When American historian Jason Thompson was first asked to write a compact single-volume history of Egypt for the AUC Press, his first reaction was to decline.
After all, such a work would span several thousand years, and take in some huge shifts in language, creed and culture, each one normally considered the domain of specialists. Packing all of it into one book without any major errors of omission or emphasis would require considerable skill and breadth of vision.
Sitting in a comfortable apartment in Maadi, Thompson told Daily News Egypt how he came to accept the offer and eventually produce a text that seems likely to be a big seller both here and abroad.
“Mark Linz, the director of the press, actually suggested the project, says Thompson, “and I initially turned it down, or at least didn’t return a positive answer. I said, basically, ‘You need an expert on all of Egypt, on all of Egyptian history.’ And he said, ‘Fine, give me his or her phone number, and I’ll phone them.’
“And that got me to thinking about how unusual it is to relate the whole history in one go. There are 5,000 years of Egyptian history, but it’s highly compartmentalized. Of course, with any subject there are going to be specialists. I mean, you have the Larousse history of France, and the Oxford history of England. But there is nothing comparable for Egypt.
After some careful consideration and a review of the existing literature, he decided at last to take up the challenge, and the result is “A History of Egypt, a handy volume that he hopes will meet the needs not only of students and academics, but also of those with a personal fascination for the country and its much-visited sites.
Thompson’s own background includes a good deal of academic research, teaching and authorship of the Middle East, with a specialization in East-West encounters. The breadth of his knowledge has enabled him to tackle the subject matter with some authority, and indeed the book reads as a convincing chronological account of the major developments in history, with a strong thread of political events and key figures.
But as he points out, few countries have as many threads of continuity running through their story, and it was these themes that he sought to bring to the reader’s attention.
The book opens with a chapter devoted to the River Nile and its role in shaping virtually every aspect of Egyptian life. Early settlements were close by its fertile banks, and even today 95 percent of the population lives within a few miles of the river. Until the construction of the High Dam, agricultural life was dominated by the rising of the waters in late summer and the subsequent flooding, which left deposits of rich alluvial soil. Trade, communications, government, and much else were dictated by this waterway dividing huge areas of inhospitable desert.
By the final chapter, however, Thompson is sounding a cautionary note. As the High Dam was being built, he says, engineers were questioning whether the country was now living beyond its hydraulic means, considering the rapid growth in population and industrial development. And a nation that was once a major exporter of food to Europe and the Middle East is now a net food importer.
More broadly, the nation’s geography has enabled it to act as a bridge between continents. But as Thompson suggests, the reverse has often been true.
“In ancient times, Egypt could not very well be attacked from the Eastern Desert, he told Daily News Egypt. “There were always low-intensity problems with nomads – so-called ‘Libyans’ – in those days, in the west.
But still, the deserts provided a lot of security. The river route was relatively easy to fortify and protect. And of course the Delta is a barrier as well, not at all welcoming to sea-going craft.
Another key thread of note through the book is that of the nation’s deep religiosity, and the customs that continue to accompany faith.
“The Friday or the Eid visitation to graves can be documented back into Pharaonic times and probably into pre-dynastic times, he says. “One thing has been grafted onto another. You can see this with Christianity in Egypt, which on the one hand is an utter discontinuity, but on the other hand, the old religion and the old gods find a place in this new religion, and that matrix was very receptive to it.
Thompson points out that when Herodotus visited Egypt in the fifth century BC he said that there was no more religious people than the Egyptians, and suggests that the Greek historian might have drawn the same conclusion at many stages throughout history, right to the present time.
Indeed, the later part of the book contains much discussion of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the trend toward deeper religiosity in the population in general over the last two decades. He also pulls no punches in his discussions of inter-faith tensions.
“I think I’m fairly straightforward about present-day difficulties between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, he says. “I think that there must be a sense of unfairness felt by Copts when they hear themselves described as being outside the national community, when in their mind they’re the most authentic of Egyptians. Their very name carries Egypt within it.
The structural backbone of the book lies in the nation’s political story, those landmark events of dynasty, conquest and revolution. And this forms the basis for a discussion of attitudes towards government and the importance of social order, a notion encapsulated in the ancient Egyptian term maat. Readers will no doubt be drawn to making comparisons between leaders across the ages, who appear to have taken it upon themselves to lead at times by means of tyranny.
Key figures such as the Akhenaten, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mohamed Ali Pasha have all been honored with as much space as this compact work allows. But as the centuries pass, the figures come into sharper focus.
Thompson is full of insights into the personalities, ideologies and policy decisions of presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The transformation from revolution to realism is clearly laid out, as is the struggle for the assertion of democratic values against an age-old culture of paternalism.
Thompson says the chapter that gave him most pause for reflection was that on Nasser.
“Nasser, in the end, was making up as he went along, to a large degree.
There was an astonishing lack of calculation in so many of the things that he did, such as the Pan-Arab thing, he says.
“Then after, of course, he’s pulled along by events, such as 1967, or makes impulsive moves without really considering the consequences. I’m astonished now how few Egyptians really know or remember about his Yemeni adventure, for example.
Thompson’s tone, both in interview and in the text, suggests a deep respect for Egypt and its history, and he says he hopes that the recording of history can itself play a part in the health of the nation.
“I think that historical awareness is a source of strength, and I think the Egypt possesses very great, strong, unique social strains. And in a changing world, they’re going to have to be strong to preserve the things that are of importance to them, that are of value, he says.
“One of my major worries, of course, is globalization or homogenization of culture. We want to see progress; we don’t want to be prisoners of the past. But neither do we want to see Egypt turned into a Dubai or something like that. I’d rather not.
“A History of Egypt: From Ancient Times to the Present is published by AUC Press, priced LE 180, and is currently available at local bookstores.s