Lessons From Ancient Egypt

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With its rich pharaonic history, Egypt is no stranger to leaders who expect unquestioning obedience from their subjects. Historian Toby Wilkinson says there are lessons to be learned from this Egyptian tradition of leadership, dating back to the time of Tutankhamun, that suggest the only thing more dangerous than a tyrant is the vacuum he can leave.


One of the oldest civilizations in the world, Egypt, has a long history of strong rulers, going back thousands of years. And since the days of the pharaohs many centuries ago, Egypt's history includes many accounts of oppression of its people, of rulers who stayed too long, and of an army always prepared to put down rebellion and ruthlessly preserve stability in the country.

Toby Wilkinson is a fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University and a student of ancient Egypt. He has a new book about to be published called "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt," and he joins us from his home in England.

Mr. Wilkinson, welcome.

Mr. TOBY WILKINSON (Author, "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt"): Thank you very much, indeed. It's good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal in which you noted that Hosni Mubarak is sometimes called a modern-day pharaoh and that his relationship to the army is critical, just as it was for some of his ancient predecessors.

Mr. WILKINSON: That's absolutely right. I mean, people have called him a modern-day pharaoh, and in many ways, he's behaving just like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

We know for a fact that the army was a very important power broker in the ancient Egyptian world, just as it is today. And, in fact, one of the most striking examples of that is something that a lot of listeners will be familiar with, and that's the boy king, Tutankhamun. People have heard of the king and heard of his golden treasure.

What they perhaps haven't heard of is the fact that when he died, Egypt was similarly in a state of upheaval, and it was the army then that stepped in to restore stability, just as it's doing on the streets of Cairo today.

WERTHEIMER: You also contend that Egypt, both the people and its leaders, have a historic fear of not knowing what is going to happen next, a fear of instability.

Mr. WILKINSON: That's right. I think Egypt, particularly because of its geographical position, with neighbors that always looked upon it rather jealously for its agriculture bounty, it's always felt rather vulnerable in the world. And so a strong, stable government has been a very important factor for the ancient Egyptians and, indeed, for the modern Egyptians. And anything that threatens that stability can seem very unsettling.

WERTHEIMER: Another parallel to ancient times is the warning that any trouble within the country is somehow caused by foreigners.

Mr. WILKINSON: Yeah, the Egyptians since time immemorial have been quite suspicious of foreign powers. And we know that in ancient times, the rulers would whip up fear of foreign invasions, be it from the Hittites in modern-day Turkey or from the Syrians or from the Nubians in modern Sudan in order to keep their people loyal.

And we're seeing the same thing happening today with government supporters in Egypt accusing either the West of meddling. It's a very ancient way of suppressing internal dissent by causing fear of the outside world.

WERTHEIMER: What about the idea of free speech, of speaking out, of protesting?

Mr. WILKINSON: That is completely unknown in ancient Egypt and, indeed, really until the last week's events was almost unheard of throughout Egypt's long history. Egypt has had a succession of very strong rulers who have brooked no opposition at all, and anybody who spoke out of turn was likely to find themselves bundled away in the middle of the night by the forces of the state.

I mean, that was true in the ancient world, and until this week, it's been true of modern Egypt too.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that in this connected world of 24/7 news, do you really think that ancient times still form ideas in the minds of modern Egyptians?

Mr. WILKINSON: I think they do. I think Egypt is very proud of its ancient past and the fact that it was once one of the greatest civilizations in the world. And I think the way that we see Mubarak and his supporters behaving at the moment is entirely in keeping with the way that Egyptian rulers have behaved throughout the centuries and, indeed, millennia.

So I think country's histories cast a very long shadow. And if we want to understand what's going on today, it's a very good place to start by looking at a country's history.

WERTHEIMER: Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist at England's Cambridge University.

Thank you very much.

Mr. WILKINSON: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: If you want to read about the way it was, Mr. Wilkinson's new book is called "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt," and it's out in mid-March.

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