Ancient Egypt for Moderns

egyptAncient Egypt: All That Matters by Barry Kemp
John Murray, December 3rd, 2015

I recently got in mind that I wanted to learn more about Ancient Egypt as I considered this a big general gap in my historical knowledge. So searching around for good books I came across a large textbook that was quite expensive by Barry Kemp. The price having put me off buying, I turned to the library and found what I thought was the same book. As it turned out, it was a shorter book for the general reader but by the same author. Having little time to include extra reading, this seemed like a good place to start filling in the gap.

It wasn’t.

One other reason I had a desire to read about Ancient Egypt was because of how alien it seems to cultures both ancient and modern. From the unique art and imagery through to the elaborate and amazing structures that still stand in the Egyptian desert. This is what I think fascinates people in general and why Egypt has remained an attractive tourist destination and has influenced so much popular culture.

Despite the subtitle, Barry Kemp covers very little of this in this book and despite it’s short length which is well south of 200 pages (wherever you stop counting), there is an awful lot of wasted space. This can be inferred in the opening where Kemp writes at length about religion and despite claiming to the contrary;  it remains a constant preoccupation.

“Their records are not so alien as to exclude us but they define an outlook unaffected by the religious and philosophical ideas – Greek rationality and the monotheism which began with Judaism – that developed considerably later in the eastern Mediterranean and which shape the way we all now see the world.”

This is reasonable as people in general do tend to lump religions into similar categories. For example, implying synagogues, churches, mosques and temples are equivalent despite their often vast distinctions and a tendency to view religion through an increasingly misty understanding of Christianity. Still, those buildings are all places of worship despite the significant departures in belief, practice and worship.

With regards to Greek rationality, it is apparent that he is referring (though never directly), to the Afrocentrism that holds that Greek, Roman and then Western Civilisation “stole” knowledge from Africa and despite being non-material, this knowledge was somehow permanently lost. As Kemp covers in the end, nothing surviving of Ancient Egypt suggests any wide practice of philosophy, mathematics or other sciences outside of practical applications.

Towards the end of the introduction Kemp writes:

“I have come to see that applying the term ‘religion’ to ancient Egypt is misleading.”


“Religion is religion to those who believe a particular form of it. To those who do not, it should be regarded as culture, itself a complex set of manifestations of the imagination.”

This tells me a lot more about Barry Kemp than it does about the nature of religious worship and culture in Ancient Egypt. It is clear through reading the book that he is more in favour of “rationalism” and “secular humanism”. What makes this absurd is that despite Kemp’s interpretation, it is clear that the Ancient Egyptians took religion very seriously and that life after death was an important consideration to all strata of their society. They had priests, spells or incantations, temples of worship, a variety of gods and a belief in an afterlife. The latter being common to monotheistic religions but certainly not a staple of all or even most religions. The Pyramids – the most visually recognisable and the most significant remnants of this civilisaiton were tombs for their kings that prepared them for the afterlife. Kemp even tries to argue that morality has no bearing on religion in Chapter 6, but only a few pages he has an image of a balance of scales at judgement after death. If the scales are not balanced, a beast is ready to devour the person’s heart. Most of the book indeed cannot avoid religion despite rarely using the word.

I don’t believe in the Egyptian gods anymore than I gather Kemp believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but I borrowed his book wanting to know what they believed. I don’t want to know what he believes or what I believe; I want to know what the Egyptians did. What’s more, people don’t devote enormous resources and labour to elaborate structures to gods they consider abstractions. If a “god” is just a stand in for the sun then it is really just a word. And if that is the case, you’re hardly going to waste time building a structure or wearing a piece of jewelry dedicated to it. There is no need for any sacrifice.

Kemp, while ostensibly trying to avoid modern interpretations and evaluations of Ancient Egyptian culture – does exactly that. The author even – truly bizarrely – attempts to interpret the construction of the pyramids as a Keynesian public works program. He also thought it necessary to grade Ancient Egypt on the modern “Fragile (or Failed) States Index”. It is not until the concluding chapter that it is clearly established that slavery (including children) existed in Ancient Egypt. This does not differentiate this civilisation much from any other and it is completely redundant to compare it to any in the modern world.

I learned a little about Ancient Egypt in this book but I would have learned a lot more had I just read through a few Wikipedia articles – and in a much shorter time.

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