Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.08.13

Karol Mysliwiec, The Twilight of Ancient Egypt First Millenium BCE. Translated by David Lorton.   Ithaca and London:  Cornell University Press, 2000.  Pp. 242; 24 color pls.  ISBN 0-8014-8630-0.  $24.95.  



Reviewed by Monica Bontty, UCLA (Uhura@humnet.ucla.edu)
Word count: 1606 words

This work was originally published in Polish, with a subsequent German translation appearing in 1998. The present version, one of many books translated into English by David Lorton, presents the history and archeology of Egypt from the 11th to the 4th B.C.E. in an authoritative and user friendly fashion. Of course, any translation is difficult, but fortunately for us, Lorton has successfully mastered this technique.

Tracing the history of Egypt during the period between 1070 and 332 B.C.E. (comprising what is generally referred to as the Third Intermediate and Late Period) is an extremely arduous task. First of all, many sources have not survived. In addition, excavation in the area of the Delta is difficult because the climate is not conducive to preservation. As a result, we have far less knowledge about ancient Egypt in the First Millennium, often described as a decadenti period of decline except for the renaissance of Dynasty 26. The author has convincingly argued that ancient Egyptian culture and civilization not only flourished but also spread to neighboring lands.

This excellent volume offers complete and up-to-date information concerning the history and archaeology of this epoch in Egyptian history and also a systematic presentation of the change and continuity of institutions and culture in Egypt. It is divided into six chapters, and each is presented in a concise and engaging manner. Mysliwiec has touched upon most of the relevant aspects and has stressed their influences upon later Egyptian civilization. He adds personal anecdotes that are informative yet appropriate. Moreover, the plates and illustrations, many of them including captions, are informative and demonstrate the salient points referred to in the text.

Chapter one outlines fundamental Egyptian concepts such as Dualism for the reader. Here the author includes various examples that convincingly demonstrate the notion that each unity consisted of two contrasting elements. Essential duties of kingship, such as maintaining harmony and the Uniting of the Two Lands help the audience to better understand ancient Egypt. A brief but very detailed overview of Egypt's Imperial Age, with special attention devoted to the fall of the New Kingdom, is then presented. The use of original source material such as the Report of Wenamun illustrates the shifting dynamics regarding pharaoh, residing in the north, and the high priest of Karnak, in the south. Additionally, this literary tale informs us of Egypt's changing role and loss of prestige regarding her neighbors: Wenamun is sent to fetch wood for the bark of Amun not by the king, but rather by order of the high priest Herihor. Furthermore, pharaoh is mentioned only a few times in the text, and once is not referred to by name. Although Egyptian kings claimed the title Lord of the Two Lands in reality they were slowly losing control and influence to the High Priests of Amun at Karnak. Such pertinent background information is necessary for orienting the reader, especially those unfamiliar with the topic.

Dynasties 21 to 24 are the subject of the Second Chapter, emphasizing the initially friendly relationship between the kings in the north and the high priests in the south. Particular attention is devoted to the strategic site of Tanis, located near Egypt's northeastern border. The treasures found in the royal tombs at Tanis rivaled that of the better-known Tutankhamen. Moreover, the intact tomb of Psusennes demonstrates the importance of the 21st Dynasty as well as the continuity of the best traditions of the New Kingdom. Although such undisturbed burials are rare, the period has also yielded a number of important mummy caches from the Theban necropolis. It was also during the 21st Dynasty that Israel began exerting a greater role in Egypt's foreign affairs. Tanis, however, eventually lost control and the seat of power shifted to Bubastis and its energetic ruler Shoshenq I. Political fragmentation among princes in the Delta and threats from abroad led to the final demise of the Libyan pharaohs and the rise of the Kushitic Kings of Dynasty 25, which is dealt with in Chapter Three.

Eager to show his devotion to Egyptian deities, the Kushitic king Shabaka devoted particular attention to the ancient site of Memphis. From a document known as the Memphite Theology, which dates to the Old Kingdom, we are well informed on Memphite and Heliopolitan beliefs. Other indications of piety include the Kushite cap worn by these kings. It was similar to a cap worn by the god Ptah and stresses the special attention paid to Egyptian gods. Kushitic kings were also responsible for much expansion and renovation of existing temples in both Egypt and Nubia. Managing the God's Wife in Thebes also guaranteed their control of Thebes. It was also during the 25th Dynasty that important changes in Egyptian art appear. These include more realistic depiction of the human body as well as return to classical forms of the Old and Middle Kingdom. Nonetheless, once again the threat from abroad, in the form of the Assyrians, proved too much for the rulers of Egypt. Tantamani fled to Nubia, thus ending Kushitic rule in Egypt.

