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the ancient egyptian state

14 september 2009

This review is of a textbook called The Ancient Egyptian State: The Origins of Egyptian Culture (c.8000-2000 BC) [Case Studies in Early Societies]. I can sense your chin dropping onto your chest as your eyes glaze over. Yet Robert Wenke's Ancient Egyptian State is one of the sharpest and most entertaining books I've read in recent months. Wenke takes a potentially dry subject and floods it with humor and humanism – while sacrificing nothing in the way of academic documentation and theoretical sophistication.

It is difficult to find a good general book about ancient Egypt. Cyril Aldred's general study The Egyptians, first published in 1961 and now available in a third edition revised by Aidan Dodson, is the best I'd previously seen. But even popular books tend to be dragged in the direction of dull chronicles of one king after another, or esoteric contemplations of drinking vessels of the Fourth Dynasty. Alternatively one finds tomes on "everyday life in ancient Egypt," which apparently consisted of thrashing barley and piling up really, really big stones.

Either way, the available introductions to Egypt don't inspire much wonder, possibly because Egyptian art and architecture are so austere as to evoke and restrain wonder at the same time. Robert Wenke avoids the aloofness that characterizes so many general books. His trick is to continually turn back to the human factor. He imagines what people probably thought and felt 4,500 years ago during Old Kingdom Egypt – always acknowledging that we can't be sure of empathizing with people so very distant in time and worldview from our own. At the same time, he conveys a vivid sense of what it's like to be a human of the 20th and 21st centuries, engaged in direct contact with the artifacts of that distant past.

The Ancient Egyptian State is a laugh-out-loud funny book. If you find humor in the presence of monumental architecture and lists of dynastic kings to be infra dig, you will probably hate it. But I can't imagine most readers being put off. Building pyramids was no fun for anyone involved, it's true. Probing their timbers and mortar for carbon-14 samples doesn't sound like a riot, either. But Egypt was also a land of beer and wine, of peculiar quirks of kings and their retinues, of sexual enthusiasm, of delight in a robust and truly classical artistic culture. And working in Egyptology, as Wenke relates it, is also an enterprise not devoid of its creature consolations, its linguistic inventiveness, and its appreciation for keenly rendered craftsmanship.

At the same time, Wenke ties his interpretations of Egypt into the larger framework demanded by the "Case Studies in Early Societies" series rubric. He is interested in the specifics of the emergence of Egyptian civilization, and also in comparative studies of the rises of civilizations worldwide: many of which involve pyramids, hieroglyphics, priestly cults, heavily managed agricultural economies, and absolute monarchs. Why should China, Mesopotamia, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incas all have evolved in roughly parallel ways?

My only disappointment with Wenke's book is the omission of current locations for the many artworks illustrated. Not that I am going to get to see many of them in my lifetime. The treasures of Egypt largely remain there, and on my income the Nile seems as remote to me as the Moon. But I fell in love with Egyptian art via a few Predynastic objects in Brooklyn, in the great grey museum on Prospect Park. I'd love to know where the various items that Wenke pictures are held, whether it's Cairo or London, Manhattan or Berlin. Perhaps Cambridge UP could set up a complementary website with documentation on the illustrations in Wenke's text.

Wenke, Robert J. The Ancient Egyptian State: The origins of Egyptian culture (c.8000-2000 BC) [Case Studies in Early Societies]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.