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A Short History of Ancient Egypt from Pre-Dynastic to Roman Times.

Rhona Wells reviews a new book which charts, if only briefly, issues of Ancient Egypt - from the exploits of kings to the lives of the humble workmen, and from religion to the arts.

The title of the book might appear to be a contradiction in terms: how does one condense Ancient Egyptian history? Yet, the author achieves his aim with commendable success.

Starting from pre-dynastic times, T. G. H. James, examines the principal events that helped to shape the culture of Ancient Egypt, through 3000 years, from the early beginnings to the death of Cleopatra; the apparent complexity of the dynasties is elegantly condensed into a very readable and informative book.

Throughout the text, as with Egyptian history, the Nile flows majestically, with modern images as well as old, capturing the never ending thread of life provided by the river. The author entwines the fibres of daily life, the ideas and the movements that were so crucial to Egypt's evolution with factual data, thus providing the reader with a lively picture of Ancient Egypt.

Each period is illustrated by a clear map, highlighting the varying importance of different geographical sites, as well as providing a clear and concise resume of the salient points of each period - including lists of kings and queens - helping the lay person to grasp the sequence of events and condensing the complexities of the dynasties into a manageable format.

The beautiful photography adds to the magic of this publication, with explanatory captions adding an extra insight into the detail of history.

The unification of Upper and Lower Egypt marked the start of the dynastic period, around 3000 B.C. The political forum at this stage remained in Upper Egypt, moving north in the course of the second Dynasty (2890-2686 BC). This was the period when the Egyptian bureaucrats learnt to write, establishing many of the conventions that were to dominate Egyptian art for the next 3000 years.

The idea of kingship fully developed in the Old Kingdom (Dynasty III to Dynasty IV, 2686-2345 BC) and gave rise to many great works such as the Pyramids and the great Sphinx. This was the age of the Pyramid, where size was an indication of the power of the King.

The lavish and detailed wall paintings also gave an in-depth insight into daily life. "No ancient culture is so fully laid open inspection as in Egyptian daily life in the Old Kingdom."

The first papyrus scrolls probably also date back to the First Dynasty although the earliest examples discovered date back to the Fourth Dynasty. Religion at this stage also evolved from its simple form to a powerful ritual system based on the sun-god Re.

The next Dynasties were to be less lavish and the late Old Kingdom (2345-1982 BC) seems to have been a more confused time, leading to the more settled Middle Kingdom (1985-1795 BC): royal power remained great but some of the high offices were now held by non-royal professionals who ran Egypt's affairs on a more businesslike footing. Many of the texts describe in detail evidence of complex barter systems (no monetary system was to be found until much later). There is also much evidence of international trade and exchanges. The end of the period was marked by a collapse of central authority leading to internal chaos (under the rule of Queen Sobkneferu).

From the Second Intermediate period to the Early Dynasty (1795-1458BC), again another confused period with a quick succession of kings with very short reigns, culminating in the Early Dynasty (1550-1458 BC), where the rulers, Tutmosis I and Hatshepsut, who will be more familiar to the lay reader, appear. Queen Hatshepsut is perhaps best known for her outstanding architectural masterpiece, the temple built at Deir el-Bahi in the limestone cliffs, with open colonnades surrounding the terraces and remarkably detailed low reliefs depicting, amongst other scenes, the famous expedition to the land of Punt.

After Hatshepsut's regency, the next period (New Kingdom to the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty 1479-1295 BC) was to be characterised by the evolution of art and has provided us with some of the most lavish artefacts such as the riches from Tutankhamun's tomb.

The stability enjoyed during this period came to an end during the middle years of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The end of the New Kingdom (1295-715 BC) was to be marred by many invasions and conflicts between Egypt and its neighbours.

The Late period (747-343BC) starts with Nubian rulers who seemed to rescue Egypt from total collapse and again the arts flourish, with a new period of prosperity brought about by an influx of foreigners (thriving Jewish and Greek communities). But unfortunately the prosperity did not last and much unrest was to besiege the governments. During this period, Persian rulers asserted their authority and it was with some relief that the Egyptians saw the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332BC, during what is known as the Ptolemaic period (343-30BC). Alexander's arrival marked Egypt's independence from Persia's rule, but after his death, Ptolemy declared himself a Pharaoh and ruled Egypt in a near Greek fashion until, suffering from civil disorders, Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire. In these years, Cleopatra tried to reclaim some of Egypt's former glory. She appeared to be succeeding, but to the Egyptians she was a foreigner, to the Romans, Julius Caesar's mistress, and to the Greeks of Egypt, a traitor and as such, doomed to eventual failure.

A Short History of Ancient Egypt from Pre-dynastic to Roman Times by T.G.H. James is published by Cassell Publishers Ltd., Wellington House, 125 Strand, London WC2R 0BB.

Price [pounds]17.99
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wells, Rhona
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1996
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