The Saite Renaissance of Dynasty 26 is considered in Chapter Four. Psammetichus was able to consolidate rule due to Assyrian loss of power. Further changes in the artistic canon continued, with artists finding their inspiration in models from the past. However, the naturalistic style of reliefs did influence the statuary as exemplified in many of the statues of Montuemhet, the mayor of Thebes, who also left behind a unique tomb. However, from the site of Sais, which remains unexplored, we have little knowledge on the 26th Dynasty. It is thanks to Herotodus that we have much information on the Saites. During this time Egypt was under the influence of both Greeks and Jews. Other significant events include the development of the Demotic script as well as Egyptian control of the Levant. The God's Wife of Amun maintained her pivotal position under the watchful eyes of the Saite kings. Even though Sais is not well known, additional information has been provided from the site of Memphis, which became an international city to Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews, Carians and Ionians. Saite rule ended in 525 B.C.E. when the Persians defeated Psammetichus III.

Persians and Greeks and the Ptolemaic period are covered in the fifth Chapter. Similar to the Kushitic and Libyan rulers, the Persian king Darius drew upon a variety of divine relationships to indicate his devotion to Egyptian religion as well as his respect for the native culture. Darius was known as a particularly pious king, and devoted a temple at Hibis to the god Amun. Here he is shown in the symbolic uniting of the land, thus fulfilling his role as pharaoh. From Tuna El Gebel there is also a depiction of Darius in the traditional role of Harendotes, the avenger of his father. The offering of the Udjat eye also emphasizes his devotion to the gods and therefore his legitimacy. On the other hand, not all depictions of Darius are of the traditional sort. A statue of Darius from Susa is an interesting combination of Persian and Egyptian customs. Written in four languages and made in Egypt, like many statues of pharaoh it depicts the standard list of subject nations. These foreigners do not have their hands bound behnd their backs but instead have their hands up in reverence of the king. They are pillars supporting the king instead of his subjects. Aramaic documents and Carian inscriptions have provided much information on foreigners in Egypt during the 27th Dynasty.

Egypt was finally able to free herself from Persian rule, but the final decades of independence were marked by intense rivalry among families of princes in the Delta. Native Egyptian sources such as the Demotic Chronicle do provide us with some information. This document is a moralistic political essay in the form of prophecies relating to rulers political success was related to piety and honesty. However, most of our information on the period comes from Greek sources. Native kings such as Nectanebo strove for legitimacy and authority by renovating temples and endowments to priesthoods. After 70 years of rule by Sebennytos, Egypt was once again in Persian hands.

It was Alexander the Great who liberated Egypt from the Persians, becoming king in 332 B.C.E. After his death, the land was ruled by the Ptolemies until 30 B.C.E. Ptolemaic rule was also marked by respect and reverence for Egyptian culture as exemplified by the many Ptolemaic temples such as Edfu, Dendera or Philae. Such edifices are important because sometimes they are our only sources on important aspects of Egyptian religion. Additionally, the Ptolemies issued many decrees supporting the traditional Egyptian priesthood. The most famous of these decrees is the Rosetta Stone.

The final chapter of the book is devoted to Polish archaeological work in Egypt as it relates to the final stages of this period along with the cultural continuity into the following Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine eras. In addition, the author also deals with recent archaeological work at Athribis, including the artisan's workshop. Of particular interest are many objects from this workshop. These items can be dated because they were found in undisturbed strata. At times they can even be attributed to a specific ruler. Various objects from the artists at Arthribis continue the tradition of mixing Egyptian and foreign elements. The volume concludes with a bibliography, comparative chronology and index.

The Twilight of Ancient Egypt is an excellent work written by a leading authority in Egyptology. Mysliwieci's book is an important work on the First Millennium and is a significant addition to a lesser-known period in Egyptian history. Readers will find this book very useful and informative.

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