Book Review: The Story of Egypt
The Story of Egypt:
The Civilization That Shaped the World
by Joann Fletcher
Pegasus Books, 2016
It’s a strained and largely thankless task to write a book like Joann Fletcher’s latest, The Story of Egypt: The Civilization That Shaped the World, which is a one-volume history of ancient Egypt clearly aimed at a general readership. Such a book will of course never please specialists (nothing ever pleases specialists), but it’s almost equally unlikely to please that general readership, who’ll sense early on that this is actually a much, much bigger story than can be usefully told in 350 pages. The specialists will assume the complexities of the subject have been simplified to the point of banality, and the general readership will assume that assume the same thing, and they’ll both be right to assume that. Added to which is the vague ozone of redundancy surrounding a project of this type: 1997 saw Ancient Egypt edited by David Silverman; 2008 saw Jason Thompson’s A History of Egypt; 2011 saw Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt; and the ancient Egyptians haven’t been doing much lately in any case – a writer, even one as skilled in popular history as Fletcher, has only so much room to maneuver.
She doesn’t do herself any favors with that subtitle, naturally enough (did ever a subtitle do anything but doltish damage to its main marquee?); a great many fascinations can be laid at the door of ancient Egypt, but “the civilization that shaped our world” is most certainly not one of them. Cupped between mountains and deserts and a mighty river, obsessed with its own hermetically sealed culture, assimilating almost as little as it was assimilated … ancient Egypt scarcely shaped its own world, let alone any other, but that subtitle is certain to have some readers hunting for a connection that isn’t there in a book whose narrative action winds up around 330 BC.
There’s very little such overreach in the proper text of the book. Instead, Fletcher takes her readers through straightforward chronological march through the standard epochs of Egyptian history, spicing things up with lurid inscriptions wherever possible:
Following rebellion in Nubia early in his reign, the king had set sail south to take on the Kushite king near Kerma. Taking to the field ‘furious like a leopard,’ he immediately killed the enemy king when ‘his first arrow pierced the chest of that foe which remained in his fallen body.’ And as Kerma was sacked and burned, Tuthmosis commemorated his victory with inscriptions on the new southern border at Tombos, just north of Kerma itself, boasting ‘there is not a single survivor among them, the Nubian bowmen have fallen by the sword, gore from their mouths pours down in torrents, the pieces cut from them are too much for the carrion-eaters and their entrails drench their valleys.’
(In this as in a great many other cases, Fletcher adds quick insights that are invariably interesting, as when she points out that the above inscription is all the more telling when coming from “culture that routinely packaged up their own entrails so neatly for the afterlife”)
This is lively, accessible popular history, not significantly different from the dozen or so similar books that have preceded it but not worse than them either (and it has a stately, dignified design courtesy of Pegasus Books). Fletcher charts the major societal, military, and political developments of Egypt’s thousands of years of history, pausing at regular intervals to take up some of the favorite kernels of controversy, from the rebel pharaoh Akhenaten to the final pharaoh, Queen Cleopatra, whose storied death by asp is given a proper shaking:
Although her snake-aided suicide is well known, as first made public in the caricature-like effigy with snakes coiling up both arms that later toured Rome, the suggestion that Kleopatra killed herself with the bite of an asp is highly unlikely. For as she knew from her own research, the poison of the asp, the north African viper, caused vomiting and incontinence before death – completely unsuitable for her final plan.
Joann Fletcher is a very congenial host who often narrates TV documentaries about ancient Egypt. Maybe a little of that small-screen special effects magic might have helped liven things up in The Story of Egypt.