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Ancient Egyptian exceptionalism: fragility, flexibility, and the art of not collapsing

Morris, Ellen F.

Scholars such as Norman Yoffee, James Scott, and Guy Middleton have recently argued that the stable state—at any point in history, but especially in early civilizations—was both rare and fragile. In comparative studies of early states, then, Egypt is an anomaly. From its First Dynasty until the end of its Sixth, pharaoh followed pharaoh without interstices of any appreciable length. This essay focuses on points of crisis in Egypt’s early history that stemmed not from climate change but rather from abuses of power and from factional disputes. It argues that one of the main reasons that the state survived the (in all likelihood) bitter ends of its First, Second, and Fourth Dynasties was because the rulers of the succeeding administrations moved quickly to enact policies specifically designed as correctives. The resiliency of the pharaonic state no doubt owed much to its ideology and geography, but decisive actions intended to placate aggrieved elements of society seem to have restored stability at a number of critical junctures.

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Also Published In

The Evolution of Fragility: Setting the Terms
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
Published Here
August 24, 2020


Morris, Ellen. 2019. "Ancient Egyptian exceptionalism: fragility, flexibility, and the art of not collapsing." In The Evolution of Fragility: Setting the Terms, ed. N. Yoffee. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 61-87. Peer reviewed.