Friday, February 01, 2013

John Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid

The very idea of Ancient Egypt conjures up some obvious images; the pyramids and Sphinx in Giza, frescoes and carvings showing boats plying the Nile or impressive statues and grave goods. This is not surprising, as these monuments are both impressive and photogenic. Yet they make up only a small part of Egypt's ancient history, a culmination of thousands of years of life near the Nile and the history of the area continued long after the pyramids were built into the era of classical Greece and Rome.

John Romer's earlier books have looked at particularly aspects of ancient Egypt. In particularly I was impressed by his exploration of the daily life of a section of Egypt's more ordinary population, the tomb builders who worked in the Valley of the Kings. That book Ancient Lives included a detailed description of some extended strike action by the workers. But Romer's latest book takes on a far larger task, an account of the whole history of Ancient Egypt. He is well qualified to do this having spent many years excavating and studying the period and this, the first volume of two, is a wonderful book that will set the standards for writing about Egypt for a long time.

Romer begins his tale with the earliest of people who live in the area that we now think of as Egypt. We know a little about the hunter-gatherer nomads who lived in the area, but the real story begins with the farming communities that hunted, grew food and fished on the northern shores of the Faiyum Oasis, a few hundred miles west of modern Cairo. The climate then was different and one of the factors that shaped the eventual growth of the ancient population was a changing environment that helped force the earliest farmers to the banks of the Nile. The arid conditions of the Egyptian desert preserve the legacy of these farmers from perhaps 7000 years ago. When excavated their grain bins were found to not only to contain grain, so well preserved that curators tried to germinate them later, but also the tools and reed baskets had also survived. Thus begins the story of a people who transformed the Nile region using the most rudimentary of tools, yet produced stunning buildings, tombs and artworks. The pyramids after all, were made with bronze age technology.

At the heart of John Romers' story though, is the tale of the growth of the Egyptian State. It took many centuries before what we know as ancient Egypt came to exist. Romer takes pains to explain the neolithic revolution that led to farming becoming the dominant mode of production along the Nile. But he also argues that the particular nature of the Nile, the extreme fertility of the soil meant that those farmers could support a large non-agricultural work force at a very early point in history. Here-in lies the secret of the rapid growth of the Egyptian state, but also its ability to mobilise and sustain large numbers of workers in its monument building phase. During the building of the Great Pyramid, Romer estimates that a tenth of the working population were not working on the fields, but were engaged in building or providing the networks of exchange to support the pyramid builders.

Romer sees the development of this state as central to the development of the wider Egyptian world. While discussing King Narmer, the earliest Pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt, Romer writes that:

"the formation of Narmer's state had provided the foundations of a truly orignal order for [a] society that would last for millennia and which, as Pharaoh's Egypt, became a wonder of the ancient world.... a commonly used term like 'kingdom' appears to be appropriate. Yet the Pharaonic state stands at the beginning of all that. It was created from the ground up, without the benefit of an exemplar and, indeed, without the aid of writing or the presence of a national faith."

In this development of the state, the King or Pharaoh comes to represent the very state itself. Indeed,

"when ancient Egyptian scribes referred to Pharaoh's kingdom in non-literary texts, they used terms like 'residence' - that is the royal residence - to denote the controlling centre of the networks of trade and traffic, tithing and taxing, that operated in the regions of the lower Nile."

Kings like Narmer were often portrayed as warlike and violent. Early Egyptian history certainly was violent, many of the kings of this period, including Narmer, where buried with hundreds of murdered people around them. They are often depicted in the act of vanquishing an enemy, yet much of the migration and spread of the people northwards from the sites where the early Egyptian state developed was marked by peaceful co-existence with those who had come from the Levant. Extensive trade networks developed and cultural ideas, such as design of buildings and farming were taken up and shared by communities from different areas. I liked for instance that in the midst of one enormous Naqqadrian cemetery lies a grave of an individual buried in a traditional way from the Middle East.

All this could only be supported by the agricultural produce from the Nile, and the earliest technological innovations were the irrigation channels and pools built along the banks to trap the annual flood. Such methods are still used in other parts of Africa and one reason we know something about ancient farming patterns is that they lasted until very recent times. The ancient state was never far from the farming and the water that allowed the desert kingdom to flourish. This is why on a giant mace head, archaeologists have found an image of "a man... wearing what would become the White Crown of Upper Egypt, in the act of opening a water channel with the stroke of a farmer's adze... it is improbable that this unique object.... does not reflect something of the age in which it had been made."

In the language of Historical Materialism, the immense surplus that could be obtained from agricultural on the banks of the Nile (sometimes two or three crops a year) meant that the forces of production developed rapidly. Within a few centuries of the early Naqqadrian state and the rule of Narmer, the enormous pyramids were being built. This required a complex and developed state to organise the networks of trade and distribution of food, as well as the movement of stone and metal from quarries and mines. Egypt then as an agricultural state and Romer argues convincingly that the ancient cities were not places as we might imagine them today, but places of residence of the state's workers. Those who oversaw the production process.

Towards the end of the book, Romer laments  that we know very little about these ancient people.

"Our real knowledge of these ancient people hardly extends beyond their pyramids, their tomb chapels and names and titularies. We know nothing, for example, of those who carried [Queen] Hetep-heres in her palanquin, and though we possess her very intestines, we know nothing of the woman or the queen at all."

It is for this reason that much of the this book is dominated by discussions of architecture, pottery or stonework. Yet this is never boring, Romer has tried to draw out a history of people based on what they did to shape the world around them in order to survive. As he aptly points out, the images they have left are less a depiction of what is taking place and more a depiction of the state itself. As the ancient Egyptian state matured, its monuments and buildings also evolved. The very act of building the enormous pyramids also shaped the state and created the conditions of further building works. Our vision of ancient Egypt is thus in turn a reflection of what the ancient state itself did. As Romer concludes, "the greater part of what survives from early Egypt is exactly what those ancient people took pains to store and thus preserve within the dryness of the desert."

John Romers' book is a unique and magnificent read. It is accessible and well written, though if I have one minor criticism it is that the pictures seem old and of low-quality, a few higher resolution images of the objects being described would have been welcome. But this is a minor complaint about what is an essentially materialist account of the rise of the ancient Egyptian state. I recommend it, and look forward to the companion volume with great anticipation.

Related Reviews

John Romer - Ancient Lives; The Story of the Pharaohs' Tombmakers
Shaw - Ancient Egypt - A Very Short Introduction
Verner - The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History
Kurth - The Temple of Edfu - A guide by an Ancient Egyptian Priest

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