Egypt – Temple of the Whole World: Studies in Honour of Jan Assmann
- Series: Numen Book Series
- Editor: Sibylle Meyer
- Publisher: B~ (2003)
- Language: English & German
- Pages: 454
- ISBN-10: 9004132406
- ISBN-13: 9789004132405
- Format: PDF
“The intellectual heritage of Ancient Egypt” – once wrote Jan Assmann – “can hardly be said to have become part of our cultural memory. It is a subject of fascination, not of understanding.” This fascination began when ancient Greek travellers started visiting Egypt, and continues unto this day, more often than not as a scholarly search for the oldest roots of our cultural memory. Jan Assmann’s superb academic achievement undoubtedly represents the single most significant contribution to the modern understanding of Ancient Egypt, reaching far beyond the boundaries of Egyptology proper. The essays in this volume, all written by his friends and disciples, reflect the tremendous impact of his oeuvre on the scholarly world, encompassing not only Egyptological and related themes, but also central aspects of Judaeo-Christian identity such as monotheism and the historical events surrounding the recently discovered Diaspora temple of Yahu on the island of Elephantine.
“Even today, some 160 years after the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-Francois Champollion”—as Jan Assmann once wrote in the introductory chapter to Ägypten. Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur (1984)—“the intellectual heritage of Ancient Egypt can hardly be said to have become part of our cultural memory. It is a subject of fascination, not of understanding.”
His goal, as I now believe to understand it, was to push back in time the limits of cultural memory inherent to western self-understanding, which essentially draws its normative definition from a corpus of Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman sources dating back no further than 800 B.C.E., to include memories of a far more ancient past that isn’t merely reduceable to magic, idolatry and oriental despotism, but on the contrary quite meaningful for the history and genesis of our own cultural identity. Jan Assmann’s strategy aimed at making the intellectual heritage of Ancient Egypt accessible to western understanding by relating Egyptian conceptions of society, state, religion and afterlife to some of the central aspects of our political, theological and philosophical discourses. From a biblical point of view, this ambitious project amounts to no less than a translation of that most ‘idolatrous’ of all states, as Egypt has essentially always been and largely still is remembered, into a surprisingly rational and self-reflecting cultural system prefig uring at least some of what we had long ‘remembered’ (and also cherished) as our own cognitive achievements. Citing cultural parallels from Nietzsche, Spinoza, Augustin, Josephus, Paulus and the Bible, Jan’s amazingly rich oeuvre retraces several lines of western tradition, prolonging them beyond the symbolic figure of remembrance embodied by ‘Moses’, with whom our cultural memory really begins. The history of religion and culture he attempts to rewrite, however, should not be confused with a mere history of hard facts. It is, for instance, quite unimportant for our cultural memory (and for the identity derived therefrom), whether the Exodus ever took place or whether Moses everexisted or not. In the long term, the way things are remembered often proves more powerful than what really happened. Memories of the past, irrespective of the hermeneutical work performed upon them, conditioned our particular way of seeing things and undoubtedly contributed to the shaping of the present itself. ‘Mnemohistory’ was the term Jan introduced to describe this phenomenon, a concept in which one might choose to recognize a revitalized neo-Kantian interest in ‘subjectivity’, the fundamental difference being that Jan is not a philosopher, but a historian. For what else but a strong fascination for subjectivity could have motivated him to compose a history of meaning (Ägypten. Eine Sinngeschichte, 1996) or even to write the hermeneutical history of Moses the (sometimes called) Egyptian (Moses der Ägypter, 1998, engl. Moses the Egyptian, 1997), risky endeavours for any lesser scholar, but superb testimonies of his outstanding academic achievement.
The impact of Jan Assmann’s oeuvre on the scholarly world in the past three decades has been no less than enormous. Having revolutionized the field of Egyptology in the seventies and early eighties, he then moved on into other discourses, influencing the work of his colleagues the world over and shaping the scholarly perception of an entire generation of aspiring academics. We have no doubt that he will continue to do so for many years to come and wish him all the best for his 65th birthday. We hope that this modest collection of essays, selected from the wide scope of academic fields in which his many friends and former students now work, will please him and bring to his memory some of the fine moments that we all had together in Heidelberg.