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Ancient Egypt

EGYPT'S HISTORY

Robert Guisepi, 2004

The Valley of the Nile

 

Dawn Of Civilization

B.C. 5867

 

 

It is a far cry to hark back to 11,000 years before Christ, yet borings

in the valley of the Nile, whence comes the first recorded history of the

human race, have unveiled to the light pottery and other relics of

civilization that, at the rate of deposits of the Nile, must have taken at

least that number of years to cover.

 

Nature takes countless thousands of years to form and build up her

limestone hills, but buried deep in these we find evidences of a stone age

wherein man devised and made himself edged tools and weapons of rudely

chipped stone. These shaped, edged implements, we have learned, were made by

white-heating a suitable flint or stone and tracing thereon with cold water

the pattern desired, just as practised by the Indians of the American

continent, and in our day by the manufacturers of ancient (sic) arrow-,

spear-, and axe-heads. This shows a civilization that has learned the method

of artificially producing fire, and its uses.

 

Egypt is the monumental land of the earth, as the Egyptians are the

monumental people of history. The first human monarch to reign over all

Egypt was Menes, the founder of Memphis. As the gate of Africa, Egypt has

always held an important position in world-politics. Its ancient wealth and

power were enormous. Inclusive of the Soudan, its population is now more

than eight millions. Its present importance is indicated by its relations to

England. Historians vary in their compilations of Egyptian chronology. The

epoch of Menes is fixed by Bunsen at B.C. 3643, by Lepsius at B.C. 3892, and

by Poole at B.C. 2717. Before Menes Egypt was divided into independent

kingdoms. It has always been a country of mysteries, with the mighty Nile,

and its inundations, so little understood by the ancients; its trackless

desert; its camels and caravans; its tombs and temples; its obelisks and

pyramids, its groups of gods: Ra, Osiris, Isis, Apis, Horus, Hathor - the

very names breathe suggestions of mystery, cruelty, pomp, and power. In the

sciences and in the industrial arts the ancient Egyptians were highly

cultivated. Much Egyptian literature has come down to us, but it is

unsystematic and entirely devoid of style, being without lofty ideas or

charms. In art, however, Egypt may be placed next to Greece, particularly in

architecture.

 

The age of the Pyramid-builders was a brilliant one. They prove the

magnificence of the kings and the vast amount of human labor at their

disposal. The regal power at that time was very strong. The reign of Khufu

or Cheops is marked by the building of the great pyramid. The pyramids were

the tombs of kings, built in the necropolis of Memphis, ten miles above the

modern Cairo. Security was the object as well as splendor.

 

As remarked by a great Egyptologist, the whole life of the Egyptian was

spent in the contemplation of death; thus the tomb became the concrete

thought. The belief of the ancient Egyptian was that so long as his body

remained intact so was his immortality; whence arose the embalming of the

great, and hence the immense structures of stone to secure the inviolability

of the entombed monarch.

 

The monuments have as yet yielded no account of the events which tended

to unite Egypt under the rule of one man; we can only surmise that the feudal

principalities had gradually been drawn together into two groups, each of

which formed a separate kingdom. Heliopolis became the chief focus in the

north, from which civilization radiated over the wet plain and the marshes of

the Delta.

 

Its colleges of priests had collected, condensed, and arranged the

principal myths of the local regions; the Ennead to which it gave conception

would never have obtained the popularity which we must acknowledge it had, if

its princes had not exercised, for at least some period, an actual suzerainty

over the neighboring plains. It was around Heliopolis that the kingdom of

Lower Egypt was organized; everything there bore traces of Heliopolitan

theories - the protocol of the kings, their supposed descent from Ra, and

the enthusiastic worship which they offered to the sun.

 

The Delta, owing to its compact and restricted area, was aptly suited

for government from one centre; the Nile valley proper, narrow, tortuous, and

stretching like a thin strip on either bank of the river, did not lend itself

to so complete a unity. It, too, represented a single kingdom, having the

reed and the lotus for its emblems; but its component parts were more loosely

united, its religion was less systematized, and it lacked a well-placed city

to serve as a political and sacerdotal centre. Hermopolis contained schools

of theologians who certainly played an important part in the development of

myths and dogmas; but the influence of its rulers was never widely felt.

In the south, Siut disputed their supremacy, and Heracleopolis stopped

their road to the north. These three cities thwarted and neutralized one

another, and not one of them ever succeeded in obtaining a lasting authority

over Upper Egypt. Each of the two kingdoms had its own natural advantages

and its system of government, which gave to it a peculiar character, and

stamped it, as it were, with a distinct personality down to its latest days.

The kingdom of Upper Egypt was more powerful, richer, better populated, and

was governed apparently by more active and enterprising rulers. It is to one

of the latter, Mini or Menes of Thinis, that tradition ascribes the honor of

having fused the two Egypts into a single empire, and of having inaugurated

the reign of the human dynasties.

