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  • Egypt: A Short History
  • Henry E. Chambers (bio)
Egypt: A Short History, by Robert L. Tignor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2010. 345 pages. $29.95.

Professor Robert Tignor's Egyptian history is a rare combination of scholarship, clear prose, and personal perspective aimed at the general public. The author contributes five decades of instruction at Princeton University to a concise Egyptian history from antiquity to the present. His career in modern Egyptian history required substantial readings in pre-Arab history for this fine work. The extensive bibliography reflects these efforts. The author's expository prose and topic sentences for paragraphs and chapters direct readers to key ideas and events to follow.

For readers who primarily wish to understand modern Middle Eastern history, he describes how Egypt's early history shaped its entire later history with hydraulic irrigation, economic efficiencies, innovations to the alphabet, and social complexities. The ancient religion and culture he treats very sympathetically, but he should have shown skepticism about claims that Akhenaton's "pioneering monotheism" influenced Judaism and Christianity (pp. 65-67). The connections to early Jewish monotheism are overstated and unlikely. Otherwise, he describes the Amarna period as destructive of Egypt's [End Page 146] cultural tradition. He included sections from "Sinuhe" to exemplify love for home and portions from the touching love poetry. Of course, there are others he could have added from wisdom and temple literature.

Earlier, he correctly dismissed Martin Bernal's "Black Athena" thesis that Greece borrowed from Egypt the essentials of its culture and scholars hid these connections in a racial plot to hide possibilities that Western civilization borrowed from "black Egyptians." Egypt did influence some elements, such as stone sculptural techniques, but certainly not the foundations, religion, or values of Hellenism.

Dr. Tignor stresses the Alexandrine leadership role in early Christianity, its patriarchs, monks, and doctrinal formulations. St. Antony's desert asceticism became a seminal experience for both Eastern and Western monasticism and led to St. Augustine and Benedictine monasticism.

As the United States and the West struggle to understand various manifestations of Islam, he gives clear accounts of the Prophet Muhammad's revelations in the Qur'an, the Hadith, and the split into Sunni and Shi'a sects. Most will probably read the sections on the Ottomans quickly, but the latter deserve credit for the prosperity they brought to the Eastern Mediterranean before their decline.

Normally, Western history associates Napoleon's Nile expedition with "waking up" a sleepy Ottoman empire. Except for the later European fascination with things Egyptian, he failed and withdrew to France without troops or ships. More important was Muhammed 'Ali, who began the economic and modern development of Egypt. Credit is usually given the British conquest, but we forget what Egypt accomplished by the Suez Canal and construction programs for Cairo and Alexandria. Overspending and commodity market collapse in the early 1870s allowed Britain to seize control. Britain's colonial policies tightly controlled Egypt until they failed following WW I. As Professor Tignor emphasizes, the pharaohs were the last native rulers before Nasser and the Colonels ousted King Faruk in 1952. Even then, Britain refused to relinquish Suez control until the 1956 Suez plot with France and Israel to force Nasser out by military invasion. Nasser and Egyptian forces received credit by refusing to submit, but it was US President Dwight D. Eisenhower who provided key pressure on the three participants to depart.

French, Israeli, and especially British maneuvers, coupled with Egypt's own political weaknesses, explain the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood after 1928. Nasser was the most important political leader, but Tignor does not exculpate him for the economic and political mess he later created. He failed to integrate the Brotherhood or any other political group into the political structure. Sayyid Qutb's "Milestones" became a call to action for militant Muslims not withstanding his execution by Nasser. Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor as President, worked to turn the latter's economic and political policies around by making peace with Israel and realigning with the West. However, he failed to connect with ordinary Egyptians, costing him his life. Western leaders attended his funeral, but few Egyptians.

Professor Tignor has little hope...


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