Sunday, January 18, 2015

Down the Nile, through Egypt's past and present

The Nile, Toby Wilkinson

Last week was a demanding (sometimes frustrating) one at work, the weather was cold and gloomy, and I had a constant low-level headache (I think from weather fronts moving through).  But to balance all that out, I had this book, the subtitle of which is "A Journey Downriver through Egypt's Past and Present."  I spent every minute I could immersed in it.  It was a lucky find in the "new books" bins at the library; I now have my own copy.  As soon as the TBR Dare is over, I will be looking for the other books on ancient Egypt that Toby Wilkinson has written.

The author lays out his premise in a Preface:
     Egypt is the most populous country in the world's most unstable region. It is the key to Middle East peace, the voice of the Arab world, and the crossroads between Europe and Africa.  Its historical and strategic importance is unparalleled.  In short, Egypt matters.  Understanding the country and its people is as vital today as it has ever been.
     The key to Egypt - its colourful past, chaotic present and uncertain future - is the Nile. . . Egypt is the Nile, the Nile Egypt.  The river is the unifying thread that runs throughout Egyptian history, culture and politics.  It has shaped Egypt's geography, controlled its economy, moulded its civilisation, and determined its destiny. . . Travelling down the Nile, past villages, towns and cities, dazzling ancient monuments and ambitious modern developments, is the best way to feel the pulse and understand the unique character of this chaotic, vital, conservative and rapidly changing land.
Traveling down the Nile has been a dream of mine for many years now.  Mr. Wilkinson begins his book with a general introduction to the Nile and its place in Egypt.  He then moves to Aswan, far to the south, which many ancient Egyptians considered the source of the Nile.  His journey begins there and ends in Cairo.  He writes in the present tense about his own travels, at least in part on those romantic Nile vessels the dahabiya. Though he doesn't say so, it seems that he combined several of his own visits to Egypt over the years, weaving them into his south-to-north narrative.

Along the way, he stops at different sites, some active towns or villages, others abandoned and disappearing into the sands.  At each place, he explains its importance in Egypt's history, moving back and forth through the millennia.  As he says more than once, the Nile - and Egyptian history itself - is a palimpsest, as succeeding generations, including  foreign invaders, incorporated and built upon what came before.  His writing is colloquial and easy to follow, his enthusiasm is infectious, and he knows how to make history come alive.  He also sees clearly the challenges that Egypt faces today.  While his book was written in December of 2012, it includes a postscript discussing more recent political events, up to the book's publication last year.  His observations on current conditions mirror what I have read particularly in The New Yorker, which has regular articles written from Cairo.

I soon realized though how very little I know of Egypt's history, beyond the Valley of the Kings.  I was surprised to read of the civil wars that broke out, between south and north, and how frequently coups put new pharaohs on the throne.  And I thought I knew something of Egypt's ancient religion, but I don't remember ever hearing of Hapy, the god of the annual inundation, nor of the many cults centered in the towns along the river.  It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that I learned something from each page of this book.

One of the things I learned is that the indomitable Amelia Edwards was a journalist before becoming an Egyptologist, and that she wrote an account of traveling the Nile (by dahabiya) in the 1870s: A Thousand Miles Up the Nile.  A classic of travel writing, according to Mr. Wilkinson, a copy is now on its way to me (to be squirreled away until April 1st).  Needless to say, I felt her literary heir Amelia Peabody Emerson reading over my shoulder the whole time.  (If it weren't for the Dare, I would have immediately set off on a re-read at least of Crocodile on the Sandbank.)  Sadly, Mr. Wilkinson makes no mention of Amelia or Radcliffe Emerson among the scholars, though I recognized some of their colleagues/competitors, including Flinders Petrie.  I had no idea that Amelia Edwards helped fund Petrie's work, nor that he was the first to hold the chair of Egyptology that she established at University College London.  I was also happy to read about a protegĂ©e of Petrie's, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, whose work at the prehistoric sites around Lake Fayum in the north revolutionized scholars' understanding of early Egyptian history.

There are several references to Agatha Christie through this book, including her mystery set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes As the End (which I read many years ago but don't really remember).  And of course Mr. Wilkinson includes Death on the Nile, in the section on Aswan.  As many times I have read that particular book, it was a real shock to realize that I had paid no attention to the Egyptian setting.  I never understood that the steamer heads south from Aswan, going up the Nile, nor that Wadi Halfa is in the Sudan. That was a rather humbling experience.

10 comments:

  1. This looks great -- I share your fascination with Egypt, and with Amelia Peabody! I have the Amelia Edwards book on my shelf, but have not settled down with it as yet...

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    1. I love travel accounts by intrepid Victorian women, and I don't know how I missed Amelia Edwards's all these years. Probably I was too busy reading about Amelia Emerson :)

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  2. This book sounds amazing. I love all things Egypt, especially great travel memoirs. When I can't afford a plane ticket it's my favorite way to travel. I'm so glad you reviewed this book; it's one that I'd really like to read.

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  3. I don't think I will get to Egypt anytime soon, Lark. but this was a wonderful virtual tour - and history lesson too!

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  4. Aw, this sounds marvelous. I believe I did know that Amelia Edwards was a journalist first, but I have yet to read any of her things. Let me know how her book is! If it reminds you at all of Amelia Peabody I will want to get my hands on it. :)

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    1. I'm guessing she is a bit less frivolous than our Amelia. No dallying in tombs :) My copy arrived, and it has those lovely Victorian illustrations, all shadows and cross-hatching. I can't wait to read it!

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  5. Amelia Edwards is brilliant - what a woman (though I have her totally intertwined with the other Amelia in my head thanks to Elizabeth Peters!)

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    1. After so many years with the Emersons, it's sometimes hard to remember who the real Egyptologists are! I'm looking forward to learning more about the real Amelia.

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  6. I would love to read this book, and journey down (or up) the Nile too! Fascinating part of the world--sadly I know more about its ancient history than its modern one, but this book would definitely help that.

    Great review!

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    1. Jane, I have the hardest time with up and down the Nile, because for some reason I can't keep it in my head that the river flows north! I think you would enjoy this.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!