Magazine article The Spectator

'A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom', by John Romer - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom', by John Romer - Review

Article excerpt

If you read the first volume of John Romer's A History of Egypt, which traces events along the Nile from prehistory to the pyramid age, you will understand why he thinks Egyptology is not a science. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to be exact about anything when most of your knowledge is based on deduction and when new discoveries can overturn accepted theories. In the 1,000 years covered in this second volume, starting around 2600 BC, would it be easier for Romer to present facts and express certainty -- to be scientific?

One of the surprises of the pyramid age, as Romer explains very clearly here, is the lack of information concerning what people believed in and even how they lived. For while the Great Pyramid and its many neighbours from the same era stand as eloquent testimony to the capabilities of the ancient Egyptians, they tell us little about how or why they were constructed. This, in part, explains the appeal of what some Egyptologists call the pyramidiots, people who have suggested that the pyramids were built by spacemen or that their massive stones were sung into place.

So why read a book on the subject? For one thing, because although Romer doesn't have all the answers, he has spent much of his 75 years engaged with Egypt's past and he has a command of material and of language that makes this a fascinating tale. In the first volume he charted the social and political effects of climate change, as the land beyond the Egyptian Nile valley turned from savannah to desert, leaving people in the region entirely dependent on the river and its annual flood. This second volume looks at the achievements of the first pharaonic state, at its decline and its revival in the Middle

Kingdom.

He starts by dismissing what he considers to be outdated ideas. Egyptology was a product of the Enlightenment, and boosted by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, an expedition more notable for its scholars than its soldiers. The subsequent deciphering of hieroglyphs, announced by Jean François Champollion in 1822, provided enough information, when taken along with the surviving monuments and antiquities, for historians to piece together an account of the Egyptian past. But as Romer points out, they reconstructed Egypt in their own image, assuming that ideas of state, kingship, citizenship, perhaps even God, might be similar to those of the early 19th century. Romer argues convincingly that they were not, that they belong to a pre-rational age that expressed itself not in words but in objects, structures and images.

When we look at the pyramids, we see their age, their immense size, the achievement of their construction without drills, cranes or trucks. …

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