 

Thinis figured in the historic period as one of the least of Egyptian

cities. It barely maintained an existence on the left bank of the Nile, if

not on the exact spot now occupied by Girgeh, at least only a short distance

from it. The principality of the Osirian Reliquary, of which it was the

metropolis, occupied the valley from one mountain to the other, and gradually

extended across the desert as far as the Great Theban Oasis. Its inhabitants

worshipped a sky-god, Anhuri, or rather two twin gods, Anhuri-shu, who were

speedily amalgamated with the solar deities and became a warlike

personification of Ra.

 

Anhuri-shu, like all other solar manifestations, came to be associated

with a goddess having the form or head of a lioness - a Sokhit, who took for

the occasion the epithet of Mihit, the northern one. Some of the dead from

this city are buried on the other side of the Nile, near the modern village

of Mesheikh, at the foot of the Arabian chain, whose deep cliffs here

approach somewhat near the river: the principal necropolis was at some

distance to the east, near the sacred town of Abydos. It would appear that,

at the outset, Abydos was the capital of the country, for the entire nome

bore the same name as the city, and had adopted for its symbol the

representation of the reliquary in which the god reposed.

 

In very early times Abydos fell into decay, and resigned its political

rank to Thinis, but its religious importance remained unimpaired. The city

occupied a long and narrow strip between the canal and the first slopes of

the Libyan mountains. A brick fortress defended it from the incursions of

the Bedouin, and beside it the temple of the god of the dead reared its naked

walls. Here Anhuri, having passed from life to death, was worshipped under

the name of Khontamentit, the chief of that western region whither souls

repair on quitting this earth.

 

It is impossible to say by what blending of doctrines or by what

political combinations this Sun of the Night came to be identified with

Osiris of Mendes, since the fusion dates back to a very remote antiquity; it

had become an established fact long before the most ancient sacred books were

compiled. Osiris Khontamentit grew rapidly in popular favor, and his temple

attracted annually an increasing number of pilgrims. The Great Oasis had

been considered at first as a sort of mysterious paradise, whither the dead

went in search of peace and happiness. It was called Uit, the Sepulchre;

this name clung to it after it had become an actual Egyptian province, and

the remembrance of its ancient purpose survived in the minds of the people,

so that the "cleft," the gorge in the mountain through which the doubles

journeyed toward it, never ceased to be regarded as one of the gates of the

other world.

 

At the time of the New Year festivals, spirits flocked thither from all

parts of the valley; they there awaited the coming of the dying sun, in order

to embark with him and enter safely the dominions of Khontamentit. Abydos,

even before the historic period, was the only town, and its god the only god,

whose worship, practised by all Egyptians, inspired them all with an equal

devotion.

 

Did this sort of moral conquest give rise, later on, to a belief in a

material conquest by the princes of Thinis and Abydos, or is there an

historical foundation for the tradition which ascribes to them the

establishment of a single monarchy? It is the Thinite Menes, whom the Theban

annalists point out as the ancestor of the glorious Pharaohs of the XVIII

dynasty: it is he also who is inscribed in the Memphite chronicles, followed

by Manetho, at the head of their lists of human kings, and all Egypt for

centuries acknowledged him as its first mortal ruler.

 

It is true that a chief of Thinis may well have borne such a name, and

may have accomplished feats which rendered him famous; but on closer

examination his pretensions to reality disappear, and his personality is

reduced to a cipher.

 

"This Menes, according to the priests, surrounded Memphis with dikes.

For the river formerly followed the sand-hills for some distance on the

Libyan side. Menes, having dammed up the reach about a hundred stadia to the

south of Memphis, caused the old bed to dry up, and conveyed the river

through an artificial channel dug midway between the two mountain ranges.

"Then Menes, the first who was king, having enclosed a space of ground

with dikes, founded that town which is still called Memphis: he then made a

lake around it to the north and west, fed by the river; the city he bounded

on the east by the Nile." The history of Memphis, such as it can be gathered

from the monuments, differs considerably from the tradition current in Egypt

at the time of Herodotus.

 

It appears, indeed, that at the outset the site on which it subsequently

arose was occupied by a small fortress, Anbu-hazu - the white wall - which

was dependent on Heliopolis and in which Phtah possessed a sanctuary. After

the "white wall" was separated from the Heliopolitan principality to form a

nome by itself it assumed a certain importance, and furnished, so it was

said, the dynasties which succeeded the Thinite. Its prosperity dates only,

however, from the time when the sovereigns of the V and VI dynasties fixed on

it for their residence; one of them, Papi I, there founded for himself and

for his "double" after him, a new town, which he called Minnofiru, from his

tomb. Minnofiru, which is the correct pronunciation and the origin of

Memphis, probably signified "the good refuge," the haven of the good, the

burying-place where the blessed dead came to rest beside Osiris.

