J. E. Manchip White originally wrote Ancient Egypt; It’s Culture and History, as his first and only book in the spring and summer of 1951 and was republished in 1970. He wrote a detailed and interesting account of the life and culture of the Ancient Egyptians, and while not writing an unbiased book, it was one of admiration which included a little about his research at Cambridge. His professor, Plumley, did excavation work at the fortress of Qasr Ibrim, which had a large amount Christian and Egyptian artifacts.
He was very sympathetic to the ancient Egyptians unique culture and was supportive of his contemporaries in their attempts to save artifacts from destruction before the building of the Aswan High Dam that would increase the annual income up to 700 million dollars a year. His sensitive, thorough writings are a delight to read. For example, he wrote how in 1966, he spent time with his wife in the ruins of Sakkara, which was sacred to the cult of Imhotep and held mummies of ibis birds in his hands.
The author thesis was that the ancient Egyptians culture was unique and unlike any other ancient culture which is in a large part because of the geographic peculiarities of being in a 670 mile long oasis sheltered from outsiders for the most part by the desert and the Mediterranean and by being dependent on the mighty Nile for most of the moisture and farmland. Because of this, they needed a powerful government and a man-god to rule them to make sure the harvest was bountiful.
Much of their culture, he argues hinges on their Sun god Ra and a plethora of other gods and goddesses and might not easily understandable by the logic craving Western culture. Both the Pharaoh and the priests who spoke to the gods and goddesses, were the most powerful figures in this content and dignified culture that had made great political, cultural and religious achievements. The Nile, which flowed from Albert and Victoria Nyanza, was part of the unique geography which created the Egyptian culture.
Lower Egypt, where the Nile ended at the Mediterranean and Northern Egypt, where distinctly different, yet intertwined in a symbiotic relationship where one depended on the other. A stretch of five hundred miles the river, never more that twelve miles wide, sweeps through a sharp walled cleft in the rocky Saharan plateau and widens at the delta, some sixty miles wide land of plenty. It is this sharp contrast between life of the fertile soil and the death of the desert that threatens any who travel beyond the safety of that land that shapes the culture.
It is in this interdependence of all that live there on each other and the environment that a sun worshipping culture that views the precious water like a deity, grows into a strong nation that prepares is deity kings for a rich afterlife, that we have come to know so much about. It is a contended culture that loves drink and wine and love, in which develops the goal is to prepare for the afterlife to be just as joyous.
It was this dependence on the Nile for life, because rain is scarce and millions of people had to cohabitate in this oasis protected from outsiders, that developed a strong political culture that worshiped its Pharaoh, or man-god. This pharaoh protected his people from outsiders and they thought he had the power to provide his people with the right amount of water for the fields. They were so important, that much of the great wealth was saved to be enjoyed in the afterlife.
It was believed by the commoners that the Pharaoh and his family could ascend from the earth into the heavens upon his death. Eventually after the Old Kingdom, the Pharaoh was regarded as just one king of many during the Middle and New Kingdom. Yet the Pharaoh was king for over three millennia, in which a rich culture developed. The Pharaoh’s duty was to help his people, yet so revered was he that few sought his council. The author goes into great detail of the major gods and goddess, their roles and their importance to the people.
The Pharaoh, was the chief Priest and the others were in an unknown hierarchy in which only they knew how to read. The animal totems that were half man and half beast were to satisfy the concrete mind of the Egyptian. The idea of worship was to give the subject his place in the grand scheme of things. Christian ideas such as sin and redemption were foreign. These gods were worshiped for their magical powers, rather than moral powers. Their many varied beliefs gave them peace, because they were sure some of them would be correct.
This book was very thorough and well written and while not the most recently written book on the subject, gives great insight into the life and customs of this great ancient culture and its values. It was their belief in the afterlife and preparation for it, that is most noteworthy and obvious of their achievements, but their great intellect and a development of science and a written language that allows Egyptologists to delve into their lives and deduct what their lives and culture was like.
Perhaps the commoners were not as well documented, but they achieved a modest lifestyle, for the artisans were the middle class that had a home, but didn’t work the land. It is this land that left a lasting legacy of great architecture and religious beliefs that the author admired greatly. He seemed to have a great deal of knowledge and praise for this gentle, practical, people and their beliefs.