Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Egypt: A life before the afterlife

Ancient Egypt rarely escapes our stereotypical view of it: an exotic place full of pyramids crammed with cursed treasure, waiting to be discovered by adventurous archaeologists. As in RenĂ© Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's comic Asterix and Cleopatra, it is often presented as a land of spooky tombs and people speaking in hieroglyphic pictures. These stereotypes are themselves quite ancient – even to the ancient Greeks, Egypt was a quintessentially different culture. But they trivialise a complex society.

Ancient Egypt is one of the first civilisations that children are taught about, and so people sometimes assume that it must be a "childish" culture, an early step in humanity's evolution towards modernity. People of all ages visit the displays of mummies in the British Museum, and there can be no more vivid way of stirring anyone's historical imagination than to look into an actual ancient face. But as we stare, we can sometimes forget that they were more than mummies, and that once they were people as complex and sophisticated as us.

Some of our misunderstandings about ancient Egypt come about in part because the Egyptians presented much of their history in a monumental and monolithic form. For centuries, the Egyptians codified in stone their history as a list of kings, each the son of the sun god, each a triumphant hero who, with each reign, re-established order in a chaotic universe. Even now, Egyptian history is conventionally divided into great kingdoms of centralised rule, the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, divided by periods of supposed chaos. The central role of the king is perhaps the key to Egypt's self-representation: every king re-established Egyptian society, eternal and unchanging since the time of the gods.

In these official records, Egypt presented itself as an extremely conservative culture. As in any society, it is all too easy to accept this ideology at face value, but there were huge changes behind this facade and continual tensions between the royal centre and periphery – aspects of history that were written out of royal inscriptions. After so many centuries, how can we get behind these official political pronouncements and begin to understand the Egyptians in context?

Occasionally we have different types of evidence for the same events, which allow us a fuller picture. In 1858BC at Semna, in Nubia at the southern edge of Egypt, King Senusret III erected an inscription to mark the border of his territory. In this, he proclaimed scornfully that the Nubian locals "only have to hear and then fall at a word: just answering them makes them retreat". But the archaeological context reveals that the inscription was erected in a massive mud-brick fortress, which shows that the king needed more than words to control the Nubians. And this fortress was part of an expansion into Nubia that was motivated by complex economic and political factors. The history of the area was not simply a triumph of royal rhetoric.

For one week during the reign of the following king, Amenemhat III, we have evidence that hints at a more complex history underlying this monumental facade. A fragmentary series of military despatches records trivial realities such as the arrival of a group of soldiers to report "on month 4 of winter, day 2 at breakfast-time" that a patrol had returned with the news that "we found the tracks of 32 men and three donkeys". This was a civilisation not just of pyramids, but also petty paperwork and interrupted breakfasts.

The ancient Egyptians were, of course, as fully aware as any modern historian or politician of the difference between words and reality. The dichotomies between what one can say on an official monument and what one really feels is vividly conveyed in a letter from Luxor, dated around 1100BC, in which the pharaoh's general Payankh tells a scribe to have two troublesome policemen "put in two baskets and thrown into the water by night – but don't let anyone find out". He continues: "and Pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!) – how will he even get to this part of the land? And ... whose boss is he anyway?" Such dissidence is unthinkable in Egyptian official writings, although even here the writer adds the obedient salutation to the Pharaoh's health even as he mocks him.

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Parkinson, Richard. 2010. "Egypt: A life before the afterlife". Guardian Series: Guides to the ancient world. Posted: November 5, 2010. Available online:

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