The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs
Smith, Stuart Tyson, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. By Jan Assmann, translated by Andrew Jenkins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 513; illustrations. $18.95 paper.
The Mind of Egypt is both brilliant and provocative, and will no doubt provide considerable fodder for debate within Egyptological circles. I will focus on what I think are key strengths and weaknesses in Assmann's approach, followed by the ideas that I feel will have the most impact both within and outside of Egyptology. Assmann is best when dealing with topics that are purely textual, like the symbolism of pyramids or the emergence of personal piety as a major religious trend comparable to modern religious movements. His strongest arguments deal with the nature of society and memory in the Late Period and Greco Roman period (c. 664 BCE to 395 CE), and the transmission of Egyptian beliefs into Western tradition through foreign writers like Hecateaus or natives operating in a new medium of history, like Manetho.
Archaeologists, however, will find elements of The Mind of Egypt frustrating, particularly the farther back in time one goes. Assmann privileges the textual and monumental record over more prosaic sources. For example, he argues that during the early Old Kingdom (fourth and fifth dynasties c. 2600-2345 BCE), the king and court wielded power over an undifferentiated populace. He bases this argument exclusively on an analysis of titles and texts from the stone tombs that surround the pyramids of the era, and the appearance of rock cut tombs in the sixth dynasty (c. 2345-2150 BCE) containing inscriptions that he argues reflect the establishment of a locally based provincial elite. But as Barry Kemp points out, this reflects an imbalance in the data more than any real-ity in provincial organization.1 Archaeologically, large mud-brick tombs outside the capital suggest the presence of a powerful provincial elite during the early Old Kingdom, but since they are more vulnerable to decay, inscriptions that would reflect this only rarely survive.
Assmann develops his most important themes when dealing with his larger vision of the fundamental shifts in the nature and conception of the state. In a refreshing contrast to the awkward traditional divisions in Egyptian history, he sees three key shifts in the nature of Egyptian society and memory, first at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (c. 1994 BCE), second with Akhenaton and the Amarna Period (c. 1352-1338 BC), and finally with the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069 BCE). He persuasively argues that the Middle Kingdom kings co-opted the ideology of patronage developed by local leaders, or nomarchs, during the crisis and civil conflict of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2150-2040 BCE). The state ideology shifted from emphasizing the king as a god to highlighting the benefits of pharaonic rule (i.e., the king as champion, provider, etc.). Drawing on anthropological literature, Assmann makes a compelling case that this was designed to provide a strong sense of vertical solidarity that would compensate for the crisis brought about by the failure of divine kingship in the face of famine and civil war at the end of the Old Kingdom (c. 2150 BCE). He also reasons convincingly that a new ideology of justice (ma 'at) also provided horizontal solidarity through a new sense connectivity that promoted an organic cohesiveness between people living in "constellations" with connections between individuals, but also between people and gods.
Assmann persuasively contends that the next fundamental break came not with Hyksos conquest in the second Intermediate Period (c. 1650 BCE), but rather in the aftermath of Akhenaton's failed monotheistic religious "revolution," or as Assmann characterizes it, Cosmo-theism, a focus on a single divine principle more than the worship of a particular deity. In contrast and reaction to this attempt at enforcing a religious orthodoxy of vertical solidarity, individuals now place god in their own heart without a royal intermediary. …