The people soon forgot the true interpretation, or probably it did not

fall in with their taste for romantic tales. They rather despised, as a

rule, to discover in the beginnings of history individuals from whom the

countries or cities with which they were familiar took their names: if no

tradition supplied them with this, they did not experience any scruples in

inventing one. The Egyptians of the time of the Ptolemies, who were guided

in their philological speculations by the pronunciation in vogue around them,

attributed the patronship of their city to a Princess Memphis, a daughter of

its founder, the fabulous Uchoreus; those of preceding ages before the name

had become altered thought to find in Minnofiru or "Mini Nofir," or "Menes

the Good," the reputed founder of the capital of the Delta. Menes the Good,

divested of his epithet, is none other than Menes, the first king of all

Egypt, and he owes his existence to a popular attempt at etymology.

The legend which identifies the establishment of the kingdom with the

construction of the city, must have originated at a time when Memphis was

still the residence of the kings and the seat of government, at latest about

the end of the Memphite period. It must have been an old tradition at the

time of the Theban dynasties, since they admitted unhesitatingly the

authenticity of the statements which ascribed to the northern city so marked

a superiority over their own country. When the hero was once created and

firmly established in his position, there was little difficulty in inventing

a story about him which would portray him as a paragon and an ideal

sovereign.

 

He was represented in turn as architect, warrior, and statesman; he had

founded Memphis, he had begun the temple of Phtah, written laws and regulated

the worship of the gods, particularly that of Hapis, and he had conducted

expeditions against the Libyans. When he lost his only son in the flower of

his age, the people improvised a hymn of mourning to console him - the

"Maneros" - both the words and the tune of which were handed down from

generation to generation.

 

He did not, moreover, disdain the luxuries of the table, for he invented

the art of serving a dinner, and the mode of eating it in a reclining

posture. One day, while hunting, his dogs, excited by something or other,

fell upon him to devour him. He escaped with difficulty and, pursued by

them, fled to the shore of Lake Moeris, and was there brought to bay; he was

on the point of succumbing to them, when a crocodile took him on his back and

carried him across to the other side. In gratitude he built a new town,

which he called Crocodilopolis, and assigned to it for its god the crocodile

which had saved him; he then erected close to it the famous labyrinth and a

pyramid for his tomb.

 

Other traditions show him in a less favorable light. They accuse him of

having, by horrible crimes, excited against him the anger of the gods, and

allege that after a reign of sixty-two years he was killed by a hippopotamus

which came forth from the Nile. They also relate that the Saite Tafnakhti,

returning from an expedition against the Arabs, during which he had been

obliged to renounce the pomp and luxuries of life, had solemnly cursed him,

and had caused his imprecations to be inscribed upon a "stele" ^1 set up in

the temple of Amon at Thebes. Nevertheless, in the memory that Egypt

preserved of its first Pharaoh, the good outweighed the evil. He was

worshipped in Memphis, side by side with Phtah and Ramses II.; his name

figured at the head of the royal lists, and his cult continued till the time

of the Ptolemies.

 

[Footnote 1: The burned tile showing the impression of the stylus, made on

the clay while plastic. - Ed.]

 

His immediate successors have only a semblance of reality, such as he

had. The lists give the order of succession, it is true, with the years of

their reigns almost to a day, sometimes the length of their lives, but we may

well ask whence the chroniclers procured so much precise information. They

were in the same position as ourselves with regard to these ancient kings:

they knew them by a tradition of a later age, by a fragment papyrus

fortuitously preserved in a temple, by accidentally coming across some

monument bearing their name, and were reduced, as it were, to put together

the few facts which they possessed, or to supply such as were wanting by

conjectures, often in a very improbable manner. It is quite possible that

they were unable to gather from the memory of the past the names of those

individuals of which they made up the first two dynasties. The forms of

these names are curt and rugged, and indicative of a rude and savage state,

harmonizing with the semi-barbaric period to which they are relegated: Ati

the Wrestler, Teti the Runner, Qeunqoni the Crusher, are suitable rulers for

a people the first duty of whose chief was to lead his followers into battle,

and to strike harder than any other man in the thickest of the fight.

 

The inscriptions supply us with proofs that some of these princes lived

and reigned: - Sondi, who is classed in the II dynasty, received a continuous

worship toward the end of the III dynasty. But did all those who preceded

him, and those who followed him, exist as he did? And if they existed, do

the order and relation agree with actual truth? The different lists do not

contain the same names in the same position; certain Pharaohs are added or

suppressed without appreciable reason. Where Manetho inscribes Kenkenes and

Ouenephes, the tables of the time of Seti I give us Ati and Ata; Manetho

reckons nine kings to the II dynasty, while they register only five. The

monuments, indeed, show us that Egypt in the past obeyed princes whom her

annalists were unable to classify: for instance, they associated with Sondi a

Pirsenu, who is not mentioned in the annals. We must, therefore, take the

record of all this opening period of history for what it is - namely, a

system invented at a much later date, by means of various artifices and

combinations - to be partially accepted in default of a better, but without,

according to it, that excessive confidence which it has hitherto received.

