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  • Egypt: A Short History
  • Paul Sedra
Egypt: A Short History. By Robert L. Tignor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. 363 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Princeton University Press could hardly have found a more distinguished and respected scholar to condense centuries of Egyptian history into a single volume. Robert Tignor, the Rosengarten Professor [End Page 419] of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, has authored such seminal works on modern Egypt as Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914 (1966), State, Private Enterprise, and Economic Change in Egypt, 1918-1952 (1984), and Egyptian Textiles and British Capital, 1930-1956 (1989). However, rather than confine himself to the modern history with which he is intimately familiar, Tignor has wandered much further afield and taken on the daunting task of surveying not simply centuries, but indeed millennia of Egyptian history. In only 320 pages of text he ranges from the beginnings of human habitation in the Nile Valley to contemporary projects aiming to expand habitation beyond the Nile and into the desert.

Conscious of the pitfalls that invariably accompany so broad a periodization, few scholars have taken on the task of making the diverse cultures of ancient, Greco-Roman, Christian, Islamic, and modern Egypt accessible through a single volume. Yet, according to Tignor, this reluctance has led to a lamentable state of affairs—that specialists in these areas of Egyptian history remain unfamiliar with the cutting-edge work undertaken by their counterparts concerned with disparate periods. As Tignor explains, "Egyptologists find it difficult to converse with modernists" (p. 3). The languages, skills, and networks required of scholars in Egyptology are starkly different from those required of scholars in modern Egyptian history, to say nothing of the methodological concerns and analytical frameworks that dominate their respective works.

Accordingly, one of the audiences Tignor has in mind with this work are scholars of Egypt seeking a brief and readable introduction to those parts of Egyptian history that, by virtue of professional boundaries, have thus far eluded them. Perhaps more important, though, the work is directed at those entirely unfamiliar with Egypt, seeking expert advice about how to place the monuments they observe on vacation in proper historical context. And to this end, Tignor has performed an invaluable service for visitors to the country. What is arguably most appealing about Egypt: A Short History as a guide for tourists is the seamless manner in which the author brings past and present together in productive and revealing ways. Modern Egypt is not given short shrift, as is so often the case in works directed at tourists. Rather, Tignor makes wise and careful note of the ways in which parts of the past resonate for contemporary Egyptians, and emphasizes how visitors and locals may perceive the Egyptian past in starkly different ways.

What will make this book a delightful read for specialists and nonspecialists alike is the lively style with which it is written, to say nothing [End Page 420] of the profound level of familiarity, affection, and—indeed—intimacy evinced by the anecdotes Tignor recounts. This is no dry summary of facts and dates, but a distinctly personal account of a scholar's passion for and engagement with his subject, namely, Egyptians. The body of the text is divided into twelve chapters and a conclusion organized chronologically. Despite this relatively strict chronological approach, Tignor allows for thematic digressions into such issues as the cosmologies of the ancients, the lives of peasants and women through Egyptian history, the position of Egypt within the broader Islamic world, and the architecture of downtown Cairo.

The only caution that seems appropriate is that this would not serve well as an undergraduate textbook—nor is the author claiming such. The broad periodization that makes this book distinctly useful for visitors to Egypt makes it rather less useful for coursework. Understandably, temporal breadth comes at a cost in terms of scholarly depth. Given my own focus on the modern period, I have drawn examples of such from the book's final five chapters. The account of the rise of the British occupation in Egypt, at the end of chapter 9, gives precious little coverage to how...


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pp. 419-421
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