Ancient Egypt's enduring fascination is profound and it continues to exert an attraction for the world which has come after it, which increases rather than diminishes. I for one
have tried to explain this singular phenomenon in terms of the archetypes which determine the nature of complex societies and which Egypt was the first known culture to recognise and name. This can only be one of many
In recent decades a flood of books has poured out on Egypt's culture, many written by professional Egyptologists, rehearsing the surviving record of the Nile people's world, the product of
archaeology and painstaking analysis. The scholarly study of Ancient Egypt is at least two centuries old and an immense corpus of work has been created in that time.
Bobbing about in the literary flood which Egypt has
released are other works, often the products of speculation, sometimes of obsession. These try to explain the special nature of Egypt and the inheritance which it has left to the modern world, seeking explanations which
are often esoteric, not infrequently eccentric, even bizarre. Often such works are highly subjective and selective in the evidence their authors advance to support their particular theory; sometimes they contain
insights which it is lacking in wisdom to ignore.
Occasionally a book appears which presents an entirely new dimension to what is, everyone will agree, an intensely complex subject. Such a book was Hamlet's Mill
, by de Santillana and von Dechend, published thirty years ago, which, though it was often wilfully opaque, transformed the way that myth and ancient societies were shown to interact. The several volumes of Joseph
Campbell's studies (1959-68), which were informed and illuminated by the application of Jungian analysis, similarly introduced new concepts in the study of the ancient world.
I believe that Alan Alford's book is of
comparable significance. He too has a case to argue and it is a bold one, but he sets it into the most thorough review which I have read of all
the evidence currently available of the great questions which perplex Egyptology and its peripheral regions - the age and nature of the great monuments, the character of the Egyptian metaphysical experience, the role of the kingship and the nature of the gods. He shows (as others including myself have tried to show) that the Egyptians possessed an astonishing range of technical skills, the origins of which defy explanation. He demonstrates their profound awareness of astronomy and the importance of celestial bodies - to a degree which is certainly arresting, whether or not his conclusions are fully apprehended. He constructs a minutely particularised picture of ancient Egypt which goes far towards explaining how it achieved its unique historical personality.
The evidence which Alford presents is unexceptionable, his conclusions, though very dramatic, have their own clear logic. The cumulative effect of his argument is powerful - even if not all of his conclusions have
totally convinced this reader. I feel sometimes that he pursues his thesis (which I leave the reader to discover) further than it really can take him, but I respect the logic which takes him there. He is of the
Holmesian school which says that after all other explanations have been discarded, what remains, no matter how unlikely, is the truth.
I like the way that he avoids the common practice of mocking those professionals
who are ill-disposed to speculation. There is a game which some writers have pursued vigorously, which may be called 'Goading the Egyptologist'. It proceeds from the belief that those Egyptologists who do not instantly
accept the latest theory must be exposed as obscurantist, hide-bound and culpable. This is unworthy and unfair. The Egyptologist is the product of his training and of generations of workers who have, in the proper
manner of all academics, produced a consensus. It is both naive and unreasonable to expect them to discard their training at the whim of the latest pyramid watcher who appears over the horizon.
But equally, whilst it
is not difficult to understand that some Egyptologists may feel threatened by those who comment on their discipline, there is little for them to gain, every time that such a one appears, by rushing into the streets
crying 'Anathema, anathema'; it is well to remember that this season's heterodoxy is next season's orthodoxy. What is required is a little objective analysis (and, on both sides, a little humility) and such analysis is,
in large part, what Alford provides.
He has demonstrated, abundantly, that there are considerable anomalies in the evidence of Egypt's past, which, to put it no higher, require a critical response and not merely an
abrupt dismissal. It has long been clear to me that there are significant areas of Egypt's past where there are important lacunae or where the evidence no longer supports the theories which have hitherto explained them.
The Phoenix Solution
may prompt some of the researchers in the field to look again at all the evidence, firmly in the eye, preferably with as few prejudices as it may ever be possible for humans to display. If so, Alan Alford will have rendered a lasting service to the study of the greatest, most mysterious of ancient civilisations.
MICHAEL RICE, Odsey, Cambridgeshire, April 1998.
Michael Rice has travelled extensively in the Nile valley over the past thirty years, and is the author of a number of books on the archaeology of Egypt and the
Middle East, including Egypt's Making (1990), Egypt's Legacy (1997), The Power of the Bull (1997) and Who's Who in Ancient Egypt (1999).