The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs

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The Mind of Egypt presents an unprecedented account of the mainsprings of Egyptian civilization -- the ideals, values, mentalities, belief systems, and aspirations that shaped the first territorial state in human history. Drawing on a range of literary, iconographic, and archaeological sources, the renowned historian Jan Assmann reconstructs a world of unparalleled complexity, a culture that, long before others, possessed an extraordinary degree of awareness and self-reflection.
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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times

Magnificent… Assmann asks what meaning Egyptians obtained from their own constructions of their history. How did they incorporate the legacy of the past into the present. Using three approaches - archeological, mythic, and epigraphic or iconographic - Assmann takes us a chronological journey, starting with the formation of the unified state in about 3100 BC and going through the three great kingdoms. He ends in the late period with the final whimpers of Egyptian civilization. Assmann has looked closely into the mirror of the ancient intangible with telling effect. Every student of early civilization has something to learn from these pages, which will help cure us of intellectual myopia.
— Brian Fagan

The American Scholar

Assmann is attempting something far more ambitious than all the conventional books on Egypt. What he attempts to do is pen a psychological portrait of Egyptian culture. He asks questions that are normally avoided by ancient historians: What motivated the culture? How did it view the relationship between the individual and the universe surrounding him or her? What explanations did it provide for worldly events and reversals of fortune? The result is impressive. The Mind of Egypt marks the culmination of years of questioning about the past and the ways it can be conceptualized. Jan Assmann is close in some ways to being the Beethoven of Egyptology. The Mind of Egypt is a singular book that will provoke debate for a generation to come. It is essential reading for those who wish to call themselves Egyptologists, and it is an important intellectual contribution to the whole question of what constitutes history and historiography.
— John Ray

History Today

[This book's] aim—to examine the mainsprings of Egyptian civilisation and thereby to provide a 'psychological' portrait of Egyptian culture—is truly fascinating.

Saul Friedlander
Jan Assmann is one of the most talented historians of the ancient world.
Publishers Weekly
Originally published in 1996, this is both an intellectual history of ancient Egypt and an exploration in which "the course of events forms the backdrop and the discourses generating and reflecting meaning occupy the front of the stage." In other words, here's a book about history and how it's made and interpreted as much as it is about Egypt. Assmann's dense and scholarly tome draws on a wide variety of sources, from literature and archeology to iconography, to trace a portrait of Egyptian civilization from 5000 B.C.E. to the beginnings of Christianity. It has no central thesis, as such, but examines a fascinating array of material, some of it well known (Piye's victory stele) and some of it more obscure (a wide variety of hymns and literary lamentations). The translation is by and large excellent, and yet the book is still rather difficult to wade through. The author's preoccupation with theory may trouble readers who are accustomed to a more narrative presentation; his application of the concept of Cosmotheism is traditional, for example, and so the introduction of terminology like Cosmohermeneutics seems to complicate things unnecessarily. Assmann (Moses the Egyptian; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt) is a distinguished Egyptologist, and this book will appeal greatly to the field's academics and professionals, as well as seriously dedicated Egyptophiles. Unfortunately, one of the major attractions in any publication on ancient Egypt is absent good photographs of the culture's spectacular legacy in art (there are only eight illustrations). There are, however, endnotes, a basic chronology, and a useful key to the Egyptian gods. (Apr. 12) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Not since J.H. Breasted's classic 1912 publication Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt has an attempt been made to explore systematically the evolution of Egyptian thought across 3000 years of civilization. Assmann, director of the Egyptological Institute of Heidelberg University and a prolific author, accomplished this feat in his 1996 Egypten: eine Sinnegeschichte. Now this authoritative work has been translated into English to benefit a wider audience. Assmann states that without the survival of Egyptian literary, biographical, and religious inscriptions, "we would not know how this civilization saw itself, how it set itself off from its neighbors, what central values it cherished, what social and religious norms it developed; nor would we know in what ways Egypt related to its own" or "how it saw the relation between gods and humans." Beginning with a discussion of the unique Egyptian concept of two infinities (linear and cyclical), Assmann leads the reader step by step through the Egyptian mind as preserved in texts written in hieroglyphic and hieratic, reflecting changes in attitude and world view resulting from internal and external social and historical factors. Extensive endnotes make up for the lack of a formal bibliography. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Edward K. Werner, St. Lucie Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Pierce, FL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From a foremost Egyptologist (Moses the Egyptian, not reviewed, etc.), an insightful look at the framework of beliefs that supported one of the world's oldest and most stable civilizations. Girded with impeccable credentials, Assmann (Egyptology/Univ. of Heidelberg) embarks on an ambitious course of delving into the meaning behind the often larger-than-life events in the history of "the Two Lands." While the author's account is, for the most part, written in straightforward language, at times he bends at least one knee in obeisance to mind-numbing academic jargon, the intent seeming to be putting laymen off the scent. This gives rise to such typically obfuscatory and inelegant expressions as "semantic paradigms" and "the spatio-temporal evolution of civilizations," as well as neologisms like Mikhail Bakhtin's "chronotope," a literary construction of time. These lapses are, thankfully, infrequent, arising in the context of the theoretical antecedents to Assmann's work. Spanning the whole epoch of Egyptian history from 3,200 b.c. to a.d. 300, the current volume chronicles the "remarkable pattern of disruption and continuity, departure and return" that was maintained even during the eras of Persian, Greek, and Roman occupations, and the failed monotheistic revolution of the Amarna period during the New Kingdom reign of Akhenaten. Despite his care in drawing the distinction between the traditional historiography of collecting facts and artifacts, and the radical Enlightenment method of recollecting the history of mind inherent in texts and images, Assmann's fascinating multidisciplinary approach within the ill-defined boundaries of this nascent ology often has more in common with poetry thanhard science. Among his more noteworthy contentions is the idea that the concomitant rise and fall of hieroglyphic writing is anything but coincidental. While aimed at the generalist, full enjoyment of this scholarly cultural history presupposes some background in the more traditional histories of ancient Egypt. (8 b&w illustrations)
From the Publisher
Praise for Jan Assmann:

"Jan Assmann is one of the most talented historians of the ancient world."-Saul Friedlander

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012110
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2003
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 1,567,297
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Jan Assmann, a world-renowned professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and winner of the prestigious German Historians Prize, has taught at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Rice, the Getty Research Center, the British Museum, and the Royal Anthropological Society. He has published, among other works, Moses the Egyptian and The Search for God in Ancient Egypt.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Meaningful Form of History
Pt. 1 The Predynastic Period and the Old Kingdom
Pt. 2 The First Intermediate Period
Pt. 3 The Middle Kingdom
Pt. 4 The New Kingdom
Pt. 5 Theocracy, Polyarchy, Archaism
Pt. 6 Egypt under the Persians and Greeks
Conclusion: Egypt as Trace, Message, and Memory
Key to the Egyptian Gods
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