Thursday, 21 March 2013

Oh! How little have we changed

Brave New World (The Star)
20 March 2013

Egyptian kings loved their massive mega projects, all built to announce their greatness as well as to instil awe and fear among the populace. Today, all around the world, we see the same mad egotism practised by the powerful.
Many years ago, when I was in the Sixth Form, I took a class on Egyptology as part of my extracurricular activities. I remember looking forward to my first lesson. After all, ancient Egypt sounds frightfully exciting what with pharaohs, pyramids, sphinxes and the like. Unfortunately I found it all painfully tedious.


The teacher was not the most riveting person in the world, I can’t even remember if he or she was a man or a woman, but the real culprits were the books we were referred to. They were drier than a mummy’s armpit. Thick ponderous things loaded with unpronounceable names of kings and places, which did not capture a sense of the period or even the high drama of which there is bound to be plentiful in an empire that spanned nearly four thousand years.


Foolishly, when it came time to fill up my university applications, I put Egyptology under “interests”. It looked jolly intellectual in my form. But I had learnt next to nothing and during one interview when I was asked about what I found interesting about ancient Egypt, I managed to mumble “it was very, very large”. Pathetic.


Fortunately, nowadays books on the Egyptian empire are being written in a far more accessible style. And I am not talking about the kooky “the pyramids were built by engineers from Atlantis using anti-gravity technology” type books. I mean proper scholarly works like “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson.


One aspect I find interesting when learning about people from long, long ago, is that how little has changed. Egyptian kings loved their massive mega projects; all built to announce their greatness as well as to instil awe and fear amongst the populace. Power and propaganda were the primary means to keep the peasants in check and amongst the elite, nepotism and kingly favours ensured a ruling class beholden to the mighty monarch.


Even the form that the propaganda takes has familiar undertones. For the masses, there were ostentatious displays like coronation celebrations which seek to emphasise the divinity of the king. These were elaborate and gaudy shows that were designed to completely bowl over the average Egyptian.


Amongst the intelligentsia, and remember, very few people can actually read in those days, there was written (or engraved to be more accurate) works proclaiming the supremacy and magnanimity of the monarch.


Today, all around the world, we see the same mad egotism practiced by the powerful; giant structures that stroke the fragile psyche of their commissioners, overt displays of power and influence to maintain control and blinding propaganda to maintain it all.


Have we not changed in all these millennia? I would like to think that we have and I believe the root change is education. The vast majority of people who lived during the time of the pharaohs were working class folk who strived and toiled under the most hideous conditions simply to survive. The life span of the average person did not reach far past thirty with many dying during the teen years. Hit forty and you are deemed incredibly old (compare this to the many pharaohs who ruled for scores of years).


Today we struggle too, but the difference is that most of us can read. And with this ability it is possible for ideas to be disseminated widely. Ideas that have developed over the course of human history that says we should not be in the thrall of absolute power; that all of us, peasant and prince alike have an inherent dignity. And one way that this dignity is expressed is by our ability to choose our leaders. No more pharaohs thank you very much. We choose who leads.


Yes, it is true, by and large the lives of the powerful remains vastly different from that of the person on the street. And the longer they are powerful, the more distant they become. But the difference between us and the peasants of Thebes three thousand years ago is that collectively we have power they can only dream off.


In the climate of the times, let us not forget that power. Let us not forget how far we have come as a species. Let us not forget that we have to use our power or risk losing it forever, because those with authority will always hunger for more, and it is up to us to say when they have had enough.

In the published version, I had to replace the passages in red (above) with the following:
The peasants of ancient Thebes three thousand years ago can only dream of the kind of power that we 21st century “peasants” collectively have.

They had no say on who ruled them but thank heavens we do.


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