 

The two Thinite dynasties, in direct descent from the fabulous Menes,

furnish, like this hero himself, only a tissue of romantic tales and

miraculous legends in the place of history. A double-headed stork, which had

appeared in the first year of Teti, son of Menes, had foreshadowed to Egypt a

long prosperity, but a famine under Ouenephes, and a terrible plague under

Semempses, had depopulated the country; the laws had been relaxed, great

crimes had been committed, and revolts had broken out.

 

During the reign of the Boethos a gulf had opened near Bubastis, and

swallowed up many people, then the Nile had flowed with honey for fifteen

days in the time of Nephercheres, and Sesochris was supposed to have been a

giant in stature. A few details about royal edifices were mixed up with

these prodigies. Teti had laid the foundation of the great palace of

Memphis, Ouenephes had built the pyramids of Ko-kome near Saqqara. Several

of the ancient Pharaohs had published books on theology, or had written

treatises on anatomy and medicine; several had made laws called Kakou, the

male of males, or the bull of bulls. They explained his name by the

statement that he had concerned himself about the sacred animals; he had

proclaimed as gods, Hapis of Memphis, Mnevis of Heliopolis, and the goat of

Mendes.

 

After him, Binothris had conferred the right of succession upon all

women of the blood-royal. The accession of the III dynasty, a Memphite one

according to Manetho, did not at first change the miraculous character of

this history. The Libyans had revolted against Necherophes, and the two

armies were encamped before each other, when one night the disk of the moon

became immeasurably enlarged, to the great alarm of the rebels, who

recognized in this phenomenon a sign of the anger of heaven, and yielded

without fighting. Tosorthros, the successor of Necherophes, brought the

hieroglyphs and the art of stone-cutting to perfection. He composed, as Teti

did, books of medicine, a fact which caused him to be identified with the

healing god Imhotpu. The priests related these things seriously, and the

Greek writers took them down from their lips with the respect which they

offered to everything emanating from the wise men of Egypt.

 

What they related of the human kings was not more detailed, as we see,

than their accounts of the gods. Whether the legends dealt with deities or

kings, all that we know took its origin, not in popular imagination, but in

sacerdotal dogma: they were invented long after the times they dealt with, in

the recesses of the temples, with an intention and a method of which we are

enabled to detect flagrant instances on the monuments.

 

Toward the middle of the third century before our era the Greek troops

stationed on the southern frontier, in the forts at the first cataract,

developed a particular veneration for Isis of Philae. Their devotion spread

to the superior officers who came to inspect them, then to the whole

population of the Thebaid, and finally reached the court of the Macedonian

kings. The latter, carried away by force of example, gave every

encouragement to a movement which attracted worshippers to a common

sanctuary, and united in one cult two races over which they ruled. They

pulled down the meagre building of the Saite period, which had hitherto

sufficed for the worship of Isis, constructed at great cost the temple which

still remains almost intact, and assigned to it considerable possessions in

Nubia, which, in addition to gifts from private individuals, made the goddess

the richest land-owner in Southern Egypt. Knumu and his two wives, Anukit

and Satit, who, before Isis, had been the undisputed suzerains of the

cataract, perceived with jealousy their neighbor's prosperity: the civil wars

and invasions of the centuries immediately preceding had ruined their

temples, and their poverty contrasted painfully with the riches of the

new-comer.

 

The priests resolved to lay this sad state of affairs before King

Ptolemy, to represent to him the services which they had rendered and still

continued to render to Egypt, and above all to remind him of the generosity

of the ancient Pharaohs, whose example, owing to the poverty of the times,

the recent Pharaohs had been unable to follow. Doubtless authentic documents

were wanting in their archives to support their pretensions: they therefore

inscribed upon a rock, in the island of Sehel, a long inscription which they

attributed to Zosiri of the III dynasty. This sovereign had left behind him

a vague reputation for greatness. As early as the XII dynasty Usirtasen III

had claimed him as "his father" - his ancestor - and had erected a statue to

him; the priests knew that, by invoking him, they had a chance of obtaining a

hearing.

 

The inscription which they fabricated set forth that in the eighteenth

year of Zosiri's reign he had sent to Madir, lord of Elephantine, a message

couched in these terms: "I am overcome with sorrow for the throne, and for

those who reside in the palace, and my heart is afflicted and suffers greatly

because the Nile has not risen in my time, for the space of eight years.

 

Corn is scarce, there is a lack of herbage, and nothing is left to eat: when

any one calls upon his neighbors for help, they take pains not to go. The

child weeps, the young man is uneasy, the hearts of the old men are in

despair, their limbs are bent, they crouch on the earth, they fold their

hands; the courtiers have no further resources; the shops formerly furnished

with rich wares are now filled only with air, all that was within them has

disappeared. My spirit also, mindful of the beginning of things, seeks to

call upon the savior who was here where I am, during the centuries of the

gods, upon Thot-Ibis, that great wise one, upon Imhotpu, son of Phtah of

Memphis. Where is the place in which the Nile is born? Who is the god or

goddess concealed there? What is his likeness?"

