Charles Van Siclen:
Nowadays you tell someone to move a ten ton block of stone, they immediately want to go out to rent a crane. 200 years ago you didn't need it. 3000 years ago you didn't need it. People did not think in terms of machines. They thought in terms of human labor.
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In some ways I found this the most impressive entry in a fine series from the History Channel. The format is much the same. A handful of historical leaders are briefly described, usually with modern actors in period wardrobe, and their engineering achievements described in some detail. Not fine arts, mind you. Nothing about music or painting. And little science. None of the physics behind the structures.
But "Egypt" seems the most remarkable of the lot. It's longer than most of the episodes -- 92 minutes. There is more use of computer-generated graphics, more frequent and more effective. Any modern sensibility is likely to think of the Egyptian empire in terms of piles of rufous rubble, maybe with a couple of statues and pyramids sticking out of them. But here the computer gives us an accurate rendition of their original appearance -- pristine, structurally intact, and splendidly decorated with gold and paint.
Egypt as seen here was impressive for other reasons. Atkenomen is almost skipped over but he was the first guy in the region, aside from the Hebrews, to come up with a one-god religion, to which he tried to convert the entire empire -- and failed. It's an illustration of the power of culture in the anthropological sense of shared, patterned behavior. Everything is hitched to everything else. Even if you're pharaoh, you can't just go ahead and declare the old polytheism dead and the new monotheism hip. It was easier for Caligula to declare his horse a god. At least the Romans had lots of gods, so it was easier to fit another one in. Nobody lost his job because of it.
There's another thing too. Other empires, perhaps better ones in some ways, came and went. The grandeur that was Rome lasted about a thousand years; the glory that was Greece somewhat less. But the Egyptian empire, though it sometimes faded and shrank, was around and in one piece for a couple of thousand years, from the First Dynasty of about 3000 BCE to the final collapse after Cleopatra. That's a long time for an empire, and it remained recognizably Egyptian from beginning to end. Chinese culture has as long a history but was never so politically united as Egypt.
Cleopatra is mentioned only once, at the end, by host Peter Weller. That's too bad. She was quite a babe, the result of twelve generations of brother-sister incest, which should tell us something about the limits of recessive genes. She was teen-aged jailbait when she seduced the older Julius Caesar, and she still had enough allure in middle age to bewitch Marc Antony.
However, because this episode is so informative and well-done in so many respects, I'll give the writers a pass on their treatment of Cleopatra, although I still maintain she was an engineering achievement in her own right.
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