Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Egyptians

The Egyptians
by Alan Gardiner

This is a reprinting by the Folio Society of Gardiner’s 1961 book Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction. It’s apparently a classic in its field, and still used in places as a textbook, despite its age. There’s no doubt it’s an informative, scholarly work. It’s a chronological examination of the history of the Pharaohs of Egypt, as nearly reign by reign as feasible. Of course, that’s not really possible; there’s too little known. The book is effectively an attempt at establishing a chronology of Egypt up to the time of Alexander the Great.

There’s nothing, or very little, about the experience of the people of the country. There’s some discussion of Egypt’s wars, but little about the way they went to war — either in terms of attitudes to war and soldiering, or in terms of weapons and technology used. There’s effectively nothing about religion, except insofar as it connects up with the political history of Egypt. Nor about art. Nor about culture or literature. Nor even about mummies. 

Much of this is by design.“We frankly admit our aim to have been propaganda,” Gardiner says in his Epilogue, “and our ambition will not have been satisfied unless we succeed in winning at least one fresh recruit to our fascinating field of research.” He writes this explaining why he’s left out the things he has, and why he’s spent much of the book discussing archaeology, and deliberating between different theories or analyses of archaeological research. He’s frankly hoping to draw people in to the field. I find his choices have the opposite effect: rather than presenting Egypt as a subject in its own right, with its own mysteries and fascination, it becomes merely a field of rubble for scholars to pick over. Something dead. Something mummified.

Up to a point, this is actually valuable; there’s no romanticism about the mysteries of the Pharaohs here. But the style can’t help but be dry. There’s too little known for sure about the Pharaohs, and specifically too little known about their individual personalities, for the subject to connect on a human level the way more recent history can. Gardiner’s choice to present pre-dynastic Egypt out of chronological sequence at the end of the book doesn’t help matters.

Gardiner’s writing doesn’t always help; it’s not that he’s a bad stylist on the sentence level, but he doesn’t seem to have understood how to construct a paragraph. Again and again paragraphs sprawl shapelessly for a page or more. One wishes a bit more craft had gone into the shaping of the text.

I can understand why this was a valuable book in its time; I’m not sure how much of it has been superseded in the past near-half-century, but as I say, I have read that it was being used as a textbook in an Egyptian history class. There’s a lot of information in the book; but lacking human context, it’s difficult to keep that information in memory, difficult to make it connect with anything, difficult to give it a human face. On one level, it has to be admitted that Gardiner accomplished just what he set out to do — he wrote a book containing exactly the information he wanted, and leaving out what was not relevant to his theme. But on another level, I can’t help but think that according to his stated aim, he failed. This is not the sort of book that I can see easily sparking the imagination.

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