It’s easy to tell ourselves that ancient Egypt now exists only in romantic poetry about crumbling sculptures or blockbusters about swashbuckling archaeologists. The truth – that Egypt played a starring role in the history which shaped this strange global culture we now consider ‘the West’ – requires some self-examination and some willingness to see ourselves in the Other.
In a review of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New Yorker writer Peter Schjeldahl said, “If ‘the past is a foreign country,’ as Leslie Poles Hartley wrote, Egypt’s is a foreign world. We thrill to it as children, our innocence a passport which age revokes” (Schjeldahl 2006). The romance born of the apparent exoticism of ancient Egypt belies the country’s long history in dialogue with the ancients we consider our genuine cultural ancestors.
As Kwame Anthony Appiah observed in the Guardian article “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation,” “the very idea of a ‘European’ was first used to contrast Christians and Muslims” (Appiah 2016). The sharp line we draw between ‘European’ ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome, and the exotic ‘non-European’ Egypt would have made little sense to the ancients themselves, and Egypt has done far more for our modern ‘western’ culture than we’re willing to acknowledge. Though the classic Athenian democracy may feel more familiar to us than Egyptian divine kingship, we’re not as far from Rameses the Great as we may think.
The central role of religion in Egyptian kingship is, by now, a piece of popular knowledge. Numerous texts – both fiction and nonfiction – explore the divinely inspired incestuous dynasties embodied by the boy-king Tutankhamun and his sister-wife Ankhesenamun, the ideological trappings of the pharaoh as a god among the existing pantheon, and the rigid social class stratification that could support such an unequal apotheosis of one individual above their nation. In Ellen F. Morris’s “The Pharaoh and the Pharaonic Office,” (2010) these characteristics of Egyptian rule are catalogued, but the underlying mystery of how such a power system sustained itself and even rebounded after two intermediate periods is never resolved. As in much other scholarship on Egypt, Morris sees the rule of the pharaoh as inevitable – just as the pharaoh would have wished.
By taking this purely ideological perspective on Egyptian kingship, however, we risk forgetting that the Egyptian kings were still bound by mortal lives and mortal flows of power. If no one but the pharaoh had benefitted from the dynastic monarchies which dominated Egyptian history, the practice of divine kingship would never have survived for almost two thousand years. It’s worth asking who gained economically and politically from the pharaonic status quo.
CGP Grey’s short video “Death & Dynasties” puts the viewer in the king’s (or pharaoh’s) seat, offering the advice that to keep power, you need to keep ‘the keys’ (key office holders and regime supporters) contented. In ancient Egypt, the economic, priestly, and military elite received significant incentives to support successive pharaonic regimes, and dynastic families contributed to the impression of a stable continuity of rule for all involved. These balances of power are common across cultures through all historical eras and geographical regions. It’s this economic reality that underpins Francis Oakley’s theories of the the historical predominance of divine kingship across history (Oakley 2006). Even if we as a culture have separated the religious from the political, the rules of power which governed ancient Egyptian pharaohs still apply.
In the Guardian article mentioned above, Appiah ultimately noted that “No Muslim essence stops the inhabitants of Dar al-Islam [the Muslim ‘East’] from taking up anything from western civilisation, including Christianity or democracy” (Appiah 2016). This is a more fruitful way of looking at cultural differences than the track taken by many texts presenting ancient Egypt to the modern west. When Brier and Hobbs assert in their popular history Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians that the “buildings, architecture, clothing, food and medicine [of the ancient Egyptians] may have been thousands of years ahead of their time, but their view of the world was closer to a prehistoric caveman’s than to ours,” (Brier and Hobbs 2008:xii), they not only buy into orientalist fallacies, but they also alienate their reader from engaging with history.
If we imagine the ancient Egyptians to be inherently different from us, possessing some “inherent conservatism of character” (Brier and Hobbs 2008:xii) that no modern culture shares, we may miss the forces of ideological power acting invisibly on our own society.
In the Met Museum exhibit review referenced above, Peter Schjeldahl also asserted, “the Egyptians can seem strangest in the matters that make them most likable. Throughout the decades of political and familial tumult [of the New Kingdom] there’s nary a hint that anybody indulged in the sensible expedient of murder—except symbolically” (Schjeldahl 2006). Whether the Egyptian monarchal power really managed to avoid state-sanctioned ‘elimination’ of political rivals or whether they were simply good at hiding the evidence from history, it doesn’t do to discount the symbolic ‘murder’ of old regimes in our current political world.
In an America where the intentions of the founding fathers are spoken of in the same terms as God’s divine plan, and the name of our last President is used as a slur to denigrate legislation like the Affordable Care Act, can we really pretend to be so different from the kingdoms that came before?
Appiah, K.A. 2016. “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation.” The Guardian. Published November 9, 2016. Accessed March 1, 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture>
Brier, B., and H. Hobbs. 2008. Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Second Edition. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
CGP Grey. 2016. “Death & Dynasties (Rules for Rulers Follow-up).” YouTube. Published November 7, 2016. Accessed March 1, 2017. <https://youtu.be/ig_qpNfXHIU>
Morris, E.F. 2010. “The Pharaoh and Pharaonic Office.” In A Companion to Ancient Egypt, 201-217. Volume 1. Edited by A.B. Lloyd. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Oakley, F. 2006. Kingship: The Politics of Enchantment. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Schjeldahl, P. 2006. “Rule Like an Egyptian: Hatshepsut, the King and Queen.” The New Yorker. Published April 3, 2006. Accessed March 1, 2017. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/03/rule-like-an-egyptian>
Title Image: Bust of Rameses II. Wikipedia Commons.