 

The lord of Elephantine brought his reply in person. He described to

the king, who was evidently ignorant of it, the situation of the island and

the rocks of the cataract, the phenomena of the inundation, the gods who

presided over it, and who alone could relieve Egypt from her disastrous

plight.

 

Zosiri repaired to the temple of the principality and offered the

prescribed sacrifices; the god arose, opened his eyes, panted, and cried

aloud, "I am Khnumu who created thee!" and promised him a speedy return of a

high Nile and the cessation of the famine.

 

Pharaoh was touched by the benevolence which his divine father had shown

him; he forthwith made a decree by which he ceded to the temple all his

rights of suzerainty over the neighboring nomes within a radius of twenty

miles.

 

Henceforward the entire population, tillers and vinedressers, fishermen

and hunters, had to yield the tithe of their income to the priests; the

quarries could not be worked without the consent of Khnumu, and the payment

of a suitable indemnity into his coffers; finally, metals and precious woods,

shipped thence for Egypt, had to submit to a toll on behalf of the temple.

Did the Ptolemies admit the claims which the local priests attempted to

deduce from this romantic tale? and did the god regain possession of the

domains and dues which they declared had been his right? The stele shows us

with what ease the scribes could forge official documents when the exigencies

of daily life forced the necessity upon them; it teaches us at the same time

how that fabulous chronicle was elaborated, whose remains have been preserved

for us by classical writers. Every prodigy, every fact related by Manetho,

was taken from some document analogous to the supposed inscription of Zosiri.

 

The real history of the early centuries, therefore, eludes our

researches, and no contemporary record traces for us those vicissitudes which

Egypt passed through before being consolidated into a single kingdom, under

the rule of one man. Many names, apparently of powerful and illustrious

princes, had survived in the memory of the people; these were collected,

classified, and grouped in a regular manner into dynasties, but the people

were ignorant of any exact facts connected with the names, and the

historians, on their own account, were reduced to collect apocryphal

traditions for their sacred archives.

 

The monuments of these remote ages, however, cannot have entirely

disappeared: they existed in places where we have not as yet thought of

applying the pick, and chance excavations will some day most certainly bring

them to light. The few which we do possess barely go back beyond the III

dynasty: namely, the hypogeum of Shiri, priest of Sondi and Pirsenu; possibly

the tomb of Khuithotpu at Saqqara; the Great Sphinx of Gizeh; a short

inscription on the rocks of Wady Maghara, which represents Zosiri (the same

king of whom the priests of Khnumu in the Greek period made a precedent)

working the turquoise or copper mines of Sinai; and finally the step pyramid

where this Pharaoh rests. It forms a rectangular mass, incorrectly oriented,

with a variation from the true north of 4 degrees 35', 393 ft., 8 in. long

from east to west, and 352 ft. deep, with a height of 159 ft. 9 in. It is

composed of six cubes, with sloping sides, each being about 13 ft. less in

width than the one below it; that nearest to the ground measures 37 ft. 8 in.

in height, and the uppermost one 29 ft. 2 in.

 

It was entirely constructed of limestone from neighboring mountains.

The blocks are small and badly cut, the stone courses being concave, to offer

a better resistance to downward thrust and to shocks of earthquake. When

breaches in the masonry are examined, it can be seen that the external

surface of the steps has, as it were, a double stone facing, each facing

being carefully dressed. The body of the pyramid is solid, the chambers

being cut in the rock beneath. These chambers have often been enlarged,

restored, and reworked in the course of centuries, and the passages which

connect them form a perfect labyrinth into which it is dangerous to venture

without a guide. The columned porch, the galleries and halls, all lead to a

sort of enormous shaft, at the bottom of which the architect had contrived a

hiding-place, destined, no doubt, to contain the more precious objects of the

funerary furniture. Until the beginning of this century the vault had

preserved its original lining of glazed pottery. Three quarters of the wall

surface was covered with green tiles, oblong and lightly convex on the outer

side, but flat on the inner: a square projection pierced with a hole served

to fix them at the back in a horizontal line by means of flexible wooden

rods. Three bands which frame one of the doors are inscribed with the titles

of the Pharaoh. The hieroglyphs are raised in either blue, red, green, or

yellow, on a fawn-colored ground.

 

The towns, palaces, temples, all the buildings which princes and kings

had constructed to be witnesses of their power or piety to future

generations, have disappeared in the course of ages, under the feet and

before the triumphal blasts of many invading hosts: the pyramid alone has

survived, and the most ancient of the historic monuments of Egypt is a tomb.

 

 

Egypt: Gift Of The Nile

 

Egypt is literally "the gift of the Nile," as the ancient Greek historian

Herodotus observed. The Nile valley, extending 750 miles from the first

cataract to the Mediterranean, is a fertile oasis cut out of a limestone

plateau. Its soil was renewed annually by the rich silt deposited by the flood

water of the river that, unlike the unpredictable floods of Mesopotamia, rose

and fell with unusual precision. The rise began early in July and continues

until the banks were overrun, reaching its crest in September. By the end of

October the river was once more contained within its banks.

