A Tenth Grade education à la Max Rafferty dictated that a student ground-out a full year of world history. Back then it was world history since it was a recognized fact that Western Civilization was redundant (in a post-colonial asshole way). My teacher was nice and prim and unmarried at an excessive age (probably early 30s but this even predated the ‘never trust’ mantra that was to gain popularity in a few years). She was fairly well traveled and an excellent source of delightful anecdotes about the pleasures of visiting ancient lands (not to mention the thrilling slide shows). But through the years I have thought back to what I learned in this class and am shocked and dismayed about the plunderers and terrorists our history books presented to us as heroes.
My symbol for the greed and villainy of what we laughingly call Western Civilization is Lord Elgin. You remember Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Ottoman Empire, right? Although a number of questionable or fortuitous events and decisions allow the argument to continue, the objective fact is that Lord Elgin’s ripped-off a significant number of statues from ancient Greek structures like the Parthenon in the name of the British Empire and the British Museum. What is ironic here is that it was the country where Western Civilization began that was the victim of the country that arguably used the myth of Western Civilization to the best advantage and to the greatest profit.
History gives us many more examples of greed and power and disregard for those we consider beneath us: the Raj in India, Napoleon’s troops using The Sphinx for mortar practice, the death of the buffalo, the dissolving of a miss-understood Godzilla, providing the Apache with smallpox infected blankets, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, and on and on.
Maybe Lord Elgin wasn’t that bad when you consider what Ronald Reagan added to world history.
But back to that High School teacher: bringing in the (then) black & white television so we could watch President Eisenhower give an important speech, convincing us that Marcus Aurelias was the world’s most fabulous ruler; shaming us since we would never teach ourselves ancient Greek and then discover the ruins of Troy like Heinrich Schliemann; wondering why, when Akhenaten and Nefertiti got the ‘one-god’ business worked out, Egypt returned from the heretic rule to worship Ibis-faced Jackels and Sheep offal.
In High School I learned that Akhenaten was enlightened and good and therefore the ancient priests of Egypt were evil and stupid. After all, there was only one god, right? But if you read Naguib Mahfouz’s lesser known work, Akhenaten, the first thing you discover is that Akhenaten was truly THE HERETIC of his time. Imagine if here in the United States some demented ruler gained power and insisted that all traditional religious practices in the country be eliminated and we should only worship the Great Pumpkin and his loyal disciple Harold the Carrot. I suspect a lot of people would be a tad miffed. Not only that but can you imagine the roar of disapproval that would crash over us when the established churches discovered they lost their tax exemptions?
But Mahfouz doesn’t leave us with a simplistic image of a weak, overly feminine pharaoh who disrupted, if not destroyed, the Egyptian empire by his flower-child approach to rule. As to his one-god and love conquers all theories, the reader can decide—polytheistic fetishists, monotheistic love and care, or maybe even no god at all except in fiction—but Mahfouz presents a varied and interesting Akhenaten by representing his life through the words of those people who were around him à la Rashomon.
Mahfouz has his narrator interviewing those that were close to the Pharaoh. What did his childhood friend and security strongman have to say? How about the wise counsellor and father of Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti? The sculptor, the harem girl, the scribe, the mother-in-law, Nefertiti’s sister, the old high priest and the new high priest, the leader of the armies, the chief of police, and even Nefertiti herself all offer their recollections of the heretic pharaoh.
Akhenaten is an easy read dealing with a fascinating period of world history. I wonder if ancient Egypt doesn’t rival the dinosaurs in capturing the interest of younger readers. It wouldn’t hurt that adults read more about the ancient world: too many people in this country rely on the mythological hodgepodge of the Bible for their knowledge of the ancient world.
Read Mahfouz’s Akhenaten to prime your interest, then branch out to more Mahfouz (a Nobel Laureate and superb author) and other books about the history of ancient Egypt.
2 thoughts on “Akhenaten and the Elgin Marbles”
I liked his writing about contemporary Egypt (at least in the Sadat years) too.
You are of course very correct: Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, for instance, is far superior to Akhenaten. I have always contended that everyone should read anything and everything Mahfouz has written … only this way you can see the contrast between the more traditional stories of jinns and flying carpets and the realism of a modern Egypt clamoring for independence from Turkish tyranny and English colonialism.
Akhenaten is interesting both for a view of ancient Egyptian history and for it’s significant style. Of course Mahfouz didn’t invent this Rashoman narrative style but it is such a natural for relating the story of Akhenaten where history, myth, politics, and religion offered so many different views of the subject.