The last publication of Dr Vernon L. B. Mendis, The Gift of the Nile, was launched earlier in November 2023 at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) in the presence of his wife, Mrs Padma Mendis, family and friends. Deshamanya Dr Vernon Mendis topped the Ceylon Overseas Service when it was first constituted in [...]


Glimpses of Egypt’s rich and diverse past


The last publication of Dr Vernon L. B. Mendis, The Gift of the Nile, was launched earlier in November 2023 at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) in the presence of his wife, Mrs Padma Mendis, family and friends.

Deshamanya Dr Vernon Mendis topped the Ceylon Overseas Service when it was first constituted in 1949, and rendered yeoman service to the country over many decades. He served as Ambassador to several countries during his diplomatic career, and was appointed Secretary General of the mini Non-Aligned Movement summit held in 1962 and thereafter at the 5th Non-Aligned Movement summit in 1976 as well. In the early 1980s, he was tasked with being UNESCO’s Permanent Representative to Egypt and Sudan, and Regional Coordinator to Arab States.

In addition to being a renowned diplomat, Dr Mendis was a prolific writer, having penned eight books, numerous book chapters and articles, focusing on Sri Lankan history, international relations and diplomacy in particular. His posting in Egypt was to result in an opportunity of delving deep into the rich history and heritage of the country. It was an opportunity for him to do extensive research for The Gift of the Nile, considered his last book.

The book attempts to unravel Egypt, while giving the reader a vivid description and insight into a bygone era. The book remained unpublished for decades, until his wife found it among his papers, and sought the assistance of Dr Sarala Fernando, herself a career diplomat, writer and editor of books on the history of Sri Lanka, who recommended the project to me. Dr Fernando delivered the keynote address at the launch and spoke on ‘Dr Vernon Mendis – the Ambassador and Academic’ and provided a comprehensive overview of his contribution to diplomacy and academia.

In his preface Dr Mendis notes that ‘It is hoped that this modest work which has been inspired by the awesome character of its subject and which has no pretensions whatsoever to specialised knowledge or technical expertise and is therefore totally without prejudice to the master works which have been published, will make some contribution to presenting that whole.’ The whole he talks about is the entirety of Egyptian history. While many have written on varied aspects of that history, this publication attempts to provide an overarching glance at the rich diversity that existed.

The chapters have been divided into periods of Egyptian history, starting with the Old Kingdom, in which he notes that ‘The chronological limits ascribed to the Old Kingdom are from 3100 BC to 2180 BC but the inaugural date is far from agreed upon among scholars, some of whom put it back by centuries.’ The book thus takes the reader back thousands of years, and Mendis has endeavoured to describe that which was, based on reportage and academic scholarship that exists to date. He goes on to discuss the Middle Kingdom, where he observes that ‘[it] had to contend with the realities of a new political situation in surrounding countries which was a threat to its existence.’

The third chapter is on the New Empire, which dates from 1560 BC to 1085 BC, and proceeds thereafter to describe the decline and fall of the empire. Mendis also focuses on the Greek Period, the Roman Occupation and the Coptic Period, finally moving to the advent of Islam into Egypt, the Mamluks, and in his last chapter examines modern Egypt and the British Occupation, wherein the book ends a century ago.

While the chapters provide intricate details and vivid descriptions of periods of Egypt’s history, the book also touches on themes. Mendis emphasises architecture, especially that which is found in religious institutions, administrative systems, irrigation systems, and the nexus between state and religion. In reflecting on these themes, Mendis has also endeavoured to compare similar systems and processes in Sri Lanka.

In understanding pyramids and stupas, Mendis writes ‘the classic Sri Lanka Buddhist stupa with its pearl white facing which glistened like a heavenly orb in the sun and the precious jewel at the top which caught as if it were the rays and emitted a radiance. Although its symbolism was different to that of the pyramid, the conceptual idea seems similar.’ He goes on to observe that ‘A similar comparison would be justified between the Great pyramid and the Ruvanvali Dagaba or stupa of the ancient capital of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The major difference is that it has a hemispherical tumulus built of brick soaring up like a giant pearl or bubble in its flawless sphericity. It is capped on the top by a pyramidal pinnacle.’

Mendis analyses administrative capitals and their locations, while comprehending the reasons for their movement. In describing the situation in Egypt he says ‘Invasions pushed the government further and further southward until it came to rest there and make that the seat of the administration, it was like the situation which occurred in Sri Lanka at the end of the first millennium of the Christian era when mounting invasions from the south of India forced the government to move south eastward from the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, which was in dangerous proximity to the source of invasion to Polonnaruwa, which became the new capital and the scene of the establishment of a new empire. This sequel took place in Egypt when Thebes replaced Memphis.’

In analysing irrigation systems, he opines that ‘the Fayum system was built as the conservator of water, by means of artificial dams which enabled large scale reclamation of land for cultivation, utilizing water which was piped in from the reservoirs through an intricate network of canals. In Sri Lanka, the tanks were in the vicinity of the capital, just as Fayum was near Itjtawy, the then capital of the Middle Kingdom and perhaps the idea may have arisen because of this proximity.’

Discussing the nexus between state and religion he points out that ‘this order was embodied in two institutions, the Pharaoh and the High Priest and it was founded on a complementary partnership and harmony between them. It was not unlike the relationship between the state and church meaning the king and priesthood in ancient Sri Lanka, where the king was the patron of the religious order, the builder of temples and shrines enabling the faith thereby to carry out its spiritual function of upholding the moral order and the ethical values.’

While unravelling the rich and diverse past of Egypt, the book serves as a testament to the dedication and of an individual to collate, analyse and present information that is integral in the field of international relations. The book is a journey back in time. It is one that is well worth taking.

May this publication bring you as much reading pleasure as it did me, in editing and ensuring that the book reached its printed form.

May the name of Vernon Lorraine Benjamin Mendis remain steadfast in the field of diplomacy for many years to come.

May his efforts taken to preserve the past, serve as a lesson for us in the present to do the same for the future.

 George I. H. Cooke Ph.D

The Gift of the Nile by Dr Vernon L. B. Mendis.

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