 

Predynastic Egypt

 

By 4000 B.C. Neolithic villagers had begun to build dikes and a canal

network to control the Nile for irrigation. As population grew, a central

authority was required because this necessary work involved many communities.

Two distinct kingdoms emerged: Lower Egypt comprised the broad Nile delta

north of Memphis, while Upper Egypt extended southward along the narrow ten-

to twenty-mile-wide valley as far as the first cataract at Syene (Aswan). Each

kingdom contained about a score of tribal districts, or nomes, which had

formerly been ruled by independent chieftains.

The Predynastic period ended soon after 3100 B.C. when Menes (also known

as Narmer), ruler of Upper Egypt, united the two kingdoms and founded the

First Dynasty with its capital at Memphis. As little is known of these first

two dynasties, the period is called Egypt's archaic age.

 

The Old Kingdom

 

The kings of the Third through the Sixth Dynasties - the period called

the Old Kingdom or Pyramid Age - firmly established order and stability and

the essential elements of Egyptian civilization. The nobility lost its

independence, and all power was centered in the king, or pharaoh (Per-ao,

"Great House"). The pharaoh was considered a god rather than the human agent

of a god, as was usual in Mesopotamia. As the god of Egypt, the pharaoh owned

all the land (although frequent grants were made to temples and private

persons), controlled the irrigation system, decided when the fields should be

sown, and received the surplus from the crops produced on the huge royal

estates. This surplus supported a large corps of specialists - administrators,

priests, scribes, artists, artisans, and merchants - who labored in the

service of the pharaoh. The people's welfare was thought to rest on absolute

fidelity to the god-king. "If you want to know what to do in life," advised

one Egyptian writer, "cling to the pharaoh and be loyal ... " As a

consequence, Egyptians felt a sense of security that was rare in Mesopotamia.

The belief that the pharaoh was a god led to the practice of

mummification and the construction of colossal tombs - the pyramids - to

preserve the pharaoh's embalmed body for eternity. The ritual of mummification

restored vigor and activity to the dead pharaoh; it was his passport to

eternity: "You live again, you live again forever, here you are young once

more for ever." The pyramid tombs, in particular those of the Fourth Dynasty

at Gizeh near Memphis, which are the most celebrated of all ancient monuments,

reflect the great power and wealth of the Old Kingdom pharaohs. Although

pyramid construction provided employment during the four months of the year

when the land was flooded by the Nile, the Egyptian masses performed it

primarily as an act of faith in their god-king, on whom the security and

prosperity of Egypt depended.

 

Security and prosperity came to an end late in the Sixth Dynasty. The

burden of building and maintaining pyramid tombs for each new king exhausted

the state. The Nile floods failed and crops were diminished, yet taxes were

increased. As the state and its god-king lost credibility, royal tombs were

plundered and government files were thrown into the street. The nobles assumed

the prerogatives of the pharaohs, including the claim to immortality, and the

nomes again became independent.

 

For about a century and a half, known as the First Intermediate Period

(c. 2200-2050 B.C.), civil war raged among contenders for the throne.

Outsiders raided and infiltrated the land. The lot of the common people became

unbearable as they faced famine, robbery, and oppression by petty tyrants.

"All happiness has vanished," wrote a contemporary. "I show you the land in

turmoil, ... Each man's heart is for himself ... A man sits with his back

turned, while one slays another." ^17

 

[Footnote 17: Robert A. Guisepi, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of

Readings, Vol. 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1976), pp. 141-142.]

 

The Middle Kingdom, c. 2050-1800 B.C.

 

Egypt was rescued from anarchy by the pharaohs of the Eleventh and

Twelfth Dynasties, who reunited the country and ruled from Thebes. Stressing

their role as watchful shepherds of the people, the Middle Kingdom pharaohs

promoted the welfare of the downtrodden. One of them claimed: "I gave to the

destitute and brought up the orphan. I caused him who was nothing to reach

[his goal], like him who was [somebody]." ^18 No longer was the nation's

wealth expended on huge pyramids, but on public works. The largest of these, a

drainage and irrigation project in the marshy Fayum district south of Memphis,

resulted in the reclamation of 27,000 acres of arable land. Moreover, a

concession that has been called "the democratization of the hereafter" gave

the lower classes the right to have their bodies mummified and thereby to

enjoy immortality like the pharaohs and the nobility.

 

[Footnote 18: John A. Wilson, trans., The Burden of Egypt (Chicago: University

of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 117.]

 

Following the Twelfth Dynasty, Egypt again was racked by civil war as

provincial governors fought for the pharaoh's throne. During this Second

Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1750 B.C.), the Hyksos, a mixed but

preponderantly Semitic people, invaded Egypt from Palestine about 1720 B.C.

They easily conquered the Delta and made the rest of Egypt tributary. It was

probably at this time that the Hebrew Joseph, who had risen to a high position

under a Hyksos king, invited his relatives to settle in the Delta ("the land

of Goshen") during a famine.

