Romer’s book.  A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid John Romer, Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books, London 2012

I have had the great pleasure of reading Romer’s wonderful book.  The tone is gentle and elegant.  Occasionally I am struck in reading with a sentence that has a haunting, dreamy quality to it at the same time as conveying the information.  I have even written such a sentence at least once.  But, as you might expect from a writer who is a world class scholar as well as a world class television presence, just about every sentence is a gem to become absorbed in.  That makes the reading a bit slow. 

Sometimes his tone gets in the way of his information flow.  More than once he uses the term “with arms akimbo” with it’s most current meaning of “arms outstretched” or “elbows bent.”  It used to mean “hands on hips,” which is more terse as well as being unambiguous and which I will probably continue to use.  But I grant him his more poetical usage. 

Similarly he mentions giving produce to the pharaoh as “tithes and offerings,” a phrase that has a specific modern meaning of what you drop in the collection plate.  If you consider, as Methodists do, that a church is a club – a tennis club does not play tennis but only provides a suitable environment so a church does not “do” religion but provides a place for it – the collection is the dues.  The phrase does carry, at least for me, a breath of that place.  Yet Romer insists that the idea of “religion” was late in coming, turning up only at about the time of the pyramids after things were already being brought to the pharaoh.  Before religion there was neither the sacred nor the profane; there was only necessity.  (Some of those necessities we have sloughed, human sacrifice for instance, but at the time they seemed, so he opines, to have been necessary.  It is not a simple matter, having occurred in many times and places.)

But this is a quibble.  I am squirming at his art and I like his art, of which his tapestry of references is a part, very much.  His prose would do well set to music.  Were I a god I would wish to have him for my high priest. 

My initial thought was that the pattern of regime changes in Egypt has followed three phases: the first phase shows a rising survivability of the regime as the politically inconvenient geography of the place brought into a single system, the second phase shows the decline in survivability as the three century mark is reached that I see just about everywhere and that I ascribe to infertility of the ruling class and the third  phase finds the regime virtually indestructible as if the demographic problem has been solved.  That is a lot of interpretation, and I was eager to get the best dates and commentary to see if the pattern still stood up.  Instead I got repeated assurances that the dates over the span in question were far from clear, so I will stick with my trusty encyclopedia article.

I did like the way Romer dismissed warfare as the driving force of early Egyptian culture.  I have often felt that way myself.  They lived in peace.  There was a time when Egypt stopped what had been a vigorous trade with people to the northeast and the Nubians to the south.  But there is no evidence for hostility, just evidence that the people they were trading with simply vanished.  That of course is right down my ally.  The people the Egyptians were trading with got rich, gained more social opportunities, decreased their consanguinity hence their fertility and thus died out.  If that is true then it is no coincidence that they died out simultaneously.  Assuming large scale trade with Egypt started at about the same time, they should have vanished at the same time.  The process runs a very stereotyped course. 

This of course does not come up for consideration.  Romer mentions the neo-Darwinian Four Horsemen of catastrophe as being plague, invasion, avarice and politics in ironic tones.  He does not have to dismiss demographics.  Nobody but I will bring up the issue.  

Romer does a good job of relieving much of the mystery of the pyramids.  They have drawn a great deal of attention from the New Age faithful, so this is a wholesome reminder.  (Some engineering questions remain in my own mind.) It did strike me, in this legended year of 2012, that the beginning of the Mayan calendar, the beginning of the first dynasty in Egypt and the beginning of the first dynasty in Mesopotamia all happened at about the same time.  That could have been a fluke or could have been cultural diffusion, however unlikely. 

He proceeds so pleasantly that I found myself wondering about some of the mysteries he does bring out.  Why did people stop being hunter gatherers and engage in the back breaking toil of agriculture in a time and place where there was plenty to hunt and gather and it was only getting better?  My thought continues to be that if you are part of a nomadic community and one of your parents gets too old or sick to keep up, you must abandon the parent.  That terrible prospect would hang over just about everybody.  Better to work long and hard than to abandon granny to the jackals. 

And if you were of such a sensitive temperament, what would you do when you left her?  You might bop her on the head as the kindest thing, foreshadowing the human sacrifice later observed, or you might leave her with as much food as you could, foreshadowing the grave goods that marked the burials of the first people Romer considers.  The subsequent “cult of the dead” including the great pyramids themselves could be considered runaway mission creep.

It’s a good read.  I say read for the tone and texture of it.  Just because it is top floor intellectuality doesn’t mean it’s not fun.

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