This last year I have been on something of an Egyptian kick. This was brought on mostly by two traveling Egyptian shows, an exhibition of objects from the Petrie Museum of Archaeology, at the Museum of Art in Santa Fe, and an almost contemporaneous exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum of Egyptian art from the collection of the British Museum.
Seeing these prompted me to finish Alan Gardiner's "Egypt of the Pharaohs," which has been on the shelf for about eight years, and, at a time I have been trying to pare my library rather than augment it, to purchase two books on hieroglyphics.
One of the things that so distances the Egyptians from us is the scarcity of an engaging literature. There is nothing comparable to the history, drama, or poetry that we have from the Greeks, Romans or Hebrews. There is a rich store of mythological writing, some chronicles, and some reflective literature we would readily see as parallel to what one would find in, say, Proverbs. And there are texts like the Pyramid Texts, or the Book of Going Forth by Day. But the most popular of the Egyptian myths, for example, the story of Isis and Osiris, comes to us through Plutarch.
For me, in trying to imagine life in ancient Egypt, it is their visual art that predominates. Within the confines of the strange conventions of representation--the body straight on with the head in profile, the smoothly harmonious abstraction of natural objects,--there is a distant and distinctive beauty about it. Whether the funereal aspect was always pervasive, or only a consequence of the perdominanat survival of objects in tombs, there is a great melancholy about it, as well as that sense of vanished grandeur: "I am Ozimadius the Great; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."
There is also the sheer impressiveness of age. At the Petrie show there was a small relief, of great delicacy, dated at roughly 2500 BC. Perhaps it's only because I'm cleaning out my garage today, but there is something awesome about anything, not only lasting 4500 years, but retaining its form and beauty over such a span of time.
Because, as noted above, I was also reading Mommsen's History of Rome this last year, I was much taken, in the Petrie show, with a small Hellentistic carved head, identified as Caesarian, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. I don't think the boy survived his childhood, and, I assume he remained entirely unaware of and indifferent to the rather massive role his parents played in the history of the West.