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From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience in Ancient Egypt.

From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience in Ancient Egypt. By DONALD B. REDFORD. Baltimore: JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2004. Pp. ix + 218. $44.95.

With a profound interest in the sources and the story they have to tell, Donald B. Redford brings to his work a lively critical imagination that makes it always fresh. Redford presents us with a discussion of relations between subsaharan Africa and Egypt, featuring prominently the brief, but triumphantly notable Twenty-fifth Dynasty. It deals with much the same subject as Robert Morkot's recent work, The Black Pharaohs: Egypt's Nubian Rulers (London, 2002).

It must be noted that the book's title does not reflect the actual subject well. The rulers of the Twenty-fifty Dynasty had never been slaves, nor were they descended from slaves, as far as we know. While the population of the Nubian Nile Valley had been occupied and colonized for the most part, they also had never been slaves. Slavery existed in Egypt, and it may have been more important than Egyptologists have wanted to admit, and the enslavement of subsaharan Africans also occurred. However, the acquisition of subsaharan Africans to the exclusion of others, the large-scale deportation of Africans to a non-African place, the deliberate cultural creolization, and the systematic social isolation of subsaharan Africans did not happen. Without these elements, the Black experience, as understood in North America, cannot rightly be thrust onto ancient Egypt. Instead, the experience of subsaharan Africans (including Nubians) in relation to Egypt was far more complex, right from the beginning, because Egypt is an African place. To be fair, Redford has recounted enough of the complexity in the relationships to refute the title. The title does not detract from the book, but many readers will not get what they might expect, for it is not an investigation of the lives of non-Egyptian Africans in Egypt.

The core of From Slave to Pharaoh is found in chapters five through fifteen, which deal with events from the conquest of Kush by New Kingdom Egypt to the expulsion of Kushite forces from Egypt by the Assyrians. These are the areas of Redford's deepest experience, and the account is masterly. This is not a simple or compact period, however, and he must gloss over numerous vexing questions. One such is the origin of the Eighteenth Dynasty, whose Nubian origin Redford favors, but offers no suggestion of how this might be explained. This view might be worth pursuing, however, for evidence he cites indicates a major Kushite intervention in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. There are other precedents, most particularly in the founder of the Fourteenth Dynasty, whose name (Panehsy) indicates that he was a Nubian, and there are (at least) the Aswani ancestress of the Twelfth Dynasty, and the major Nubian associations of the Eleventh (Morkot, Black Pharaohs, pp. 51-55).

Another issue is the practical status of Egyptian imperialism in Nubia during the New Kingdom. If it is true that recent assessments of Egyptian statecraft overstress the utilitarian, it is also true that the records we have favor the symbolic and that other motives may well lie behind some of the events celebrated in the formulistic triumphalism of the pharaohs. For example, the possession of gold was no mere incidental result of the Nubian conquest, but a real source of Egyptian prestige in Western Asia, as its rulers so vividly testify in the correspondence with Egypt. How divergent opinions can be is illustrated by the contrast between Redford's view (pp. 44-57) of abject Nubian subjection and Morkot's (Black Pharaohs, pp. 69-90) of rebellion and reciprocity, but then we have no letters from Nubian rulers to balance the picture given by the monuments as the Amarna letters do for Asia. However, by the end of the period, the administration of Nubia had become Nubian at the top.

The interpretation of the Third Intermediate Period is especially difficult, as Redford points out, for there is a curious divergence between the Nubian archaeology and the occasional monument, such as the Kadimalo/Karimala inscription. See Morkot, Black Pharaohs, pp. 151-53, with recent considerations from R. Caminos, and Tormod Eide, Tomas Hagg, Richard Pierce, and Laszlo Torok, Fontes Historiae Nubiorum I (Bergen, 1994), 35-41.

Redford's account of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty mixes history with the results of his own archaeological research in Thebes. The historical account is straightforward enough, although he uses a chronology that makes Shabako the victor of Eltekah (pp. 90-92), while others have had Shebitku as the ruler with Taharqo present as an officer, or only as a later gloss (Morkot, Black Pharaohs, pp. 210-11, citing Kitchen). Redford also draws a fairly sharp distinction between the Kushites' treatment of the Delta, which was left under local dynasts, and their rule in the Nile Valley, where they concentrated their power and their building program. It was, in Redford's view, the last hurrah for the cult of Amun as the national god of Egypt, and he deals with it not just from the point of view of the religious construction and restorations but from that of the reviving life of Thebes as his excavations uncovered it.

In the main chapters of this book, Redford is completely at home. The discussions drill down to original sources, although he might have referred the reader more often to texts in the Fontes. Some problems appear in the introductory and epilogue chapters. For example, in dealing with the Neolithic, Redford accepts that early Nubia was stimulated by ceramic styles from the north (p. 3), while the direction of ceramic influence, despite Egyptian imports, was largely the reverse. This continues with an underestimation of the A-Group based on observations that are now obsolete. This would not be much of a difficulty, except that it reflects the traditional Egypt-centered assumption that Nubia furnished only raw material and, occasionally, manpower. That the relationship was more balanced is indicated, for example, by the Old Kingdom execration texts, and by the fact that Nubians penetrated Egypt at all levels after the Old Kingdom. The concept of boundary was just that, a concept. In actuality, foreigners entered Egypt and Egyptians departed their country in some numbers. Some cultural influence was bound to follow, but this was well enough naturalized by the Egyptians to go unnoticed by most Egyptologists. In the epilogue Redford refers to the Kushite use of Egyptian culture as increasingly bastardized and degenerate. Although reams of scholarship to the contrary invite citation, a simple glance at the temple reliefs of Musawwarat and Naga is enough to repel the notion.

The traditional view of the Nubian intervention of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty is that it was an anomaly, and this is what comes through in the present volume. However, Redford has himself mentioned earlier Nubian rulers, dynasties, and interventions in Egypt, so it was far from anomalous. Moreover, when the Twenty-fifth Dynasty arrived on the scene, Kush clearly outclassed any power in Egypt and had to be dislodged by the greatest military power of the day, and then only after repeated attempts. Kush was forestalled thereafter only with the help of foreign troops, thus only by adding extra weight to the balance.

If this review has stressed differences of approach and opinion, I now stress that this is an interesting, well-written, informative, and challenging book, and it is well worth reading.


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Author:Williams, Bruce
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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