egypt and “big history”


Ancient egypt has been misunderstood since Herodotus put pen to papyrus in the fifth century B.C., though its appeal has never flagged. Exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts still draw large crowds at museums, and the “documentaries” on cable channels continue to flood in. But much of this attention feeds into an idea that Egypt is “other” and “exotic”—a changeless, mysterious world of tombs, temples and sorcerers. Hollywood is guilty of promoting this image, but so are scholars, who are prone to emphasize mummies and royal tombs to the exclusion of topics such as agricultural production, social organization and, broader still, economic history. In fact, ancient Egypt—a term encompassing a culture that lasted for more than 4,000 years—offers an incomparable opportunity to study how and why civilizations change over a long period of time. The comparison to China may be appropriate: Egypt, like China, has a long and extensively documented history. The ancient Egyptian language was written and spoken for two-thirds of recorded human history, and a great volume of economic and legal records are preserved in papyri and inscriptions, including some spectacular documents that go back to 2000 B.C. Remarkable, then, that Egypt has been given short shrift in the current trend for “big history.”

more from Joseph Manning at the WSJ here.