Review of The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Ian Shaw

Eras Journal – Scorgie, S: Review of “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt”, Ian Shaw (ed.)

Ian Shaw (Ed.).The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.Isbn 0-1981-5034-2. (Hardcover)

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt covers an enormous time frame beginning some 700,000 years ago when Homo-erectus and not Homo-sapiens sapiens inhabited Egypt and continuing up until the end of the Roman Period in 395 CE. Equal to this massive time span is the quality of the book’s contributors whose expertise conforms accurately with their assigned periods of Egyptian history.

As a result of the amount of history covered in this volume, I found myself drawn to the periods upon which my personal research has been based, thus regrettably limiting this review. Fortunately, Shaw’s team were not limited in this way and together have produced a precise and methodical text.

From the outset Shaw states that The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt aims to expand upon Alan Gardiner’s Egypt of the Pharaohs[1] by not only incorporating archaeological and textual material in reference to ‘political change but also with social and economic developments, processes of religious and ideological change, and trends in material culture’. [2] This distinction can be viewed most clearly in Malek’s chapter on the Old Kingdom.[3] Malek, unlike Gardiner, does not limit his discussion solely to the evolution of monumental architecture: instead he concentrates upon both religious and economic evolution in the Old Kingdom. Malek illustrates the link between the evolution of religion and that of monumental architecture by comparing the pyramid temple’s change in orientation from north/south to east/west with the change in the conception of the king’s afterlife. According to Malek, an alteration of the king’s afterlife arose due to a change in religious doctrine from a reliance upon the stars to a doctrine focussed more around the sun-god Re and an increased importance of Osiris.[4] Malek believes that the development of monumental architecture not only represented a change in religious beliefs, but also a change in Egypt’s administration, as monumental construction placed a great strain on resources, thus requiring a more efficient administrative system.[5] Malek claims that it is this concept which signalled the need for administrative centres and nomes in order to centralise the economy. This economic development was not only of benefit to the king but to private individuals who from the 5th Dynasty were able to construct their own tombs without the aid of the king. These tombs were filled with autobiographical accounts from daily life completely unlike the inscriptions in royal tombs of the period.[6]

Generally, the individual authors of each chapter adhere to Shaw’s guidelines, going beyond the normal discussion of royal monuments and military campaigns, to incorporate all aspects of Egyptian life (from those within the religious order to those in the working classes). However, Bryan’s chapter, ‘The Eighteenth Dynasty Prior to the Amarna Period’ fails to expand upon what can be found in traditional sources (eg. Gardiner). While Bryan covers a range of topics both accurately and in depth she falls short of Shaw’s goal, ignoring many important aspects of the period. Admittedly, the monuments and military campaigns of the early 18th Dynasty are very important. However the weakness in Bryan’s account is not what she covers but what is omitted, as she overlooks some less well documented, yet equally important, aspects of the Dynasty. For instance, the lives of the working classes from Deir el-Medina and the religious changes brought about towards the end of Amenhotep III’s reign (the precursor to the Amarna Period) are only touched upon. Bryan also appears to steer clear of contentious topics, such as the accession date of Hatshepsut, which although not yet determined, is of immense significance to the political situation of the mid-18th Dynasty. While her chapter is generally very accurate in its discussion, Bryan does make the claim that Thutmose I’s father is completely unknown and therefore his succession “cannot be better explicated”.[7] This completely ignores Bennett’s 1994 article ‘Thutmosis I and Ahmes-Sapäir’ which suggests that Ahmose-Sapäir, a younger brother of King Ahmose, was indeed the father of Thutmose I.[8] As a result Thutmose I’s succession would be explained as a continuation of the family line given that he was the cousin of his predecessor Amenhotep I.

Bryan’s narrow discussion of the early 18th Dynasty is made more obvious by Bourriau’s discussion of the Second Intermediate Period in the preceding chapter. Bourriau expands upon the common discussion of the reign of the Hyksos and the subsequent rise of the 17th Dynasty, through her analysis of both the contemporaneous 16th Dynasty, which ruled from the western delta, and the Kingdom of Kush and its interaction with both the Hyksos and the rulers of the 17th Dynasty.

Van Dijk’s chapter on the Amarna Period falls somewhere in between the depth of analysis in the chapters by Malek and Bourriau, and the more narrow focus of Bryan. Again Van Dijk’s weakness is not in what is covered but what is left out. Although he breaks with tradition in his discussion of the military during the reign of Akhenaten, he also appears to shy away from controversial issues such as the reasoning behind Akhenaten’s alteration of the state religion. Van Dijk supports the outdated belief that Akhenaten introduced religious reform because he was a monotheist, ignoring the possibility that reform was politically motivated, perhaps to reduce the power of the cult of Amun. Van Dijk also restates the contentious claim that Akhenaten’s unique portrayal of himself and his family was based on his own physical appearance, a claim for which no evidence exists.

Shaw’s intent, however, is generally followed throughout the volume as the examination of Egyptian life goes beyond royal monuments and military campaigns and instead focusses more upon Egypt’s religion and ever-changing material culture. Shaw’s concept of expanding upon the general themes of Egyptology has been well utilised, thus allowing The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt to supply readers with a view of Egyptian history not covered in Gardiner’s benchmark text Egypt of the Pharaohs as well as expanding upon Trigger et al’s excellent work in Ancient Egypt: A Social History. [9] The compilation of such a thorough and accurate text within a single volume is a tribute to the authors and will ultimately lead to The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt becoming one of the most widely read texts on Ancient Egypt.

Séamus Scorgie.
School of Historical Studies, Monash University.


[1] Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, Clarendon, Oxford, 1961. Back

[2] Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p.v. Back

[3] Jaromir Malek, ‘The Old Kingdom c.2686 – 2125 BC’, in Ian Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p.93. Back

[4] Jaromir Malek, ‘The Old Kingdom’, p.93.Back

[5] Jaromir Malek, ‘The Old Kingdom’, p.102.Back

[6] Jaromir Malek, ‘The Old Kingdom’, p.102.Back

[7] Betsy Bryan, ‘The Eighteenth Dynasty before the Amarna Period c.1550 – 1352 BC’, in Ian Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p.231. Back

[8] Chris Bennett, ‘Thutmosis I and Ahmes-Sapäir’, Gottinger Miszellen, Vol. 141, 1994, pp. 35-7. Back

[9] B.G. Trigger, B.J. Kemp, D. O’Connor and A.B. Lloyd, Ancient Egypt: A Social History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983. Back