Saturday, March 11, 2017

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Egypt



In 1799, one of Napoleon's soldiers discovered a mysterious stone in the Nile Delta, during the French campaigns into Egypt that year - a stone that would prove the key to Egyptology and its modern practice. The mysterious object was the Rosetta Stone, and it bore an inscription in three different languages - Egyptian hieroglyphics, a later form of the Egyptian language called "Demotic," and an ancient variety of Greek that was well-known already to Europeans. Although this soldier didn't know it then, this trilingual inscription would allow a young scholar named Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the script when he reached adulthood, since he was only nine years old at the time that his fellow Frenchman discovered this.


The Rosetta Stone

The Napoleonic campaigns in general - and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in particular - ignited a wave of true "Egyptomania" back in Europe, which grew into the modern discipline of Egyptology. Many great discoveries have been made in this area by archaeological digs at various sites, and some of these have uncovered information that was not known to anyone for centuries. Perhaps because of this, the discipline of Egyptology is sometimes considered a subfield of archaeology - a field broad enough to include sites from Greece to Rome to China to Central America. This classification points out that the excavations done in Egypt are just some of the many across the world that attract the attention of archaeologists; and there is truth in this claim. Nonetheless, the study of Egyptology encompasses more than just "digging in the dirt", and embraces written records as well; with languages whose grammar must be seriously studied and understood before a proper and complete history of the Egyptian past can be written. Thus, the Europeans classify Egyptology as a philological discipline (or in other words, a "linguistic" discipline); and the controversy over its classification continues today.




I just finished reading "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt," which advertises itself as being written by "a team of pioneering archaeologists" - something which is significant in and of itself in light of this global controversy over the classification of Egyptology. It may be even more significant, in fact, when you consider that this team is composed of scholars from many different nations, from Germany and France to Britain and America. It thus encompasses scholars from nations on both sides of the international divide on this issue. However you classify it, the book is clearly written by people who know about archaeological digging; and by people who have used techniques from radiocarbon dating to astronomical science to bring us new knowledge about these things. This book does not ignore written sources, but it would nonetheless seem best classified here as a work of archaeology first and foremost - complete with pictures from excavations in Egypt, which were known when this book was published in the year 2000.


The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre

Of the archaeological sites known in Egypt, the most iconic (of course) would seem to be the pyramids and the Sphinx, which are enduring symbols of this time that are well-known even outside of academia - something that cannot be said about archaeology in many other parts of the world. When one considers the primitive technology that the Egyptians had to work with then, the number of man-hours that must have been spent building these monuments is truly astonishing; and the fact that they were made at public expense is a testament to how much control the pharaohs really had at this time. This book manages to put all of these monuments into perspective here, showing the ideological functions they served in the state religion of the time. Like many peoples all over the world, the Egyptians venerated their kings as "divinely appointed," and sometimes even as gods themselves; so the modern concept of separation of church and state would have seemed quite foreign (and even alien) to them. It still seems foreign in Egypt today, which has been officially Muslim for centuries. There are still Jewish and Christian minorities to be found there, I should acknowledge, but they are the only non-Islamic religions to be allowed there now. The period this book covers is well before the Arab conquest of the seventh century, though, which is why they had the burial practices that preserved (at least some of) their kings as mummies. This is something which seems rare in the world, though not entirely unique; since mummification is actually found in some other cultures as well.


A real Egyptian mummy in the British Museum

The book does not ignore the Egyptians' international contacts with various other cultures, from the Near Eastern cultures of the Levant to the classical cultures of Greece & Rome. This is without mentioning nearby African peoples like the Nubians, who also feature prominently in Egyptian history. Some of the archaeological information about Egypt was discovered elsewhere in these cultures' homelands, actually; and information about these other cultures was likewise discovered in the Egyptian homeland. This would seem to evidence a (truly broad) extent of trade and warfare between Egypt and its neighbors. Nonetheless, the focus of the book is more on domestic concerns within Egypt, with detailed descriptions of everything from the religious kinds of developments to the more "traditional" realm of political history and pharaohs - which are all well-documented in the extensive written records. For many centuries, these vast written records had been there waiting for someone to read them; but had not been accessible to anyone because no one knew the language in which they were written. This is a testament to how revolutionary the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone really was, and what an enormous effect on the discipline of Egyptology that it would have eventually.


Tutankhamun (a. k. a. "King Tut"), one of the most famous pharaohs

The political coverage, not surprisingly, is the most extensive part of this book; since the story of a nation's rulers (real and fictitious both) is everywhere and always the best-documented part of any nation's history. The book has detailed information about pharaohs and their dynasties, complete with names wherever possible; and these dynasties are so numerous that the book marks them with numbers, with a full 30 dynasties covered in this book. Names and dates can become rather boring, I must say, when they are not placed in full context; but the book is usually pretty good about bringing these to life with a little context; and allowing the drama of the events to escape from the (sometimes humdrum) nature of some of the facts given - which require this context to be given true significance. As Indiana Jones says in the "Last Crusade" movie, though, archaeology is "the search for fact, not truth." This is one of the few accurate statements about archaeology to be made in these movies, as much as I am a fan of them. (Don't get me wrong - I love these movies - but they aren't an accurate picture of "real" archaeology; since it's a rare thing when Hollywood gets something right about history - but that's a rant for another post.)


Temple of Isis at Philae ("Isis" being a goddess)

So why did I invest all this time in studying Egypt, you might be wondering? Many of my friends who already know that I am into ancient history (not to mention ancient languages) would not be surprised to hear that I am learning it here; but I've been more into Ancient Greek than this "other" dead language, so it might seem somewhat strange that I spent over six months studying another culture besides Greece. It wouldn't seem so strange, though, when you consider that I am something of a Biblical scholar (albeit an amateur one); whose excursions into ancient history are mainly motivated by a curiosity about the Bible and its world - a Bible filled with references to Egypt. Besides the famous sojourn of Joseph there, this culture is also identified with the story of the Exodus, in which the Egyptians are the "cruel oppressors" of Jewish slaves. In fairness to the Egyptians, they were not the first culture to practice slavery, and they would not be the last; but the fact that they practiced it so extensively nonetheless is a a blight on their empire; and so they join the ranks of the many cultures that were antagonistic to the Hebrews (and thus "vilified" in the Bible).


Temple of Horus at Edfu

I don't wish to judge all of Egyptian society by the cruelty of one institution, though; since this book makes clear that they had a lot of accomplishments in the arts and sciences, which contributed much to secular learning and literature. My primary interest is their role in the Bible, of course, but one cannot make much sense of their considerable role in Biblical events without understanding the culture that they (and their actions) came from. Thus, Egyptian history will always be relevant to anyone interested in either Judaism or Christianity; and will help to make some sense out of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Book at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

History of Ancient Greece

History of Ancient Rome

History of the Ancient Near East


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