Egypt: A Short History

December 2, 2010

Robert Tignor, recently retired from a chair in history at Princeton University, has a well-established reputation as a historian of British colonialism in Africa, particularly Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria. Here he takes up a much broader remit: five millennia of Egyptian history - a period of continuous existence that no other single country can claim. So in composing a continuous historical account of a country usually divided up between Egyptologists, classicists, scholars of early Christianity and historians of the Islamic period and the modern Middle East, Tignor's task can in some sense be regarded as an act of concision every bit as heroic as the building of the Pyramids.

The result is, for the most part, an attractive synthesis. Like many writers since Herodotus, Tignor stresses the centrality of the Nile to Egyptian culture ("Geography is destiny") and notes authoritarian rule and religiosity as enduring themes. In a narrative that dedicates roughly a third of the book each to the ancient world, the Christian and early modern period and then the past 200 years, he adeptly takes us through a long succession of dynasties from the Pharaonic period right up to the current republican regime of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian people stand as the constant presence, witness to the rise and fall of the (mostly foreign) rulers punctuating the historical record.

Although this is an established discourse, the picture may exaggerate the foreignness of rulers and essentialise the Egyptians themselves. ("Egyptians are famously hospitable and generous to foreigners. They understand the importance of ceremony and tradition," Tignor writes.) All successful leaders secured a level of support from the local Egyptian population, and both influenced and were influenced by their traditions and culture. On occasion, Tignor launches into excursus on related subjects such as the origins of Islam, the Abbasids and the Ottomans, which, while relevant, somewhat disrupt the narrative flow.

Such a broad sweep necessarily means many things are passed over, but Tignor dwells overlong on some issues. The prominence given to the British role no doubt stems from his interest in colonialism, but does Lord Cromer's departure from Egypt need to be described twice? More space might have been given to the vibrancy of modern Egyptian society, such as the labour movement, feminist currents, Muslim-Coptic tensions and cultural debates around Pharaonicism in the 1920s and beyond. The instability of the critical period before the 1952 military coup was not just about the call for British withdrawal, but also the ideological struggle between the Left and the Muslim Brotherhood in the domestic arena.

Inevitably in a work of this scope there are some inaccuracies: Archimedes was born in Syracuse not Egypt; the monarchy was not abolished until 1953; the assassination attempt on Gamal Abdel Nasser was in October 1954; the British were represented (by Selwyn Lloyd, the foreign secretary) at the secret meeting at Sevres in 1956 that set the Suez War in train.

Employing a writing style more popular and accessible than academic, Tignor intersperses the historical narrative with personal anecdotes of time spent in the country, or scenes familiar to the tourist in Egypt: the holiday experience, taking the Cairo Metro and negotiating the city. The intended audience is clearly an American one: the US government is given credit for food provision, for example, and greater attention is paid to the American University in Cairo than the Egyptian state-education system. Occasionally, however, a patronising tone creeps in ("It was a delight to see the Egyptian people looking so healthy in the 1970s...".)

Ambitious in scope, Egypt: A Short History provides an informative and readable account for the interested general reader. For those who wish to press on with more detailed study of a country that has fascinated both East and West over many centuries, its useful bibliography points the way.

Egypt: A Short History

By Robert L. Tignor. Princeton University Press. 363pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780691147635. Published 2 November 2010

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