© 1997 Barbara Watterson
“We stand where Caesar and Napoleon stood, and remember that fifty centuries look down upon us; where the Father of History came four hundred years before Caesar, and heard the tales that were to startle Pericles. A new perspective of time comes to us; two millenniums seem to fall out of the picture, and Caesar, Herodotus, and ourselves appear for a moment contemporary and modern before these tombs that were more ancient to them than the Greeks are to us. ” (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage)
The Egyptians surveys the entire course of Egyptian history, from ancient settlements to the 1990s, in a mere 300 pages. Were this not ambitious enough, Watterson does not limit herself to mere politics, but includes separate sections on religion, architecture, law, and economy. The approach is reminiscent of Will Durant’s symphonic history. Pyramid-like, The Egyptians is bottom-heavy: two-thirds of the book is devoted to the ancients, with the Roman, Christian, Islamic, and modern periods sharing the last third together. The scale is immense, as it has been Egypt’s fortune or misfortune to be an combatant or an object of interest to nearly every great power around the Mediterranean. Egypt’s longevity is such that she has been conquered by two wholly different Persias, an epoch apart. In the beginning Egypt was star of her own story, an insular union of two kingdoms fixed on the Nile; after outside invasion by the Hyksos, Egypt overcame her conquerors and became an empire in her own right. The land of the Nile would go the way of all empires, however, falling to Persia, then the Macedonians and their successors — Rome, Constantinople, the caliphate, and Turkey. Through history Egypt has also been the plaything of other empires, like the French and British. Even Hitler attempted conquest, while trying to rescue Italian pretensions of a resurrected Rome. Aside from a brief interlude during the Islamic civil wars, Egypt had to wait until the 20th century to be ruled by her own people again. Despite the generations of new reigning powers and the trauma they inflicted — Ptolemies are utterly horrifying in their abuse, what with one king marrying his sister, then his niece, then murdering his own child and sending the body to his sister–wife to taunt her — Egypt endures. Given the chaos of Egypt in recent years, such resilience is a hopeful sign.