For centuries, the deserts of Egypt have yielded their secrets to the spades and trowels of persistent archaeologists. Monuments, tombs, palaces, works of art, literature, whole villages, and other artifacts from Egypt’s past have been the subject of meticulous study and have offered modern people remarkable insights into the history, religion, and day-to-day life of this ancient civilization. The question remains, however, how the Egyptians perceived themselves over the more than three thousand years their culture flourished. How did the collective memory of their past infuse their present with meaning and influence their values, ideals, belief systems, and ambitions? Respected archaeologist Jan Assmann attempts to answer these questions in The Mind of Egypt. First published in German in 1996, his scholarly treatise has been translated into English for the first time, bringing Assmann’s astute and learned insights to a wider audience.
Moving systematically through four millennia of Egyptian history, from 3200 b.c.e. to 300 c.e., Assmann examines what he terms traces (archaeological evidence), messages (literary, biographical, and religious inscriptions), and memories (the influence of past history on the present). He asserts that his multidisciplinary approach to studying ancient Egyptian civilization is different from that of “conventional historians” because, while many scholars focus on the sequence of events to illuminate a particular period, “the historian of meaning” is “concerned with the particular cultural form of this history.” Assmann acknowledges that looking at the history of meaning is relativistic because the historical portrait that emerges is a product of norms and beliefs constructed by a specific culture, as opposed to a view of history as a “universal, uniform frame within which each culture develops in its own different way.”
Central to Assmann’s analysis is the Egyptian concept of time, which is dual in nature. Neheh, or cyclical time, is tied to the stars and determined by the sun. It is associated with movement and emphasizes “becoming.” Djet, on the other hand, is linked with permanence and stability. It is, as Assmann defines it, “time at a standstill.” Pharaonic history mirrors both these conceptions of cultural time. The fundamental ideas undergirding the symbolic world of Egyptian culture remained unchanged for thousands of years. Yet, during those centuries “the remarkable pattern of disruption and continuity, departure and return” spawned changes in the Egyptian mentality springing from intellectual connections that, for example, the Middle Kingdom made to the Old Kingdom. The power of this self-reflection transformed the collective memories of the Egyptians, lending a dynamic quality to each successive historical period even though fundamental cultural institutions appeared to remain unchanged.
The office of pharaoh is a prime example of how a cultural institution managed to remain a stable and important part of the society, yet subtly reconfigured itself from one period to the next. For example, monumental architecture played a key role in defining and establishing the king’s power in the Old Kingdom. Beginning with King Djoser’s step pyramid and culminating in the great pyramids of Cheops and Chephren, such structures symbolized the incarnation of the king as supreme god and served as a conduit for the king’s soul between earthly existence and the afterlife. In commenting on the place of monumental art during this historical period, Assmann draws an interesting parallel between Egyptian pyramids and books. Noting that the “literary” aspect of tombs is unique to the Egyptian culture, he asserts that the tombs themselves and the inscriptions found on their walls allowed the Egyptians to reflect on their lives from beginning to end and delineate the achievements for which they wished to be remembered. However, the cultural meaning of inscriptions transcended the individual lives of those who built the tombs or pyramids. Assmann notes:
The multiplicity of allusions from one tomb to another forms a network of intertextual references that justify the term “monumental discourse” and represent the most important medium of cultural memory; by means of this monumental discourse, Egyptian society could reach beyond the everyday and gain for itself a form of collective identity that transcended mundane concerns. The tombs belong to the constellation of pyramids, temples, obelisks, statues, stelae, and sphinxes...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)