Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Civilization of Ancient Egypt

Paul Johnson
Seven Dials
Wellington House
ISBN: 184188068X

This attractive book is filled with numerous colored pictures which accompany a text of some sophistication explaining the foundations of the Egyptian culture and its desire to live in memory and in the soul for eternity that is an eternity engraved in stone. Mr. Johnson deals with man in accordance to his shifting environment;

"As the savannah turned into a desert and paleolithic man began to descend to the Nile terraces and then to the valley bottom. Of course, the valley was initially marsh. For many millennia, the tract from the First Cataract to Thebes was a lake; and much of the delta remained marsh throughout our period."

The rise and fall of the Nile river determine the seasons in an agricultural civilization which now flourishes in the valley as hunter-gatherers become farmers.  Among the beautiful pictures accompanying the text is one from the tomb of Nakht of men gathering grapes, its caption telling us that it is from the time of Thutmosis V?

The author puts forward the acknowledgment that the birth of civilization occurred much earlier in areas of Mesopotamia and the Middle east where excavations at Jericho and in Turkey at sites like Catal Huyuk have evidence going back to 8000 BC, where no evidence at this early date is known in Egypt. From the dawn of the Egyptian state come about a dozen stunning votive cosmetic palettes which deal with the unification of the peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt and the establishment of the office of the king at around 3100 BC.

The theology of these early people is beautifully explained by the author;

"it was only in the closing stages of the development in predynastic times that force seems to have been employed to group medium-sized units into two large ones, and eventually into a united country. In this process gods fought alongside men, in the sense that village and district totem-figures cannibalized subject deities and absorbed their power. These obscure struggles formed the basis of later myths and emerged in historic times to constitute the structure of Egypt's polytheology."

The battle of Osiris and Seth comes to symbolize the tale of good and evil with Horus the mythical embodiment of almost all of Egypt's mortal king's. In the death of Osiris, we find the Lord of the Underworld and the one through which all souls must pass to find eternity in the allusian fields.

The shaping of stone tools leads to the supernatural art of creating stone vases which were meant never to be seen or used except to be buried in a dark tomb. The power of royal authority culminates in the god-kings of Dynasty 4 and their pyramids on the Giza plateau.

Mr. Johnson presents a good read moving through developments in kingship and government from the god-king's and their families who hold the offices of government on to the decline of the centralized king to a population of provincial king's unifying ultimately in a prince of Thebes at the start of the second millennium BC. The book is wonderfully thought-provoking on elements of the Egyptian civilization which are rarely dealt with, the nuances and laws written or more often not written which governed the state of Maat are well put forward and developed.

Having said this it must be mentioned that the book is not for kids as the language and content would be more appropriate to someone with a more advanced education. I loved the consecutive pictures of the Abydos Kings Lists from the incredibly delicate raised relief of Seti I's list to the crude sunk relief of Ramesses II's list.

One of my favorite chapters was on hieroglyphs and linguistic developments not only in Egypt but among her neighbors as well while the hieroglyphs remain static and in finished development for their sacred purpose, the civil off-springs of hieratic, demotic and Coptic in turn develop the script into the Roman period and on into the Christian Era. The stelea that accompanies this chapter are stunning and unusual examples as is the granite statue of Dersenedj from Giza.

A stelea of a married couple on page 172 is a masterpiece of austerity where pictograph meets inscription to produce a primitive yet modern/timeless image to please gods and ancestors.  There again appear the mistakes, a picture of the famous model of Meketre and his scribes doing the cattle count is mistakenly referred to as terracotta.

The sitting statue of Sekhema, supervise of the writers is an amazing example achieved of sculpture and the strict conventions with which the Egyptian artist followed faithfully. In this case of Sekhema and his family, the artist has overcome a complex composition to create a state of authority and serene presence, a state of Maat.

In chapter 8 the author deals with the decline of royal authority which as usual is the result of the lack of wealth as the king's of the late Ramesside period lost the rich booty which had been the result of the dominance of Egypt's neighbors by the 18th Dynasty kings at the beginning of the New Kingdom.

Now at the end of the second millennium BC., Egypt's economy is eventually stabilized by the liberation of precious metals and objects stored away in tombs. Hence the assets of the glory days became a major force in the weak economy, From here Egypt would go through many occupations that would complete the last millennium of pharaohs with kings who would hold on to the bronze age and Egypt's glorious past as the rest of the world ran headlong into the Iron age.

In the final chapter, Mr. Johnson brings us back to our own time with the rediscovery of the hieroglyphs bringing a renewed appreciation of the value, tradition and the function of the art of the ancient Egyptian's and their desire for their destinies of eternity to which they have succeeded.

"The Civilization of Ancient Egypt" though sprinkled with many big words and small technical irregularities was thoughtful and thought provoking, a read that one day I may visit again!

Make holiday, have a good time without wearying. For it is not given to man to take his property with him. No one who leaves this life ever comes back.

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