The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson, Random House.

The first things that likely come to mind when one thinks of ancient Egypt are: The Great Pyramids at Giza, the Great Sphinx, and the mask of the boy-king Tutankhamun. In “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” Toby Wilkinson takes the reader beyond the spectacular monuments and dazzling works of art, and highlights the society, politics, and great human cost that made all these things possible.

As one of the world’s most renowned Egyptologists, Wilkinson is well-suited to presenting a complete, well-rounded view of ancient Egypt. One might be surprised to learn, for instance, that the relationship between Egyptian kings and their subjects was anything but sweetness and light. In fact, the pharaohs maintained their grip on power through political propaganda, an ideology of xenophobia, and brutal repression of dissent. “For the ancient Egyptians, the price of national unity, effective government, and a successful economy was authoritarian rule,” he explains.

The pyramids—constructed by forced laborers—came at a great cost too, financial and otherwise. It took ten thousand men twenty years to complete the Great Pyramid at Giza, so it’s “little wonder that its royal builder [King Khufu] gained a posthumous reputation as a megalomaniacal tyrant with scant regard for human life,” writes the author.

All in all, Wilkinson does a remarkable job of distilling three-thousand years of history, in the process redefining our one-dimensional view of ancient Egypt. It’s a work that would no doubt chagrin the pharaohs, who “from the earliest times, were adept at recording things as they wished them to be seen, not as they actually were,” he says.

To be sure, “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” is one of the best and most impressive books of 2011.