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The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World

by Kara Cooney

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774346,434 (4)1
"Written in the tradition of historians like Stacy Schiff and Amanda Foreman who find modern lessons in ancient history, this provocative narrative explores the lives of five remarkable pharaohs who ruled Egypt with absolute power, shining a new light on the country's 3,000-year empire and its meaning today. In a new era when democracies around the world are threatened or crumbling, best-selling author Kara Cooney turns to five ancient Egyptian pharaohs -- Khufu, Senwosret III, Akenhaten, Ramses II, and Taharqa -- to understand why many so often give up power to the few, and what it can mean for our future. As the first centralized political power on earth, the pharaohs and their process of divine kingship can tell us a lot about the world's politics, past and present. Every animal-headed god, every monumental temple, every pyramid, every tomb, offers extraordinary insight into a culture that combined deeply held religious beliefs with uniquely human schemes to justify a system in which one ruled over many. From Khufu, the man who built the Great Pyramid at Giza as testament to his authoritarian reign, and Taharqa, the last true pharaoh who worked to make Egypt great again, we discover a clear lens into understanding how power was earned, controlled, and manipulated in ancient times. And in mining the past, Cooney uncovers the reason why societies have so willingly chosen a dictator over democracy, time and time again"--… (more)
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This book has been on my "currently reading" shelf for a long time. No, it didn't take that long to read. I just had some... distractions. I'd pre-ordered it in the summer of 2021 (inscribed, too!) and it arrived in November while I was on a trip to Europe. Between a move and settling, and making the new house compatible (lots of to-dos), I didn't get to it until the following November. I'd gotten through the first two "good" kings when I was hit with the worst Reader's Block I've experienced. Months. Whew. Pulled it back out for flights down to and back from St. Thomas, and ... finished! I'd read Ms. Cooney's When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt and I liked her writing style. This is the same. Easy to read, full of information. And a TON of references. I could fill my reading docket with the many rabbit holes I flagged. So much time, so little to read...

So. What do you do when you find yourself disillusioned with your life's work (She calls herself a "recovering Egyptologist")? Well, you can find a new life's work, or you can look at what you know from a radically different perspective. Ms. Cooney takes on the patriarchy of that ancient world and draws the parallels of her chosen five "good" kings with our patriarchal world. A look at just some of the comments on her threads and you'll see she doesn't endear herself with the current patriarchy, or the wrongwing. Why the scare quotes for "good"? She points out how each of these kings is usually presented as good, if not exactly labeled as such, because they either established Egypt as a power, returned Egypt from disarray, established a new power, returned Egypt yet again to its greatness, or conquered Egypt and assimilated himself by adopting the Egyptian culture. "We Egyptologists often become apologists for a return to good kingship as the only thing that can save people from themselves."

She has fun with her chapter titles:
- Khufu: Size Matters
- Senwosret III: THe King Strikes Back
- Akhenaten: Drinking the Kool-Aid
- Ramses II: The Grand Illusion
- Taharqua: No Zealot Like the Convert

Her opening chapter is titled We Are All Pharaoh's Groupies and she explains her recovering position:
"This book presents an analysis of how we make ourselves easy marks for the next charismatic authoritarian to come along. It's high time we see how fetishism of ancient cultures is used to prop up modern power grabs.I had my own notes on summarizing each, and then in her concluding chapter she does so And we need to admit - somewhere down deep - that we think the powerful patriarch, coolly in control, is superhot. Only then can we figure out how to smash him."
Yep. Endearing.

I'd tried to summarize myself the character of each king, or king's rule. Khufu - too big to fail, but Egypt did after him. Senwosret II - hard ass. Akhenaten took a wild tangent in his religion shift, but raised Nefertiri to co-king with him. Rameses II, maybe most famous for all the wrong reasons, hung on too long and left a diminished Egypt. Taharqa, least familiar to me, inherited a reestablished authority from his father and then interpreted "history" to justify his rule (I had a thought of the "lineage" of Jesus, one coming from his non biological father Joseph!). And then I read three excellent summaries of hers:
1) "The kings of ancient Egypt can help us decode the tactics of the patriarchal system under which we all live. There was Khufu, the tax-and-spend creator of pyramid propaganda; Senwosret and his absolutist crackdowns; Akhenaten, the evangelical king; Ramses, the needy populist; and Taharqa, the colonized imperialist. Those rulers were all products of their time. Today, we create our own kings (perhaps at a faster clip, because technology speeds up our political development.)" And,
2) If we were to categorize the Egyptian rulers in modern terms - as in Breakfast Club with a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal - then our story consists of a builder, a bully, a zealot, a narcissist, and a missionary." And,
3) "But whether it was Khufu's monarchical divination, Senwosret's absolutism, Akhenaten's fanaticism, Ramses' populism, or Taharqa's pious orthodoxy. Egyptian pharaonic history was largely a patriarchal rinse and repeat with approximately the same result."

