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Thebes at War
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B+ : the history a bit simplified, but good and gripping story
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The complete review's Review:
Thebes at War is set in the 16th century BCE. For roughly a century the Hyksos -- here also called the Herdsmen --, the first foreign conquerors of (part of) Egypt, had already ruled over Lower (i.e. northern) Egypt. When the novel begins, 17th Dynasty Egyptian king (pharaoh) Seqenenra rules over the local -- and still Egyptian -- kingdom centered around Thebes, but has been increasingly under pressure from the Hyskos; indeed, the novel begins with a delegate of the northern power pressuring the southern one to accept complete subjugation: as crown prince Kamose sums up: "He has presented us with demands which, if we concede them, will condemn us to collapse and obliteration". Or, as the king tells his mother:
He wants Thebes, Mother, and all that is of it. Nay, more than that, he would bargain with us this time for our honor.Thebes at War is very black and white: the Hyksos are invaders, a foreign power that subjugate the local Egyptian population, cruelly taking advantage of the locals to live in lazy comfort. They are militarily adept, but otherwise ignoble, and rule with an iron fist -- albeit in many respects a laissez-faire one, leaving the Egyptians to do as they wish in their communities, as long as they serve their Hyskos masters. The difference between the two sides is not only between foreign and local, but also racial -- literally black and white: the Hyksos are light-skinned, the Egyptians darker-skinned, and as the Hyksos see it:
The law of the Hyksos does not change over the days and the generations. It is the way of war and power forever. We are white and you are dark. We are masters and you are peasants. Throne, government, and command are ours.As translator Humphrey Davies points out in his Introduction, it's clear that Mahfouz's novel is also meant to reflect Egypt's more recent history, including its subjugation by the British (and the continuing control exerted by the British, despite nominal Egyptian independence at the time):
What is clear is that this is a profoundly political novel, whose ringing patriotism and passionate call to Egyptians to defend their country against any outsider who would seek to dominate it continues to resonate today.Seqenenra and the proud Egyptians can not accept the ultimatum that is put to them, and both sides know that can only mean: war. The Hyksos, and their chariot-warfare, are simply too much for the Egyptians; Seqenenra falls in battle, and the royal court realizes that Thebes will fall to the enemy. But at least they have a refuge further south, beyond the border, in Nubia -- as:
The Herdsmen will never covet Nubia, for life there is a struggle they are too pampered to bear.Thebes at War is divided into three parts. The first part culminates in the Egyptian leadership fleeing for Nubia and Apophis, the Hyksos leader, conquering Thebes and the entire South, dividing: "the land and the wealth among his people". The second part begins 'Ten Years Later'.
As we will later learn -- in the final part, 'Ahmose at War' -- the royal family kept busy during that decade of exile, in the Nubian city of Napata:
The life of the royal family in exile had not been one of listlessness and inactivity but of work and preparation for the distant future [.....] Over the past ten years, Napata had been turned into a great factory for the building of ship, chariots, and instruments of war in all their forms.But they do not simply attack: 'Ten Years Later' describes the carefully-hatched plan they put into action to catch the Hyksos unawares -- which isn't entirely a challenge, as they realize:
The Herdsmen are mindless tyrants. They have been lulled by their ability to keep us slaves for ten years and take no precautions.The creative plan involves now-crown prince Ahmose -- Seqenenra's grandson, and the son of Kamose -- disguising himself as a trader and calling himself Isfinis. Bearing gifts, he inveigles his way across the border and all the way to Governor Khanzar in Thebes, who then gives him permission to commence trade between Nubia and Hyksos-controlled Egypt -- a good cover for the crown prince to raise and train an army of Egyptians, and eventually spring a surprise attack on the Hyksos.
Until he gets to that point, Ahmose-as-Isfinis does first involve himself in local life in ways that might threaten his cover and plot. He steps in to prevent a miscarriage of justice -- as the Hyksos do not treat the Egyptians equally in front of the law -- which both wins him a dangerous enemy as well as useful local contacts. And then there's Princess Amenridis, the daughter of Apophis, whom Ahmose finds himself irresistibly drawn to, and who obviously is taken by him as well.
