The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt? Egyptology's Never-Ending Story

By Carruthers, William | Antiquity, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt? Egyptology's Never-Ending Story


Carruthers, William, Antiquity


In an op-ed piece on The Wall Street Journal's website promoting his latest book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (Wilkinson, T. 2010), Toby Wilkinson draws parallels between events in Egypt's past to those in its present. "The current situation in Egypt", we are told, "comes as no surprise to a student of the country's long history" (Wilkinson, T. 2011). It is only appropriate to observe, then, that the problematic nature of Wilkinson's book comes as no surprise to a historian of Egyptology. Both it--and the accompanying comparison of the country's past to its present--are part of a long tradition (although tradition is too positive a word) of questionable Egyptological analysis.

This tradition presents a narrative, centred on the origins and eventual dominance of Western civilisation, that dooms Egypt to an eternity of being viewed as inferior to Western modernity. Ancient Egypt is interpreted as a progenitor of Western civilisation, but the country declined and slipped into stagnation whilst the grand match of civilisation made its way onwards through Greece. Others have, of course, noted this narrative before, particularly with respect to its links to colonialism (e.g. Colla 2007: 14), hardly a positive lineage. However, some examples from the twentieth century would be useful to illustrate its longevity. Thus, the preface to the first edition of the first volume of the Cambridge Ancient History (subtitled Egypt and Babylonia to 1580 BC), published in 1923, stated that the series was "a continuous history of European peoples ... [but] the history of Europe begins outside Europe" (Bury et al. 1923: v). Egypt was important, but only momentarily. The same preface states that "in the next volume a new age opens up ... Greeks whose names were well remembered in Greek records will come upon the stage" (Bury et al. 1923: vii).

Meanwhile, John Wilson's 1951 volume, The Burden of Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture, essentialised ancient Egypt as a discrete culture-historical entity which was once successful, but that experienced a "long petrifaction after 1100 BC" (Wilson 1951: 308). Whilst more cautionary about cultural inheritances than the Cambridge Ancient History, Wilson was still prepared to note that "the Greeks acknowledged ... that they had learned a great deal from Egypt ... and that this had been formative in their own lives" (Wilson 1951: 316-17). Egypt had stagnated, but its influence lived on--although, by implicit contrast, it was an inferior one; the country's age of glory was, after all, no longer.

Egyptology is supposed to be about the past but, instead, often illustrates negative attitudes (bordering on the racist) towards Egypt's present; the Egyptians, since they declined, are implicitly interpreted as inferior (and perhaps, then, ripe for colonisation). Wilkinson's op-ed and book--particularly taken in conjunction with one another--are a perfect illustration of this tradition, even if unintentional. For example, in the op-ed, Wilkinson states that, from the pharaonic period onward, there has never been a custom of political debate in Egypt. What he means by 'political debate' is unclear but, if one takes into consideration political activism, then it is clear that such a tradition does exist.

To give some examples, there have been revolutions in 1879-1882, 1919, 1952 and, of course, 2011. Egypt is as politicised as any other country. Did Wilkinson inherit his thinking from Egyptology's constant assertion of the unchanging nature of the Egyptian peasant (cf. Mitchell 2002), doomed--particularly, one suspects, after Egypt's supposed final decline--to passivity? When read in conjunction with the title of Wilkinson's book, the sub-text is clear. Egypt was once, perhaps, great, but not anymore (it is not, after all, the West).

Meanwhile, Wilkinson describes the events in Egypt in early 2011 as "deeply troubling to Western observers" (Wilkinson, T. …

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