Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Reviews: Comparisons and Contrasts

depiction of the Queen of PuntImage via Wikipedia

Summarized herein in the form of an essay is a review of two books written by two distinguished authors of European origin. The books, Eternal Egypt: the Civilization of Egypt from Earliest Times to Conquest by Alexander the Great by Frenchman Pierre Montet translated from the original French by Doreen Weightman and Africa: a Biography of the Continent by Anglo-Saxon, John Reader.

In his book, Africa: A Biography of the Continent, John Reader, eulogizes the prevalence of domesticated plants and animals, technological innovation, the establishment of villages and increasing level of social interdependence in the now empty and waterless Sahara desert even before the pyramids were built (Reader, p. 151). On the other hand, he articulately and meritoriously adduces evidences regarding the cultivation of food-crops such as wheat, barley, peas, and lentils along the Nile River despite these crops being cultivated earlier some 9,000 years ago in the “fertile crescent” of the Near East in reference to “the land between the two rivers”, formerly in the ancient nation of Mesopotamia and currently in the modern state of Iraq. Thus, cultivation of indigenous African plants did not begin in Egypt but rather in the south, an indication of the ancient nation of Nubia. Nubia, a vast land straddling the Nile valley to the south of Egypt was once a colony of Egypt. Both authors unanimously confirm the colonization of Nubia by Egypt. Pierre Montet further explicates how Nubians had their own form of arts and crafts and at the same time borrowed Egyptian artistic traditions (Montet, p. 118).

Rich in natural resources, Nubia was, for over 1,000 years, a major supplier of gold, ivory, timber, animal products, and slaves to Egypt until the emergence of powerful Nubian rulers who instituted a centralized authority that would have severe repercussions on the dwindling pharaonic empires. The arrival of powerful invading Assyrian armies wielding weapons of iron eventually led to the collapse of the once powerful Cushitic kingdom in Nubia. Both authors acknowledge the majesty of the civilization that thrived in Meroe. “Yet the Kingdom of Meroe can be given credit for having carried Egyptian civilization further south than the pharaohs themselves had ever succeeded in doing”, says so Pierre Montet while John Reader concludes its downfall accordingly: “Meroe was effectively an expression of Egyptian civilization rooted in what the pharaohs had called the land of punt-indigenous black Africa.”

The absence of genuine documentation, as Montet claims, is convincing evidence that Egyptians did not reach the confluence of the two Niles. Perhaps, by the two Niles, the author is referring to the two tributaries the Blue Nile originating at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and the White Nile which originates in Lake Victoria and is at the confluence of the Bahr al-Ghazal and Bahr al-Jabel Rivers.

At least the two authors agree on the name “punt” to which they separately refer to as “the land of the God” (Montet, p. 120) and “God’s land” (Reader, p. 196). On the other hand, the authors fail to agree on the exact location of punt in our modern world map. Pierre Montet suggestively assumes the location of punt to have been in the Bay of Hafun figuratively pointing it to the south of Cape Guardafui. In a nutshell, he is of the view that the incense-bearing tree Queen Hatshepsut sought after to exploit is plentifully found in Africa and Arabia Felix respectively.
Pierre Montet, despite employing persuasive historical and scientific research methodologies gained from his many years of distinguished career as an Egyptologist and his accumulated experience during work at the German Archaeological Institute of Berlin, fails to garner convincing consensus to uncovering the validity of the Land of Punt. He implausibly postulates two unrelated localities and as a final point fails to make amends with the reader. In their pursuit of literary reputation, no wonder, many writers tend to huggermugger. On the contrary, John Reader, relying on available evidence, easily recapitulates without making mangled assumptions by placing the location of punt “between the Red Sea and the southern Kordofan province of the Sudan”. Several African tribes and states lay claim to the historical Cush kingdom.

Most notably, Somalis, Amhara, Tigre, Nubians, Oromo, and Sudanese-Arabs place profound hereditary and historical inclination to the Cushitic kingdom of old. Currently, in the modern state of Somalia, there is a region known as Puntland located on the eastern corner of Somalia bordering the Red Sea and closest the Gulf of Aden where frankincense and myrrh -the two most prominent products sought after by ancient Egyptian pharaohs abundantly grow in the wild to this day.

Whichever claim is true; our reliance on historical inscriptions found in the tombs and pyramids of Nubia and Egypt and information gathered from archeological excavations should be enough to serve as concrete and compelling evidence for the moment simply for educational purposes until novel exposures reveal otherwise in the future.

What amuses the skeptical reader is the paragraph in John Reader’s book that state, “the concept of the Nile as a corridor through which the civilizing influence were conveyed to sub-Saharan Africa is the basis of an essentially Eurocentric interpretation of African history, implying that Africans were incapable of developing their own versions of civilization. It has an appealing simplicity, but is contradicted by the evidence.” (Reader, p.195). In one way one or the other, the author himself seems not to the point as regards whether Africans were civilized or not. The judge who could arbitrate on the flimsy and much-debated issue of who-was-who in African civilization is the infant and tender baby archeology whose distinct brushes and micro-blades have failed to go beyond the borders of America, North Africa, and Europe. John Reader reports that, according to the high official Henu, the expedition was undertaken on behalf of Montuhotep III c.1975 BC. On the other hand, Pierre Montet states that the ships were built in Chaldea and that they “sailed down the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, went round the enormous Arabian Peninsula and eventually reached the land of Punt.” Reader tries to make a case in point by claiming the ship was carried piece by piece across 150 km of desert to the Red Sea coast. (Reader p. 196)
Cited Sources
Pierre Montet, Eternal Egypt: The Civilization of Egypt from Earliest Times to Conquest by Alexander the Great, 5 Upper Saint Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9EA
John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1998
Ibid. (Montet, p. 118)
Ibid. (Reader 197)
Ibid. (Montet, p. 120)
Ibid (Reader p. 199)
Ibid (Reader, p. 196)
Ibid (Reader p. 195)
Ibid (Monetet p. 124)
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