'Ten Years Later' focuses on Ahmose's undercover work, as Isfinis, to convince the Hyksos to allow trade -- and with it, the movement of people -- between the Hyksos-controlled territory and Nubia. Once that is accomplished, things move faster -- and while it is king Kamose who leads the first charges, the final part is appropriately called: 'Ahmose at War'. Kamose falls quickly, in an early defeat -- but Ahmose is more than ready to step into the sovereign role and see the battles through.
After the initial surprise of being attacked, the Hyksos do prove that they remain a military force to contend with. The Egyptians make headway, but the losses on both sides are heavy; the Egyptians continue: "ceaselessly building chariots and charioteers", but worry about having the manpower to see through the fight. Of course, it does help that the local Egyptians quickly and readily turn on their hated Hyksos masters.
Battling up the Nile, in city after city, Thebes at War is a fairly suspenseful war novel -- with the Hyksos having a few dirty tricks up their sleeves, notably taking: "refuge behind the bodies of children" in making a shield of the local Egyptians to protect Thebes. Ahmose must make difficult decisions, but sacrifices must be made .....
The Egyptians slowly push the Hyksos back, northwards. They retake Thebes -- but Ahmose vows only to enter the city once he has purged the entire land of the Hyksos and can return in triumph with his whole family. A complicating factor as they continue beating back the Hyksos is that among the prisoners taken in Thebes is Princess Amenridis -- whom Ahmose can not help but still being drawn to. She is a proud Hyksos, however; still, she also makes for a final bargaining chip in settling what otherwise might have been a rather drawn-out siege -- a clever plan by Ahmose making the Hyksos' defeat inevitable, but possibly taking years to come to fruition -- and getting rid of the Hyksos for once and for all.
The Egyptian triumph is complete -- as it also was historically, with Ahmose the first ruler of the 18th dynasty, and the first of the New Kingdom of Egypt -- considered the height of Egyptian power. Ahmose and his family finally return to Thebes:
Thebes, the greatest of the cities of the earth, the city of a hundred gates, of obelisks that reached up to the Heavenly Twins, of stupendous temples and towering palaces, of long avenues and huge squares, of markets that knew no peace or rest either by day or night; Thebes the gloriousMahfouz's novel is certainly one-sided -- as is the historical record, it should be noted: essentially all records of these times are those of the victors, the Hyksos' side remaining undocumented. The fervent nationalism is arguably a bit too cleanly black and white -- aside from a few moral choices that are presented as necessary and justifiable, the Egyptians can do no wrong and are all good people, and the Hyksos -- save Princess Amenridis -- obnoxious, harsh, and cruel. Only Ahmose and Princess Amenridis are more than one-dimensional characters -- but at least they are nicely fully-drawn, and their complicated relationship is very well-handled by Mahfouz, from the flirting at the beginning to the standing on principle at the end. While their story feels a bit contrived, it (or something like it) was definitely necessary for the novel, and raises it above the usual defeat-and-triumph fiction.
Also among the effective, if disturbing, elements of note that Mahfouz uses well are pygmies, presented as the exotic other -- brought by Ahmose in his trader-guise, because he is well aware that they will fascinate the Hyksos. As discomfiting as the scenes with them are, Mahfouz would have done well to expand more on them; contemporary readers would certainly wish for them to be more than just display-items.
Thebes at War is, as a whole, fairly simplistic and a bit too emphatically triumphalist. Mahfouz does show the horrors of war, but never allows for any doubt that all this carnage and sacrifice is worth it for that getting out from under the yoke of the oppressor, and is looks far too easy for the victors to simply put everything behind them. There's no question, however, that Thebes at War is a good and thoroughly engaging read. This is very good historical fiction -- if certainly problematic as history -- and simply a good story, well told.
- M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2021
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© 2021 the complete review