Sunday, October 03, 2010

Book Review: Egypt: A Short History

The Maui News

EGYPT: A Short History, by Robert L. Tignor. 363 pages, illustrated. Princeton, $29.95

The title, unconsciously I think, is funny, but Robert Tignor’s book about Egypt gets better as it goes along.

“Egypt” is one of the odder histories I have read, addressed to people who want to travel to Egypt, which is a lot of people: Tourism makes up 10% of Egypt’s national income (not counting the giant subsidies American taxpayers provide). The assumption is that they might want to know something about the place, but not too much.

The early chapters are is a mishmash of a hisstory that, I suppose, most people know at least a little about; that Egypt is the “gift of the Nile, that Pharaoh Ramses II had a big ego and so on. Tignor understates the technological contributions of the ancient Egyptians, mentioning mathematics and a primitive start toward alphabetic writing, but completely ignoring the material contributions. It is hard to imagine modern life without glass, for example.

He also appears to swallow whole the Old Testament stories about Egypt, although archaeology has found no trace of ancient Israelites in the most archaeology-friendly place on earth.

Tignor is an economic historian of modern Egypt, and as the history reaches the area of his lifetime study -- which happens also to be the period where (I conceive) even educated people tend not to know as much as they do about the more exciting era of pyramids, messiahs (even if imaginary) and tombs full of gold -- it becomes more trenchant.

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