One is left, after reading Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, wondering why he bothered to write the work at all, or indeed to devote his life — as he gamely tells his readers in the book’s introduction that he has done — to the study of Ancient Egypt.
So full the book is of sneering, condescending judgments of the past that one emerges from 400 pages on 3000 years of Ancient Egyptian history feeling that one has gained insight principally into the extremity of modern liberal piety.
Scarcely a paragraph goes by without Wilkinson poking fun at one pharaoh or another in language more appropriate to an attack on Donald Trump than the presentation of history. The subject here is not ancient Egypt, at all, one realizes, but modern authoritarianism. The pyramids are “propaganda.” Egyptian religion, with its ascription of divinity to the pharaohs, is “spin.” Other scholars who marvel at the absence of evidence of popular unrest during the Old Kingdom are delusional, because Wilkinson knows — just knows — that dictatorships do not make their people happy.
I have never encountered a historian who seemed so unable to crawl out of his own contemporary moral universe and into the minds of his subjects. How different Nietzsche is as a thinker about the past! Nietzsche dares to take what the past has to tell us at face value. He teaches us that if the pharaoh declares himself a living god, it is not some cynical ploy to indoctrinate the masses, but because the pharaoh really believes that he has become a living god.
And that poses a question for Nietzsche: how is it possible that back then a person could really believe such a thing — not just that there is a god, but that someone not otherwise mentally ill could genuinely believe that he is a god — whereas today we are so incapable of believing it? How is it possible that today we insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that the denizens of the past did not really believe in god, and viewed the divine with the same cynicism with which we view the divine today? What has become of our ability to believe?
Wilkinson recounts the history of thirty-two dynasties marked out by incredible strength of belief in god, belief so powerful that it could ascribe divinity to living, breathing, tangible creatures — pharaohs, bulls, baboons — not just abstract ideas, and yet Wilkinson seems perfectly content to view all that religious activity, from beginning to end, as just so much propaganda.
If it were all just propaganda, then why the incredible cult of the dead, the obsessive building of tombs that seems to have consumed the entire life of every person with any resources, not just the pharaohs? A king can call himself a god without needing to say anything about the afterlife. Mao took on a divine role in mid-20th century China, for instance, without appealing to an afterlife.
And what of Akhenaten, who believed himself the sole god in the Egyptian metaphysic? Where did that belief come from, and why did Egyptian society ultimately reject it? If the purpose of Egyptian religion were mere propaganda, shouldn’t the state be indifferent between a propaganda of multiple deities and a propaganda of one? Was Akhenaten just focus group testing a new marketing pitch? Wilkinson doesn’t make that claim, but it would fit right in to his analysis.
The problem here is not just Wilkinson’s incomprehension of Ancient Egyptian religion, but his base cynicism about all things Ancient Egyptian. Toward the end of the book, Wilkinson recounts the efforts of the wife of the high priest of Ptah in Memphis to have a son.
Taimhotep “prayed together with the High Priest to the majesty of the god great in wonders, effective in deed, who gives a son to him who has none: Imotep, son of Ptah.” Wondrously, the prayer was answered. Imhotep appeared to her in a dream, promising her a son if she would arrange for his Memphite shrine to be beautified — you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt 472 (2010).
The contrast between the directness of the ancient text excerpted in Wilkinson’s account, a directness pregnant with belief, and Wilkinson’s trashy, colloquial, and irreverent summing up of the process as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the horror of anachronism, and perhaps modernity more generally.
One wonders whether Wilkinson has ever had anyone appear to him in a dream — promising something that Wilkinson wants desperately — let alone striven to produce great art as an expression of his yearning. One wonders indeed whether Wilkinson is even aware of how impoverished a soul is that has never had such a vision.
Reading the passage excerpted above, I recall the upside down map of Ancient Egypt that Wilkinson helpfully provides at the beginning of the book, in which what we would call southern Egypt, the Nile’s origins in deep Africa, appears at the top, as Upper Egypt, and the Nile Delta at the bottom, as Lower Egypt. I imagine the silt of the Nile, all the miles of garbage that the river has drained out into the delta, and I imagine the modern age standing below that, in the depths of the waste dump, at the very bottom of Ancient Egypt, reaching up with its incomprehension and utter lowness, clawing at the country’s history, clawing at Memphis and even Thebes, trying ineffectively to pull all down.
The only bearable characteristic of the book is Wilkinson’s evident pleasure in the perspective that Ancient Egypt’s great age and longevity provides on the merely ancient history with which his readers are no doubt more familiar.
Hundreds of pages of reading and the better part of a thousand years pass before one even reaches Ancient Egypt’s second great epoch, the Middle Kingdom. Hundreds of pages and hundreds of years more pass, and one has scarcely reached 1500 years before Christ. Ramesses II is still not to be born for centuries. Homer is still nearly a thousand years in the future. The world we know as the ancient world, the world of Athens and Sparta, of Alexander and Rome, all this starts to appear only at the very end of the book, only after Egypt enters into a final thousand years of civilizational decline.
This long perspective is fresh and welcome: it reveals that our ancient world is hopelessly, depressingly, new. Reading Wilkinson’s book during a visit to Rome, your humble correspondent could not help but feel quite disappointed by the ruins of the Colloseum and Forum. Twenty-five centuries after Khufu built the Great Pyramid of Giza, all the Romans could manage was this? Wilkinson does a nice job of showing us that far from carving civilization out of nature, our ancients were operating against the backdrop of an already very ancient world.
This antiquity of antiquity brings me back to Nietzsche. For I was struck throughout Wilkinson’s book by the way Ancient Egypt seems to represent the pre-Christian ideal for which Nietzsche so often grasps. The ideal of the unabashed, guiltless embrace of power. In Zarathustra, Nietzsche associates it with one pre-Christian tradition.
But Ancient Egypt seems to epitomize it. And in Wilkinson, I suppose, one therefore has an intertemporal ressentiment.