An Account of Egypt – Where is the Orientalist Hiding ?


Part 2.2.1

Father of history, father of lie — but fortunately contemporary commentators do not refer to Herodotus’ name only to highlight the lack of rigor, or even the credulousness of the man. His writing and approach to historical recording was a rather large improvement from the logographers or tellers of tales, and even during his lifetime, this was certainly already realized. Herodotus did not unleash a virulent attack towards the tradition of the poets, from Homer onwards, as we can see for instance in Plato, but he took his critical distance from them, if nothing, by making clear that he was aware that their stories were more mythical than factual in nature. While not contesting this older approach to story-telling – he was himself a renowned story-teller – he exemplified a shift towards historical work, by emphasizing on the serious field-work of collection, combined with an intention to provide a comprehensive and comprehensible narration attempting to establish relations of cause and effect between facts. Nonetheless, in An Account of Egypt as in his other travel accounts, Herodotus seems almost naïve, being guided through places by the local intelligentsia and scrupulously recording all possible views on each and any historical event. How could such a “simple man” correspond to the highly political and interested figure that is found, for instance, in Saïd’s study of the Orientalist?

Herodotus was interested in facts. This is, ultimately, what comes out of his Account of Egypt. Herodotus, as he goes along the Nile, shares his most minute measurements, of a single architectural piece just like his estimations of the country at large, but also of the Nile itself, mentioning as well various hypotheses, more or less fantasist, as to the origin and evolution of the river. He does not hide his critical spirit, for instance, when he gauges various propositions on the topic:

The second way [the second hypothesis] shows more ignorance than that which has been mentioned, and it is more marvellous to tell; for it says that the river produces these effects because it flows from the Ocean, and that the Ocean flows round the whole earth. The third of the ways is much the most specious, but nevertheless it is the most mistaken of all … And indeed most of the facts are such as to convince a man (one at least who is capable of reasoning about such matters), that it is not at all likely that it flows from snow (Herodotus 2006, 7-8).

The tone may sound here as that of a slight judgment of cultural supremacy on the locals, but this is not obvious, and moreover it is not deepened or theorized further by Herodotus. His descriptions transition from geography to human culture, and his ethnographic observations reveal that Egyptians follow “manners and customs in a way opposite to other men in almost all matters” (11) (a comment on the roles assigned to genders, practices of clothing, haircuts of priests, etc.). Coming to religious practices, his one-sidedness is the least visible: while he indeed attempts to equate Egyptian and Greek gods, he insists a number of times on the priority of the Egyptian deities over those of Greece: “the naming of almost all the gods has come to Hellas from Egypt” (15). He later adds:

it is true also that the Egyptians were the first of men who made solemn assemblies and processions and approaches to the temples, and from them the Hellenes have learnt them, and my evidence for this is that the Egyptian celebrations of these have been held from a very ancient time, whereas the Hellenic were introduced but lately. (16)

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As per Herodotus’ account, the Egyptians preceded the Greeks with regards to practices in the temple, while it is also from the Egyptians that Solon borrowed the political reform of the declaration of goods.

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As per Herodotus’ account, the Egyptians preceded the Greeks with regards to practices in the temple (17), while it is also from the Egyptians that Solon borrowed the political reform of the declaration of goods (43). (In another passage, he acknowledges the Greeks’ debt towards Babylon for discovering geometry (26).) Herodotus then goes on to describe the animals of Egypt, and human habits around them (noting, amongst others, that if one fails to follow the precise technique to catch a crocodile, consisting in splattering the animal’s eye with mud, then “ he has much trouble,” 19). He describes human practices: the value of memory, health, diet, entertainment, proxemics and politeness, superstition, medicine, burials, boat technology. The second half of Herodotus’ Account of Egypt is an attempt to retell the history of the country, and the historian is particularly transparent as to his sources: “I am about to tell the history of Egypt according to that which I have heard, to which will be added also something of that which I have myself seen” (24). He covers thousands of years and hundreds of dynasties, at times focusing on the tales around one particular ruler, but always following what local priests and educated men told him. He sometimes confronts one version to another, or expresses his doubts regarding one particular view. Finally, Herodotus provides a contrasting history of Egypt’s prestigious past, this time from foreign sources (36-44).

In An Account of Egypt, Herodotus wanders through a country, records diligently any possible detail or hearsay, speaks his mind occasionally but he insists, many times, that on a number of practices and beliefs, the Egyptians preceded the Greeks. We could assume, in theory, that Herodotus, a product of the supposed imperialist Classical Greece, would be more aggressive in his discourse about the Egyptians, that he should be a sort of proto-Orientalist. For instance, we would expect him to argue that all the noble Greek values and practices do not owe any debt to Egyptian culture and history. But unambiguously, what his accounts reveal goes in an opposite direction. So, where is the Orientalist hiding?


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Image courtesy: Konstantinos Maleas