Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Book review: The Story of Egypt, Joann Fletcher (2015)

I bought this at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD while on a search for information about antiquity. It cost the recommended retail price.

And this gripping thriller is worth every cent a reader pays to acquire. Fletcher goes quite fast and the book is filled with facts. Her chronology begins in prehistory when the people who would become residents of the Nile Valley lived in lush landscapes where desert is now. Those people migrated to the river in search of greener pastures, and the annual flood became the root of their civilisation, whereupon they based their entitlement to rule and their religion.

For thousands of years Egyptians commemorated their godlike rulers, preserving their remains so that they could live in the afterlife and so that the survivors could continue to enjoy a style of life to which their forefathers had become accustomed. It was a strange political settlement where the connection to the sun was of paramount importance and where, nevertheless, the king (pharaoh – literally, the resident of the big house) led the troops in battle.

Fletcher has a wry sense of humour and liberally comments on both earlier commentators and the political and religious figures – with the two provinces of endeavour inextricably bound up together in Egyptian history – she writes about. 

The historical record didn’t become visible in the West until the middle of the 19th century and when it did there was some attempt to conserve the remains of dead pharaohs, but more could sometimes have been done. Along with the state-sanctioned looting conducted by later Egyptian dynasties, European rifling of graves left holes in the record, which such later historians as Fletcher have been industriously patching up, mixing information gleaned from archaeological digs and laboratory studies with scraps of information from written records (including carved inscriptions, writing on jewellery, and paintings).

It's a mammoth task and completely engrossing for the attentive reader. If you persist with the thick tangle of facts contained in this book you’ll reap a treasure-trove of insights not only about Egypt in its ancient guise, but also about the nature of religion, Hellenistic antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans, and also about the history of Western civilisation.

A veritable cornucopia of happiness and reward cloaked enticingly with a semi-transparent veil of arcane and exotic names and ideas associated with the north-African region. So, the closer you delve into the mysteries the wider the applicability of the information that results from your reading. From the specific derives the general.

Enormously fun! I even developed my own theory about the origin of the ankh symbol (which looks so similar to the Christian cross): the south-north axis of the Nile Valley crossed from east to west by the track of the sun, with the body of the Mediterranean at the apex. 

This author in her engaging narrative focuses on the role of religion, a quality that sets this book apart from most histories of the pre-Christian period, which tend to be a catalogue of wars and rulers. As Fletcher notes, Alexander the Great wisely accommodated the Egyptians’ religion, something that set him apart from the despised Persian kings who had immediately preceded him. 

But Alexander was a cultured man, taught by Aristotle in his youth, so he knew better than to insult his hosts. As a result they welcomed him as the embodiment of Horus. To make Egyptian customs more acceptable to Greeks, Horus was equated with Zeus, and Thoth, the god of scribes, with Hermes. Fantastic stuff …

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