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Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present
The papyrus plant has died out in the wild in Egypt. It is not the only cliché that has withered in the country’s dead past. Of the many attempts to bind together its 5,000 years of broken history — most notably the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s abandoned plan to bundle the whole lot into a monumental series of novels — none has succeeded convincingly.
There is a good reason for this. From the lost century that followed the fall of the Sixth Dynasty sometime around 2180BC to the defenestration of Mohamed Morsi last year, Egypt is a country where power has traditionally changed hands through trauma. So many empires have come thundering down on the Nile Delta — Nubia, Assyria, Achaemenid Persia, the Ptolemies, the Romans, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the French and the British — that its history is a weeping mesh of scar tissue.
What has survived? How, if at all, does Egypt live with its ghosts? These are more than scholastic questions for the archaeologists; they are fundamental to the future of the biggest state in the Arab world as it struggles to come to terms with its own constitution and people.
A new book from Toby Wilkinson, an Egyptologist from the University of Cambridge, promises answers, but delivers none. The Nile: Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present, according to its blurb, “is our guide to understanding the layers past and present of this unique, chaotic, vital, conservative yet rapidly changing land”.
When it comes to the past, Wilkinson has serious pedigree. His last book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, won the Hessell-Tiltman History Prize, and in this one he scampers nimbly up and down the millennia. In the space of a few pages, we learn first that in the Pyramid Age boats bore small carved hedgehogs looking backwards from their prows — quite why they did so is one of the great mysteries of navigation — and that hippos now kill more people in Africa than crocodiles. Then comes the revelation that in the 19th century Baedeker guides recommended that travellers hiring a flat-bottomed dahabiya to spend two months cruising down the Nile should take “sixty bottles of Médoc supérieur, thirty-five further bottles of red and twenty-five of white wine, a bottle each of brandy, cognac, whisky and vermouth, plus champagne”. One English passenger insisted on taking a cow for fresh milk.
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The prose is smooth, river-smooth as the script of a prime-time BBC documentary. Gliding down the Nile in the company of Wilkinson’s dexterous scholarship, which sharpens as the years tick back, is a fine way to absorb the strange, eventful history of Egypt. In places it is masterful: his account of the 140ft granite obelisk hewn from a quarry by 50 stonemasons using little more than fire and dolerite hammers, only to be ruined at the last minute by a flaw in the rock, or the story of Omm Sety, a British woman who was convinced that she had been the lover of a 13th-century BC pharaoh and became the guardian of his temple in Abydos. If you are looking for a historical vademecum, Wilkinson’s guide is thoroughly enjoyable and gloriously catholic.
If you want to understand the great, grinding forces that have made Egypt the mess it is today, however, you will be disappointed. It quickly becomes apparent that this book has little interest in the present. Its author’s undisguised contempt for modern package tourists seems to spill over to his hosts, who appear fleetingly as extras, never speaking, present only as latter-day pharaohs and peasants. Much like the Victorian travelogues Wilkinson quotes so liberally, he is happier with the dry susurrus of ancient texts than the cacophony of contemporary life.
This deficiency is not entirely his fault. Wilkinson was overtaken by the sudden ejection and persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, which happened weeks after he had finished the manuscript, and he apologetically appends a postscript on the recent chaos. Tellingly, it is less than 150 words long. Egypt needs a writer who can interpret its history to its present, tell its people and the world what it means to be Egyptian, and lay its burning spectres to rest. The Nile may not hold the answers.
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