This might change your perspective on the veneration of the ancients. Or it might not. If Andrew Tate is your god, don't read this. If you like ancient Egypt (and think for yourself), I recommend it.

My marginalia, as usual, needs curating for this, and I'm only selecting a few highlights:

[p174, on the beginnings of Amenhotep/Akhenaten's religious shift not showing "outright monotheism", but having economic designs, which helped lead cultural change]
Nothing is ever purely religious, least of all religion.
{There is always a financial, political, control facet of pretty much every religion.}

[p175] In this brave new world, you were either with the Aten or you were against it, understanding that this new binary religion was a choice between light and dark.
{Sound familiar? Extremists today would have you think the same.}

[p191, on the possibility that only a certain few - royals and highest priests - had access to the most exclusive area of the new temple] Withholding wealth and displaying excess are still associated with behemoth religions, authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, and cults. The Pantheon in Rome, St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and Slat Lake Temple in Utah all represent massive displays of wealth, because money implicitly means the blessings of God.
{Don't forget the evangelical megachurches and their celebrity con artist ministers.}

[p205, part of Akhenaten's Hymn to the Aten] O sole god beside whom there is none! You made the earth as you wished, you alone, all peoples, herds, and flocks...
{Too long to quote here, even if it was abandoned on his death, it doesn't take too much brain to see what preceded another not too original, yet far more lasting monotheistic religion.}

[p209] I'm not saying that every practicing monotheist is an authoritarian. I am saying that monotheism was specifically invented to support authoritarianism.
{That'll chap some whyte males. And as I noted above, given some of the comments of threads about this book, they are chapped hard.}

[p287] In effect, the ancient Egyptians have hoodwinked us into believing that those periods of monarchical centralization were exactly the times when most ancient Egyptians themselves would have preferred to live.
The ideology of authoritarianism is so seductive that it continues to work on us from thousands of years in the past, making us believe that uniformity, monumentalism, and job creation were preferred - even if freedoms and fairer distributions of wealth were taken away even if the jobs paid the ancient version of minimum wage.
{Whether this is the actual case or not, it presents an unpleasant possibility.} ( )
1 vote Razinha | Mar 24, 2023 |
For more reviews and bookish posts visit https://www.ManOfLaBook.com

The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World by Kara Cooney compares the ruling styles of ancient Pharaohs to today’s tactics of the ruling class. Ms. Cooney is an Egyptologist and processor in UCLA.

This book was a surprising find, unlike any other National Geographic books I’ve read before. Ms. Cooney looks five Pharaohs (Khufu, Senwosret III, Akenhaten, Ramses II, and Taharqa), analyzes their ruling style, and draws relations to today’s leaders.

I do have to give Kara Cooney credit, The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World is certainly a gutsy book. While I’m sure she held back, her political persuasions certainly come through, her comparisons somewhat disturbing.

The author takes a look at Egyptian history in a critical eye, without the celebrity-style fawning we, or at least I, are used to reading. Life was hard, the rulers weren’t benevolent, the huge monuments took their toll in blood and treasure, the propaganda was so effective it lasts to this day.

This book could be looked at as a warning, when the world is moving more and more towards strongmen authoritarian regimes. Even in countries where these candidates lose elections, it seems only by a hair.

I was looking forward to reading about Ramses II. Of course, he’s one of the most famous Pharaohs we’ve all heard about.. every year in Passover. Even though I have read that the biblical Moses might be based on Akenhaten, we’ll probably never know.

The last chapter attempts to pull it all together. The author analyzes how systems of absolute power traps its citizens to make them believe they work in their best interests. That the monarchs know better because they are either appointed by the gods, or talk directly through them. These people don’t have to be rulers. Religious leaders, for example, use similar tactics.

