In the beginning

February 11 2011

The Old Kingdom

Kenneth Clark (last post) made some further programmes for television after his Civilisation of 1969. The last, in 1975, was an hour-long film about ancient Egypt called In the Beginning. I don’t know where it was shown, but it was produced by Reader’s Digest. From the second volume, The Other Half (1977), of his autobiography:

“On successive visits to Egypt, and especially to Sakara, I had grown more and more impressed by the suddenness with which civilised man had made his appearance. By evolutionary standards it should have taken millions of years for the primitive hunter, with low forehead and crunching jaws, to turn into the graceful, intelligent-looking man whom we find in the earliest Egyptian sculpture. In fact it took only about 500. Most people close their minds to this irrefutable fact, either because they cannot explain it, or because it smacks too much of special creation. It was on account of this second suspicion that I called my programme ‘In the Beginning’. I wanted it to make people reflect on what I believe to be the greatest miracle in history. By the year 2750 Egypt had developed nearly all the qualities that we value, or used to value, in our own civilization: a belief in the individual as moral being; pride in the merciful execution of justice, a well organised system of government, a sense of the beauty and dignity of man, who had a soul that would survive him after death; an awareness of animals as something very close to ourselves, which could be lovable as well as useful; geometry and its application to stone architecture; and above all an art that combined grandeur with humanity. All this emerged in what we call the Old Kingdom, which lasted over 700 years, and to which Egypt looked back for the next 200 years, rather as China looked back to the T’ang Dynasty.”

I think “earliest Egyptian sculpture” refers to sculpture in general, not a particular piece, but is he really saying that it took five hundred years for man to be transformed from an anatomically pre-modern to modern state? He is confusing art and anatomy. Anatomical modernity was achieved in some tens of thousands of years after the appearance of homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. Full behavioural modernity was achieved (perhaps) 50,000 years ago, after he had left Africa. Or did man really become more graceful with civilisation?

Some time before Civilisation, Clark had made a film for ATV about Luxor. “The Luxor film was my first introduction to Egypt, which I loved so much that I have been back many times, and have done another film [In the Beginning] about the earlier period [its main focus is on the Old Kingdom]. Working with a half-Egyptian crew, I have come to love not only Egypt but the Egyptians, and my dream of bliss, which I shall never now achieve, would be to go from Cairo to Assuan on a Nile steamer.”

Francis X Hartigan, The History Teacher (US), November 1980, of which I have accessed only part, reviewing In the Beginning:

“In Clark’s provocative view civilization came with ‘the suddenness of sunlight’ between 3000 and 2800 B.C., between the political order established by Narmer and the building of Sakkara, when Egyptian art achieved the sense of beauty, the dignity of man, the order, clarity, and inspiration that he defines as ‘civilization.’ Specifically, Clark places the cradle of civilization at Sakkara with its famous necropolis and step pyramid of Djoser, the earliest stone building in the world. Sakkara presents refinement, sophistication, and grandeur; the early elements of Egyptian art and design can be seen here.

“One may fault Clark’s criterion for civilization because it is exclusively that of an art historian. In his quest for the roots of civilization he all but ignores the greatness and primacy of Mesopotamian Civilization because comparatively little of its art and architecture survives. As an art historian Clark is understandably drawn to the unparalleled richness of the art and architecture of the Egyptians whom he regards as ‘a profoundly visual people.’ The Mesopotamians were more verbal than visual. Once in the world of Egyptian art Clark’s presentation is splendid. Two strong themes emerge: the refinement and confidence of the Egyptians and their unique love of nature and their determination to portray it as an integral part of their lives. Both themes receive their greatest expression in the Old Kingdom, the subject of Part One of the film. The audience is drawn into the freshness and vibrancy of the creative process as it unfolded in Egypt. Along the way Clark discards some old myths. The Giza pyramids were not built by slaves but were the co-operative enterprise of a dynamic and confident society. Egyptian portraiture was not static, but so sensitive that the statue of Khephren is ‘the noblest portrait of a ruler ever made.’”

Even if you look only at cradles of civilisation, and not the megaliths, Sakkara isn’t the “earliest stone building in the world”. But it depends on what ruins you are prepared to call buildings. Clark the anthropologist and archaeologist may be unreliable, but that is not what one reads him for.

Conquest of Upper Egypt by Lower c 3100 BC. Deposition of Mubarak today. Same geography, same faces even. There is some facial continuity between ancient and modern Egypt, which cannot honestly be said about Greece.

Eduard Spelterini, pyramids of Giza from a balloon, November 21 1904, Wikimedia Commons, scanned from Eduard Spelterini, Über den Wolken/Par dessus les nuages, Zurich, Brunner, 1928

The yokel in the aeroplane (old post).

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