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Where Past Was Present

THE MIND OF EGYPT: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, By Jan Assmann, Metropolitan Books: 514 pp., $35

April 21, 2002|BRIAN FAGAN | Brian Fagan is the author of numerous books, including "The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt." His most recent book is "The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850." He is a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara.

The grand sweep of ancient Egyptian civilization encompasses 3,000 magnificent years. The Egyptians themselves were well aware of the antiquity of their civilization. Egyptian priests at Naukratis in Lower Egypt chided the Greek sage Solon when he talked history with them in 530 BC. "You Hellenes," they tartly reminded him, "are but children," and they were right.

Thirty dynasties of pharaohs span these 3,000 years, achieving three apogees of magnificence. The Old Kingdom was the age of Pyramids (circa 2550 BC), the Middle Kingdom a time of high artistic and religious achievement (circa 2000 BC) and the New Kingdom (1570 to 1070 BC) the time of Egypt's imperial glory. The great traditions of Egyptian civilization endured another millennium, to be finally submerged under the dictates of Rome and the beliefs of Christianity.

Ancient Egypt exercises a powerful fascination. We live in close familiarity with the ancient Egyptians, with the best-known pharaohs, Cheops, Akhenaten and Ramesses II. Theirs is the face of ancient Egypt, which is turned toward us, recovered from inscription and papyrus and with the archeologist's spade. But there is a hidden face, too, that of the infinitesimal changes, unnoticed by those who experience them and visible only to the analytical gaze of the historian.

In his magnificent "The Mind of Egypt," Jan Assmann likens humans to spiders, who act within the invisible webs they have woven: webs of interaction among themselves and worlds of meaning whose horizons define action, experience and remembrance.

He asks what meaning Egyptians obtained from their own constructions of their history. How did they incorporate the legacy of the past into the present? Assmann examines patterns of continuity and disruption. Assmann writes: "The old remained present; it never became alien in the sense of representing something left definitively behind."

Using three approaches--archeological, mythic and epigraphic or iconographic--Assmann takes us on a chronological journey, starting with the formation of the unified state in about 3100 BC, and going through the three great kingdoms. He ends in the late period with the final whimpers of Egyptian civilization. The archeological and pictorial evidence for the beginnings of Egyptian civilization chronicles campaigns of military conquest that unified competing city-states into a single civilization.

The famous myth of Horus, the falcon god of Upper Egypt, uniter of the two lands, and Seth, ancient master of Lower Egypt, symbol of chaos, depicts them locked in deadly combat, then reconciled as the two lands become a unified kingdom. The reconciliation of Horus and Seth legitimizes conquest as a way of creating a world of order. Unification became the central canon of Egyptian civilization during the Old Kingdom, which lasted until 2150 BC.

Assmann also identifies the fundamental dichotomy between mud brick and stone, the latter becoming the material for monumental edifices (and hence for immortality), the former the building material for the living. This symbolic conjunction between the state and immortality began in the Old Kingdom with the pyramids and other masonry edifices.

Then came the First Intermediate Period of about 2150 BC, when the state fell part and chaos reigned at a time of drought and political instability. Former provincial governors ruled their domains like pharaohs. The life-giving Nile flooding became a mere dribble; food riots erupted. In places, we are told, one could walk across the river dry-shod. Assmann shows how the collapse of established order became embedded in the Egyptian mind.

The Middle Kingdom began with another process of unification, followed by a great cultural apogee of civilization, which defined the timeless and definitive expression of Egyptian civilization--connective justice in the hereafter--into the Late Period. The Middle Kingdom kings introduced three new ideas, derived in part from the earlier centuries of chaos, disunity and famine: the ruler as the son of god, the importance of loyalty and the value of achievement.

The provincial warlords of the chaotic centuries had practiced patronage in exchange for loyalty. The Middle Kingdom pharaohs, who reestablished the unified state, elevated patronage to a religious ideology, according to which faithful adherents enjoyed success in this world and eternal life after death. The pharaoh became a good shepherd protecting his sheep from the wolves of chaos.

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