Egypt and Sudan, and I have broad firsthand knowledge of the principle sites in both lands as well as of the practice of archaeology without being a "dirt" archaeologist. I am self-taught in Egyptology but my graduate studies were in Nubian culture in both Sudan and Egypt. This is noted for the readers of this review to weigh these factors in what both Redford and I say.

Anthropologists often state that they study society from the bottom up, and consider that written records, while important, reflect a small part of human interaction. Historians typically base their historiography on primary written documents, which, perhaps because of their rarity, are critical turning and reference points. Moreover, anthropologists of race and class consider that the unspoken and unwritten experience can be essential in understanding human relations, while some historians are understandably reluctant to read between the lines in carefully constructed texts that should be taken for what they very precisely say. I have no intention to adjudicate the merits of these various stances and indeed, I think that their intersection leads to a rich critical dialectic.

The very title of this book presents something of this contrasting set of perspectives. The title, from "slave to pharaoh" tends to polarize or simplify the "Black Experience," or Nubian experience, by those two statuses. Then it is further homogenized by using the definite article for the Black experience. In fact, there are very many kinds of "black experiences" in Egypt and with its Nubian neighbors, not the least of which are those differentiated by gender and class as well as by diverse social and ethnic positions. All of these variables have also changed over time as well. Thus, with the heavy reliance on ancient Egyptian texts the more subtle understanding of social diversity in Nubia and in Nubio-Egyptian relations is less accessible. …