From Isis to ISIS
The Soul of Ancient Egypt – Restoring the Spiritual Engine of the World by Robert Bauval and Ahmmed Osman provides an overview of the history of Egypt across 3000 years, illuminating the dynamics of its shifting fortunes. The authors are two expatriate Egyptians, one a Christian and the other a Muslim, who bring a rich and authoritative perspective to the turbulent tides of Egyptian history, from the time of Isis to the bewildering rise of ISIS, putting it all in context. Looking at the cover and the tagline, I kept passing on it, thinking it was about the iconography of this ancient civilization. What I found was something far more riveting – a narrative of the tangled streams of politics and power, religion and cultural identity, national pride and humiliation, arrogance and corruption across the millennia.
Until recent times, Egyptians had lived in harmony with the rhythms of the River Nile, whose annual flood resulted in fertile crops and engendered Maat, the spirit of balance with the natural world that was part of their cultural legacy. This balance was lost in the rush to modernize the country and enjoy the fruits of the consumer society. This led to rampant corruption; the population increased catastrophically, outstripping the ability of the land to support the people; and there were multiple waves of bloody uprisings. In the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, it seemed for a brief while that the Egyptian soul was crying out for a return to Maat.
I suspect that very few of us have much knowledge of the early attempts of the prophet Mohammed to forge an alliance among the followers of the Abrahamic religions. Tribal allegiances quickly short-circuited these ecumenical attempts, and left a bloody legacy of Shia and Sunni enmity in the power struggle that followed the Prophet’s death. The book also provides a context for understanding the wounds in the Arab psyche inflicted by the West that eventually led to the rise of the Muslim brotherhood and the more extreme and bloody expressions of fundamentalism.
A substantial burden of blame can be laid at the feet of Western imperialists, who carved up the Middle East without regard for tribal identity, and whose greed to control the riches the East was only matched by their condescension and arrogance. Puppet rulers kept in power by foreign forces were happy to drain their country’s resources and take out massive loans to support pet projects and the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the few elite at the expense of an increasingly desperate populace. When the people rose in protest, the British brutally restored order and essentially occupied the country for over 60 years. It is easy to see the parallels across the world through modern times where appetites for power and corporate greed seem to know no limits, and cynically feed corruption in the name of progress.
The authors explain the culture shock experienced by conservative members of a society rooted in patriarchy and the seclusion of women when they see the permissive culture of the West. This was the reaction of Hassan al-Banna, and it inspired him to found the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that set the template for Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Edmund Burke observed that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Bauval and Osman have provided a fine overview of the history of the country that in many ways is the cultural leader of the Arab world, and the historical record of Egypt has much to teach us about what is going on today across the region. I believe it is incumbent upon us as citizens of the world to at least have some inkling of the complexities of the issues we are dealing with, when we try to wrap our minds around the whys of terrorism. Trying to impose our will through carpet bombing and bullying tactics will only clamp the lid down on a boiling pot that is bound to explode. If we learn anything from this book, we must see that these cultures have a history thousands of years older than ours, and they want to be treated with respect. We must listen to the pain of their souls and work together to rediscover the spirit of Maat.
Reviewed by Miriam Knight