A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Present, by Jason Thompson.
London, Haus Publishing, 382pp, ISBN 977 416 0916. £17.99
Anyone undertaking the immense task of writing Egypt’s history should start by reminding themselves of the warning that the outgoing King Farouk gave to General Naguib: ‘Your task will be difficult.’ For historians, there are at least three major obstacles to overcome. The first is the extent of the project: the dwellers on the Nile have more than 5000 years of recorded history and a couple of millennia of predynastic society. The second hurdle is the number of people who have already attempted the task, although this has not daunted the author of this latest work. The third is the interests of the reader: Egyptian history attracts both scholars and interested holidaymakers. The historian Jason Thompson’s latest work attempts to present some serious history in a book intended to please the general reader.
Thompson tells the story of dynastic Egypt, starting with the unification of the upper and lower lands c.3100 BC. He makes up for the paucity of historical detail in the lives of early kings by considering the nature of early Egyptian kingship. Later, with the New Kingdom monarchs for instance, there is more detail—he gives a good sense of the lives and motives of characters such as Hatshepsut, the regent who seized power, and Amenhotep IV, who moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna and worshiped the god Aten.
Egypt’s history touches on many parts of the story of Western civilization, and to tell it successfully one needs to synthesize. In his works on the 19th century Egyptophiles Sir Gardiner Wilkinson and Edward Lane, Thompson proved his ability to handle vast amounts of material, and he has been similarly skillful here. The ancient and Classical periods, up to the defeat of the Byzantines, are covered in 150 pages. The modern period, from Muhammad Ali to the present day, is given similar coverage. Both of these sections read well and provide an excellent overview of the periods. If there is a weakness, it is in the 1300 years between the key invasions of the Arabs under Amr in 639 and the French under Napoleon in 1798. The period that saw the arrival of the Tulunids, the Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamluks is one of the most fascinating of all Egypt’s long history, and yet here the material is overly synthesized, the reigns pass too quickly, the details of lives that were lived in short supply.
Thompson’s account of the modern period is more successful. He is on familiar territory with the reign of Muhammad Ali, against which his recent biography of Edward Lane is set. There is also much to say, for the Albanian had an impact on all aspects of Egyptian life. So too did the British, about whose rule Thompson is even-handed, recognizing the advances made by the occupiers while also condemning the less-appealing aspects of colonialism. He is similarly even-handed when considering the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors, presidents Sadat and Mubarak, although he is perhaps too generous in his assessment of the current regime’s achievements, as he is too soft on the way the regime has suppressed the population’s democratic and human rights in its attempts to stay in power.
A History of Egypt starts and ends, appropriately, with the Nile. Herodotus called the country the gift of the river. Thompson reminds us that the country has long been making impossible demands on the thin thread of water that runs through its middle. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that Egyptians have two particular skills, one being the ability of confound dire predictions, the other to survive calamities.