3000 Years in 500 pages: Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Ancient history is an interest of mine and earlier this year, I made the trip to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum to get a look at some stuff first-hand. After all, it’s cool to read about Ancient Rome or Greece, but actually getting to look at statues of the Caesars and pottery decorated with the exploits of Heracles is something else completely.

It was a fun experience, but I was blindsided by something there: the sheer breadth of materials and knowledge of Ancient Egypt. I knew I didn’t know much about the period before I went there, but I was shocked at how little I knew, like how Cleopatra actually lived closer to our time than to the construction of the pyramids. This was the kind of thing I needed to remedy, so I started looking for a good volume of history to tackle. I’d hoped the ROM’s giftstore would have something, but the only books there generally went along these lines.

After a bit of looking around, I came across Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. It promises the nearly unthinkable: to distill over 2000 years of Egyptian history into a single, highly readable volume. It pulls it off, too, which is a remarkable achievement and not just because of the total number of years covered. Ancient Egypt had several wild changes of fortune, ranging from the early years under kings like Djoser and Khufu, to years of imperial power under Ramesses to subject rule under the Ptolemaic dynasty. Here, Wilkinson is able to lucidly go from one age to another, carefully showing how and why things changed, be it repressive taxation, the influence of the army or priesthood or foreign invasion. More importantly, he explains the human cost too: his history presents a sober look at a dictatorship, where the commoners were often worked until they died, the rich schemed to keep money and grain for themselves and the king used whatever means necessary to keep power, even if it meant skinning people alive and displaying the results to scare people into line.

Wilkinson’s specialty is the early years of Egypt and in the first half of the book, his scholarship shines. He spends a lot of time on the early kingdoms, detailing the construction of the pyramids, the growth of Egypt’s writing and religions and the reign of each line of kings. There’s a ton of information here on the first half of the Egyptian dynasties, especially on people like Narmer, who unified Egypt and was it’s first Pharaoh. He gives each of the early kings a detailed look, such as Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid and lost the support of the people: even centuries later, when Herodotus visited Egypt, Khufu was hated. Of him Wilkinson writes:

“So if the pyramid was not exactly a national project in which the whole country could take part and feel pride, what was it? The uncomfortable answer is that it was the ultimate projection of absolute power. Despots throughout history have been attracted to colossal buildings, from Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the People in Bucharest to tin-pot dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny‘s vast (and ridiculous) basilica in the jungles of Ivory Coast. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is merely the most audacious and enduring of such folies de grandeur.” (pg 71)

As Wilkinson moves along in Egyptian history, the pace picks up and less time is spent on each dynasty. His coverage of people like Thutmose III helps give lesser-known Pharaohs their due; indeed, Thutmose is called “the greatest of all pharaohs.” I’d wager his name isn’t familiar to the average person. But the pace keeps up and accelerates throughout the book. By the final couple of chapters, Wilkinson covers centuries in a matter of pages. But this mirrors the collapse of Egypt, too. By the time of the battles against the Sea Peoples, Egypt was a spent force. Eventually, it fragmented and was ruled over by the Nubians. By the time of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemys, it feels like Wilkinson is working at a record pace,  glossing over stretches of time, although it should be noted that he doesn’t have a ton of information to work with, thanks to fragmentary evidence.

His book ends with a section about Cleopatra, who he thinks ruled over a dead empire and unsuccessfully hedged her bets with Mark Antony. It’s interesting to compare his brief overlook with Stacy Scheff’s: Wilkinson is less giving of praise, all but brushing over how successful Cleopatra’s domestic politics were in favour of a pragmatic look at her disastrous foreign policies. Of Antony’s exchange of lands and collections of books for her support, he writes:

“Phony title deeds and a collection of books in return for real troops and supplies was hardly a fair exchange. In the far-off days of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had been respected and feared as the mighty bull of Asia; now, it was Rome’s milk cow.” (pgs 477-78)

Egypt ended with a whimper: after a succession of defeats, Antony fell on his sword and died in Cleopatra’s arms. Alexandra fell and Cleopatra shortly followed, most likely by her own hand. Egypt would be ruled by foreign powers for much of the next millennia: Rome, Byzantium, Ottomans and eventually the British. With it, interest in the Pharoahs dimmed and fell out of common knowledge; as Wilkinson notes, it was only revived by the French, when Napoleon visited the country.  But ever since, it’s rarely left us; at the ROM, their Egyptian section dwarfed their section on Rome.

Rating: 8/10. This is an interesting read that never feels especially bogged down in details and goes out of it’s way to provide visual evidence: besides a bunch of colour photographs, black-and-white images are interspersed throughout. And it’s supplemented by extensive notes and a bibliography that’s dozens of pages long. If you’re looking for a history of Ancient Egypt, I don’t think you can go wrong with this. They should sell copies in the ROM’s giftshop.



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