The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs

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9780805054620: The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs

From one of the world's greatest Egyptologists, an original and brilliant study of the inner life of ancient Egypt

The Mind of Egypt presents an unprecedented account of the mainsprings of Egyptian civilization-the ideals, values, mentalities, belief systems, and aspirations that shaped the first territorial state in human history. Drawing on a range of literary, iconographic, and archaeological sources, renowned historian Jan Assmann reconstructs a world of unparalleled complexity, a culture that, long before others, possessed an extraordinary degree of awareness and self-reflection.

Moving through successive periods of Egyptian civilization, from its beginnings in the fifth millennium b.c.e. until the rise of Christianity 4,500 years later, Assmann traces the crucial roles of the pharaohs, the priests, and the imperial bureaucracy. He explores the ideal relation of man to God and explains monumental architecture and ritual celebrations as expressions of that ideal. Most strikingly, he focuses on the meaningful world of ancient Egypt-the multiple notions of time, the structures of immortality, and the commitment to the principle of social justice and human fellowship.

Widely acclaimed for his cross-disciplinary approach, Assmann has produced a tantalizing study of an ancient civilization, even as he has opened new directions in historical investigation.

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Review:

"Writing a history of the development of the ancient Egyptian mind," wrote the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt a century and a half ago, is "an impossibility." Today, observes Jan Assmann, we know "infinitely more about Egypt" than did the scholars of Burckhardt's day. But, even so, the ancient Egyptian mind continues to elude us.

Turning to what he calls "the hidden face of history," Assmann explores the meaning of the Egyptian past to the ancients themselves. For them, history, that chronicle of pharaohs and empires, began with the recognition that humans, not gods or demigods, controlled earthly affairs. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the time of the Ptolemy dynasty, the idea of the state was central to Egyptians' view of themselves in the world. With this centralized power, Assmann argues, grew other ideas, such as the notion that the stone of the pyramids was "an eternalized form of the body" and that our short time on earth was "something more akin to a dream than to reality." Full of learned discussions on such matters as the origins and development of hieroglyphic writing and the evolution of funereal architecture, Assmann's book offers a fascinating view of ancient history, and of ancient ways of thinking. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Jan Assmann, a world-renowned professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and winner of the prestigious German Historians Prize, has taught at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Rice, the Getty Research Center, the British Museum, and the Royal Anthropological Society. He has published, among other works, Moses the Egyptian and The Search for God in Ancient Egypt.

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