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From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt

From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt

By Donald B. Redford. Pp. x + 218, figs. 38, maps 4. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2004. $45. ISBN 0-8018-7814-4 (cloth).

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There is much ground covered in this small and attractive volume, which is intended as “an overview of the Nubian and Kushite experience of the expansionist power of Egypt and its culture up to 671 B.C.” (ix). (The author plans another publication to cover the Saite period to the beginning of Ptolemaic rule.) The relationship between Egypt and the African cultures to its south, centered on what is now the Sudan, was a long and important one and has in recent years been treated from many points of view (cultural interaction and chronology not the least among them) and from several interpretive angles. Redford’s discussion of the issues is both elegant and concise and a very welcome addition to the increased scholarly attention on post-New Kingdom Egypt.

The region the Egyptians called “Nubia” was, as the name implies, a central gold-mining region in New Kingdom times, but long before that, the Egyptian state launched expeditions southward in search of raw materials, luxury goods, and man power. The history of the relationship between Egypt and African states is documented by some of the most intriguing texts that have been preserved, although as Redford states (72), the history of Egypt’s foreign relations from 900 to 525 B.C.E. (the year of the Persian conquest) is largely documented by non-Egyptian sources. A text of the utmost interest, however, and in my view one of the most significant texts from the whole of ancient Egyptian history, is the late eighth-century inscription commonly known as the “Victory Stela of Piye” (or Piankhy), discovered in the Temple of Amun at Napata in 1862. It is discussed in some detail by Redford (74–9), although much more could be said. It records Piye’s invasion of Egypt, as well as his piety toward the Egyptian god Amun, and was written in classical Egyptian, no doubt by a highly accomplished scribe whose exquisite narrative style marks this text as a well-crafted masterpiece. The description of the siege of the fortified city of Memphis is especially noteworthy. That an eighth-century Egyptian scribe writing in the classical stage of the language records the victorious military campaign of a Nubian king in Egypt raises questions that have yet to be adequately addressed by historians.

One of the book’s principal virtues is the author’s integration of archaeological material with the documents. The recent archaeological activity at the Karnak temple during the Nubian 25th Dynasty, of which Redford has been at the forefront for many years, is well covered in chapter 14. Throughout the book, the author demonstrates his strong knowledge of Near Eastern history and that region’s connections to Egypt. The notes at the end of the volume are a superb testament to his magisterial learning. Some of the author’s sigla are, as far as I can tell, nowhere explained, and they may confuse the non-Egyptologist reader. “UE VII” (28), for example, refers to the Upper Egyptian seventh nome, or administrative district. Redford prefers the name “Piankhy” to “Piye” for this Nubian king, although the latter is now the widely (though not universally) accepted rendering. These are, of course, minor quibbles.

Finally, method should be addressed. Redford’s stance toward the historical evidence is, for lack of a better word, traditional; the texts are left to “speak for themselves” (x). This is perhaps a reaction to some of the more theoretically informed historical work in recent years. The debate about the use of theory in historical research (all too often a “dialogue of the deaf,” to quote Braudel) has been long and often tiresome. I agree with Redford that too often theory is applied simplistically to ancient texts. There must be a middle ground where documents, archaeology, and theory can meet. The proper use of social theory should not diminish the “voices” from the past but rather enhance and contextualize them. Texts left bare can be just as misleading as the improper “plug-and-chug” use of theory derived from nation-state analyses. Since even the most literal translation of a text unavoidably involves modern interpretation, it is better to make explicit what one is doing with the documentation. Not to do so inevitably forces more questions. This is especially true of activities concerning the economy. The texts can say things that cannot reasonably be analyzed; we either believe them or not. Can we really trust the income in gold of the Temple of Amun cited by Redford (39), and on what basis is the conversion to the modern dollar equivalent of $800 million justified? We cannot simply leave such details unquestioned, nor must we be so concerned about the minute facts of the preserved documentation to forget to ask the broader questions: what has not come down to us and what was never recorded, and why.

Despite my different stance regarding what might yet be accomplished, Redford’s study is an essential reminder of how complex Egyptian history is, and how flexible the Egyptian state was over the long term. Redford has succeeded in producing a work that every historian concerned with Nilotic history will need to consult. It is also a book every classical historian should read. Knowing Egypt’s history in the first millennium B.C.E., prior to Alexander’s conquest, is vital for understanding Ptolemaic and Roman rule. The author has done Egyptian history a great service in setting on a firm footing what we know and, more importantly, why it matters, and we look forward to his next installment.

J.G. Manning
Department of Classics
Building 20
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

Book Review of From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt, by Donald B. Redford

Reviewed by J.G. Manning

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 1 (January 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1111.Manning

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