 

The New Kingdom Or Empire, c. 1570-1090 B.C.

 

The Egyptians viewed the Hyksos conquest as a great humiliation imposed

on them by detestable barbarians. An aggressive nationalism emerged, promoted

by the native prince of Thebes who proclaimed: "No man can settle down, when

despoiled by the taxes of the Asiatics. I will grapple with him, that I may

rip open his belly! My wish is to save Egypt and to smite the Asiatics!" ^19

Adopting the new weapons introduced by their conquerors - the composite bow,

constructed of wood and horn, and the horse-drawn chariot - the Egyptians

expelled the Hyksos and pursued them into Palestine. The pharaohs of the

Eighteenth Dynasty, who reunited Egypt and founded the new Kingdom, made

Palestine the nucleus of an Egyptian empire in western Asia.

 

[Footnote 19: John A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt, p. 164.]

 

The outstanding representative of the aggressive state that Egypt now

became was Thutmose III (1490-1435 B.C.). After inheriting the throne as a

child, Thutmose was shoved aside by his step-mother, Hatshepsut (1490-1469

B.C.), a former concubine who acted as regent during his minority. Supported

by the powerful priests of the sun-god Amon, Hatshepsut proclaimed herself

"king." In many of her statues and reliefs she was portrayed wearing the

customary royal crown and helmets - sometimes even sporting the royal beard!

She employed all the customary royal titles with the exception of "Mighty

Bull," which clearly was not appropriate for a woman who described herself as

"exceedingly good to look upon, ...a beautiful maiden, fresh, serene of

nature, ...altogether divine."

 

When Hatshepsut died after twenty years of rule, Thutmose ordered her

name and inscriptions erased, her reliefs effaced, and her statues broken and

thrown into a quarry. Then this "Napoleon of Egypt," as Thutmose III has been

called, led his army on seventeen campaigns as far as Syria, where he set up

his boundary markers on the banks of the Euphrates, called by the Egyptians

"the river that runs backward." Nubia and northern Sudan were also brought

under his sway. Native princes of Palestine, Phoenicia, and Syria were left on

their thrones, but their sons were taken to Egypt as hostages. Here they were

brought up and, thoroughly Egyptianized, eventually sent home to rule as loyal

vassals. Thutmose III erected obelisks - tall, pointed shafts of stone - to

commemorate his reign and to record his wish that "his name might endure

throughout the future forever and ever." Four of his obelisks now adorn the

cities of Istanbul, Rome, London, and New York.

 

Under Amenhotep III (c. 1402-1363 B.C.) the Egyptian Empire reached its

peak. Tribute flowed in from conquered lands; and Thebes, with its temples

built for the sun-god Amon east of the Nile at Luxor and Karnak, became the

most magnificient city in the world. The Hittites and the rulers of Babylonia

and Crete, among others, sent gifts, including princesses for the pharaoh's

harem. In return, they asked the pharaoh "for gold, for gold is as common as

dust in your land."

 

During the reign of the succeeding pharaoh, Amenhotep IV (1363-1347

B.C.), however, the Empire went into sharp decline as the result of an

internal struggle between the pharaoh and the powerful and wealthy priests of

the sun-god Amon, the king of the gods. The pharaoh undertook to revolutionize

Egypt's religion by proclaiming the worship of the sun's disk, Aton, in place

of Amon and all the other deities. Often called the first monotheist

(although, as Aton's son, the pharaoh was also a god), Amenhotep changed his

name to Akhenaton ("Devoted to Aton"), left Amon's city to found a new capital

(Akhetaton), and concentrated upon religious reform. Most of Egypt's vassal

princes in Asia defected when their appeals for aid against invaders went

unheeded. Prominent among these invaders were groups of people called the

Habiru, whose possible identification with the Hebrews of the Old Testament

has interested modern scholars. At home the Amon priesthood encouraged

dissension. When Akhenaton died, his nine-year-old brother, Tutankhamen ("King

Tut," c. 1347-1338 B.C.) - now remembered for his small but richly furnished

tomb discovered in 1922 - returned to the worship of Amon and to Thebes, where

he became a puppet of the priests of Amon. At this point the generals of the

army took control of Egypt.

 

One of the new army leaders founded the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1305-1200

B.C.), which sought to re-establish Egyptian control over Palestine and Syria.

The result was a long struggle with the Hittites, who in the meantime had

pushed south from Asia Minor into Syria. This struggle reached a climax in the

reign of Ramses II (1290-1224 B.C.), the pharaoh of the Hebrew Exodus from

Egypt under Moses. Ramses II regained Palestine, but when he failed to

dislodge the Hittites from Syria, he agreed to a treaty. Its strikingly modern

character is revealed in clauses providing for nonagression, mutual

assistance, and extradition of fugitives.

 

The long reign of Ramses II as Egypt's last period of national grandeur.

The number and size of Ramses' monuments rival those of the Pyramid Age.