This book made me think, and I agree with the author that we have much to learn from past history. I enjoyed the author’s analysis, but I am not informed enough about Egyptology to argue neither here nor there. The narrative is not a lecture, but written in a conversational tone of a professor who is informed and entertaining. ( )
  ZoharLaor | Nov 19, 2021 |
I have long had a fascination with ancient times and Egypt in particular. There is something about this period in history that just pulls me in. In this new book Ms. Cooney dives into the lives of five great leaders during the reign of the Pharaohs. Often times, as my mother always told me, absolute power corrupts absolutely, but there are times when you get a ruler who truly wants what is best for his (or her) people.

This is a world so very different from the one we currently inhabit so be prepared to immerse yourself in the lives of beings who thought themselves to be gods. Just look at what they had built for their burial chambers – not exactly a small, discreet memorial stone, eh?

The stories are both mundane and fascinating as they were gods and men all at the same time. Ms. Cooney’s writing style is smooth and easy so that you do not feel as if you are deep in a history book but rather you are being told a story by someone who truly loves their subject matter.

This is the best kind of reading. ( )
  BooksCooksLooks | Nov 9, 2021 |
The Good Kings examines the rule of five Egyptian pharaohs- Khufu, Senwosret III, Akenhaten, Ramses II, and Taharqa- to understand what made their rule so absolute and memorable today. In addition, Egyptologist Kara Cooney compares these Egyptian rulers to our world leaders today to see how our obsession with these ancient pharaohs has led to the rise of the modern politician. As Kara states:
This book presents an analysis of how we make ourselves easy marks for the next charismatic authoritarian to come along. It's high time we see how fetishism of ancient cultures is used to prop up modern power grabs.

Cooney accomplishes this through a careful reframing of how we look at these pharaohs and the monuments that they left behind. Reading about these rulers in harsher terms is enlightening and different. Usually, I read about these rulers being put up on a pedestal, literally. Most of these rulers' actions, however, were precise moves done for power, authority and absolute rule making sure that their family stayed on top.

It was very interesting to see how Khufu built the Great Pyramid, the only wonder of the ancient world still standing. The technology used to build the pyramid was advanced and the view is amazing. How exactly Khufu's engineers accomplished building the Great Pyramid is a secret taken to the grave. Khufu's reign was most likely one of a tyrant, with little respect for the people of Egypt. The fact that he built such a large temple to himself shows an insecurity in his rule and created himself as a god to his people. Senwosret III created an image of himself as a tired leader while being a master strategist. Senwosret III churned out propaganda and took hold of Egypt's elite to establish supremacy only to have everything fall apart shortly after his rule was over. Akhenaten, who we might know better by his wife, Nefertiti used his rule to create a new political-religious agenda and threw Egypt into a series of destabilizing changes. The ideas seemed to create equality, but Akhenaten used them to control those who did not choose his way. Ramses the Great used his rule to create an image that most people still know today, a celebrity kingship. He publicized himself throughout Egypt during his long reign so that many people today still believe everything he told about himself. Taharqa wanted to unify Egypt, but used religious zeal showing his piety publicly. Taharqa used his religion to try to justify his actions and show that he was just and moral

The comparisons to some of today's leaders showed that while we have made great strides, we still have a long way to go in dismantling the patriarchy. ( )
  Mishker | Nov 8, 2021 |
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"Written in the tradition of historians like Stacy Schiff and Amanda Foreman who find modern lessons in ancient history, this provocative narrative explores the lives of five remarkable pharaohs who ruled Egypt with absolute power, shining a new light on the country's 3,000-year empire and its meaning today. In a new era when democracies around the world are threatened or crumbling, best-selling author Kara Cooney turns to five ancient Egyptian pharaohs -- Khufu, Senwosret III, Akenhaten, Ramses II, and Taharqa -- to understand why many so often give up power to the few, and what it can mean for our future. As the first centralized political power on earth, the pharaohs and their process of divine kingship can tell us a lot about the world's politics, past and present. Every animal-headed god, every monumental temple, every pyramid, every tomb, offers extraordinary insight into a culture that combined deeply held religious beliefs with uniquely human schemes to justify a system in which one ruled over many. From Khufu, the man who built the Great Pyramid at Giza as testament to his authoritarian reign, and Taharqa, the last true pharaoh who worked to make Egypt great again, we discover a clear lens into understanding how power was earned, controlled, and manipulated in ancient times. And in mining the past, Cooney uncovers the reason why societies have so willingly chosen a dictator over democracy, time and time again"--

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