THE OXFORD HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT
Edited by Ian Shaw, published by Oxford University Press at £15.00. 512pp with 36 colour plates. ISBN: 0-19-280293-3
This is not, it must be said, an easy book to review. For one thing its scope is massive – some 7,500 years of Egyptian history and prehistory from the pre-dynastic cultures of the Nile Valley through to the end of the Roman period. For another it weaves together a vast number of strands and themes into a single coherent narrative, with the added complication that the book comprises a collection of 15 substantial chapters each written by a different contributor, and Shaw has done an excellent job in ensuring that the contributors hand the thread of history over to their successor cleanly and seamlessly like an effective baton change in a relay.
So what are some of these strands and themes? One of the most prominent deals with the evidence for the evolution in Egyptian religion over the millennia, evidenced not only by the changes in funerary architecture (mastaba to pyramid to rock cut tomb) and art, but also in the development of cults such as those of Osiris, once a local deity of the eastern Delta, and Amun of Thebes into national cults underpinning state power or chunks of religious thought and belief. Another examines the role played by huge building projects such as temple complexes in stimulating economic activity and the growth of wealth and prosperity, another the means by which the ruling families took, maintained and developed power through their relationships other powerful, with influential cults, other influential families and the army, and yet another considers Egypt's relations with its neighbours and how they changed over time.
Of particular interest are the sections on periods and aspects of Egyptian history which have tended to remain obscure for various reasons, including the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the reign of Hatshepsut and the Armana period. While much remains unknown about these periods, our knowledge of them is considerably better than it was a few decades ago. For example it used to be thought that Thutmose III moved immediately to expunge all reference to Hatshepsut from history, but evidence now indicates that many of her senior appointees remained in their posts under her successor, and that Thutmose did not begin to have her name removed from monuments until many years into his reign. Similarly, it has been shown that the cult of the Aten did not appear suddenly in the reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten as previously assumed but that it had already been growing in importance during the later years of his predecessor, Amenhotep III.
The text may be dense and require the reader's undivided attention, but it is generously provisioned with full page colour photographs and hundreds of black and white photos, maps, line illustrations etc which help to clarify the text. A comprehensive glossary, suggested further reading, king lists and chronologies are also included.
This is not a book for the reader with only a vague or passing interest in Egyptian history, but will provide the more profoundly interested one with either a solid and sound introduction to current knowledge and thought about the subject or a useful reference book. Well, I enjoyed it and it's extremely good value for money.