Life at the Top: Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. New York: Random House, 2010.

The specter of ancient Egypt loomed large across nearly all of the courses in ancient history I took in undergrad, yet I own surprisingly few books on this most famous of civilizations. When I came across Toby Wilkinson’s hefty tome, then, I couldn’t help but add it to my collection. Its coverage of Egyptian history from the kingdom’s unification in the early third millennium BC to Roman conquest in the first century BC was the first time I had experienced that history in a single narrative, and while that presentation expanded my understanding of its subject matter in unexpected ways, Wilkinson’s underlying methodology and focus at times left me profoundly disappointed.

Egyptian history is unique in both its scope and antiquity. Wilkinson’s narrative alone spans almost three millennia, the height of which takes place before the Late Bronze Age collapse and the birth of any other more recognizable ancient state, from the Assyrians to Classical Greece and Rome. As such, Wilkinson has the opportunity to not only detail the history of Egypt but in many ways explore the development of human civilization in general. In this, he mostly succeeds. The development of Egyptian religion from localized cult centers to a sprawling, often contradictory, polytheist pantheon is fascinating, as is the development of an accompanying theology of divine judgment and afterlife. Wilkinson’s argument that the novel Egyptian principle of divine kingship was one of, if not the, driving factor in the Nile Valley’s long-term political stability is an interesting one, and gratifyingly accompanied by the recurring reminder that ancient rulers were unfailingly ruthless and exploitative of the majority of their people. It’s ironic, then, that most of Wilkinson’s narrative is focused on these very despots, at times even reading like little more than an annotated king list, but this is largely due to the nature of the sources available to modern historians.

While Wilkinson’s history can be fascinating and insightful (many times seemingly unintentionally), its presentation is one of the least satisfying I’ve recently come across. Whether through personal writing style or the belief that a general audience wouldn’t care or appreciate a more in-depth discussion of source work, academic process, or historiographical debate, Wilkinson simply presents the story of Ancient Egypt as just that: a story. It is largely unclear within his narrative where all the surprisingly detailed accounts of millennia-old events come from, and those with more than passing experience in studying history will often question the logic of certain conclusions or feel certain that Wilkinson just papered over a major controversy among Egyptologists with his own conclusion–presented as uncontested within the main text. What historiography does exist lurks hidden within bizarre footnotes that are more research proposal than citations: paragraph upon discursive paragraph relating consequential volumes on topics discussed, followed by a pitiful number of actual footnotes that, combined, arguably verge upon plagiarism. Even here, the reader cannot find a single summary of an archaeological survey, and Wilkinson’s approach isn’t helped by his insistence on citing himself–in the third person–as the leading authority on a number of subjects.

In a rare move from me, then, I would actually recommend a textbook on Ancient Egypt over this narrative popular history. I remained shocked at the quality and provenance of some of the recommendations of this hot mess of a history, and though it may remain on my shelf for the moment due to a dearth of other material on its subject matter, I fully intend to replace it at the earliest opportunity. 

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