August Books 50) The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt (edited by A.J. Spencer)

This is a comprehensive full-colour guide to ancient Egyptian civilisation, which I bought when young F was at the height of his Egyptophile phase last year. It is addressed at a grownup readership and covers particularly the issues visible from the British Museum’s own collections. There is a huge amount of detail here, covering three and a half millennia (including the Pharaohs of the First Dynasty – Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djen, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qaa). It will take me a while to absorb, but two issues jumped out at me for further exploration.

First, I was fascinated to discover the survival of ancient Egyptian literature – stories such as The Tale of Sinuhe, dating from the early to mid Twelfth Dynasty, so around the 19th century BC, 4000 years ago. I must look out for them; apparently there are a couple of volumes edited by R.B. Parkinson in the 1990s.

Second, I was interested to read repeated descriptions of Egypt suffering under and oppressed by its foreign rulers (mainly the Hellenistic pharaohs from Alexander on, though they were not the first). I had always thought of this as rather a nineteenth-century concept, linked with the growth of romantic nationalism in various European countries; my impression was that a lot of people in earlier times ended up with ruling elites who spoke a different language and generally took it in their stride (usually by getting the elites to go native – the Goths in Spain and Italy, the Kievan Rus, the Normans in first Normandy then England and Sicily, the Old English in Ireland). I wonder to what extent the objection to Greek speaking rulers rested on what we would today identify as Egyptian nationalist grounds? Or is the writer (or the reader, ie me) projecting modern concepts onto a very different ancient world?

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