Outstanding among them are the great Hypostyle Hall, built for Amon at Karnak,

and the temple at Abu Simbel, with its four colossal statues of Ramses, which

has now been raised to save it from inundation by the waters of the High Dam

at Aswan (Syene). After Ramses II, royal authority gradually decayed as the

power of the priests of Amon rose.

 

Period Of Decadence, 1090-332 B.C.

 

During the early part of the Period of Decadence the Amon priesthood at

Thebes became so strong that the high priest was able to found his own dynasty

and to rule over Upper Egypt. At the same time, merchant princes set up a

dynasty of their own in the Delta. Libyans from the west moved into central

Egypt, where in 940 B.C. they established a dynasty whose founder, Shishak,

was a contemporary of King Solomon of Israel. Two centuries later Egypt was

conquered by the black Kushites of Nubia, who established the Twenty-Fifth

Dynasty and ruled from Napata, near the Fourth Cataract. Kushite domination

ended in 671 B.C., when the Assyrians of Mesopotamia made Egypt a province of

their empire. The Egyptianized Kushite rulers transferred their capital

southward to Meroe, just above the Sixth Cataract. Here they recorded their

royal annals in a script based on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and when they died

their bodies were mummified and laid to rest in small replicas of the pyramid

tombs of the Old Kingdom.

 

Egypt enjoyed a brief Indian summer of revived glory during the

Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (663-525 B.C.), which expelled the Assyrians with the aid

of Greek mercenaries. The revival of ancient artistic and literary forms

proved sterile, and after attempts to regain Palestine failed, "the king of

Egypt came not again any more out of his land" (2 Kings 24:7). Only the

commercial policies of these rulers were successful. In about 600 B.C., to

facilitate trade, Pharaoh Necho ordered a canal dug between the Nile mouth and

the Red Sea (it was later completed by the Persians), and he commissioned a

Phoenician expedition, which circumnavigated Africa in three years - a feat

not to be duplicated until A.D. 1497 by the Portuguese.

 

The thirty Egyptian dynasties which had existed for nearly three thousand

years came to an end when Egypt passed under Persian rule in 525 B.C. Two

hundred years later this ancient land came within the domain of Alexander the

Great.

 

Egyptian Society And Economy

 

Although most Egyptians were virtual serfs and subject to forced labor,

class stratification was not rigid, and people of merit could rise to a higher

rank in the service of the pharaoh. The best avenue of advancement was

education. The pharaoh's administration needed many scribes, and young men

were urged to attend a scribal school: "Be a scribe, who is freed from forced

labor, and protected from all work....he directeth every work that is in this

land." Yet then as now the education of a young man was beset with pitfalls:

"I am told thou forsakest writing, that thou givest thyself up to pleasures;

thou goest from street to street, where it smelleth of beer, to destruction.

Beer, it scareth men from thee, it sendeth thy soul to perdition." ^20

[Footnote 20: Adolf Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians, trans.

Aylward M. Blackman (London: Methuen & Co., 1927), pp. 190, 196, 197.]

Compared with their Greek and Roman successors, Egyptian women enjoyed

extraordinary freedom. Equality of the sexes in Egypt is reflected in statues

and paintings. Wives of pharaohs and nobles are shown standing or sitting

beside their husbands, and little daughters are depicted with the same

tenderness as little sons. The right of succession to the throne was based on

royal descent from the mother as well as the father. Marriages between

brothers and sisters often took place within the ruling family to assure the

most divine strain and reduce the number of rival claimants to the throne.

Business and legal documents show that women in general had rights to own, buy

and sell property without reliance on legal guardians, and to make wills and

testify in court. A few became scribes and members of the administration.

The economy of Egypt has been called "theocratic socialism" because the

state, in the person of the divine pharaoh, owned the land and monopolized

commerce and industry. (Compare the role of temples in the collectivized

economy of the Early Sumerian period.) Because of the Nile and the proximity

to the Mediterranean Red seas, most of Egypt's trade was carried on by ships.

Boats plied regularly up and down the Nile, which, unlike the Tigris and the

Euphrates, is easily navigable in both directions up to the first cataract at

Aswan (Syene). The current carries ships downstream, and the prevailing north

wind enables them to sail upstream easily. Trade reached its height during the

Empire, when commerce traveled along four main routes: the Nile River; the Red

Sea, which was connected by caravan to the Nile bend near Thebes; a caravan

route to Mesopotamia and southern Syria; and the Mediterranean Sea, connecting

northern Syria, Cyprus, Crete, and Greece with the delta of the Nile. Egypt's

indispensable imports were lumber, copper, tin, and olive oil, paid for with

gold from its rich mines, linens, wheat, and papyrus rollsthe preferred

writing material of the ancient world. (Our word paper is derived from the

Greek papyros.)

 

Egyptian Religion

 

During the Old Kingdom Egyptian religion had no strong ethical character.

Relations between humans and gods were based largely on material

considerations, and the gods were thought to reward those who brought them

gifts of sacrifice. But widespread suffering during the First Intermediate

Period led to a revolution in religious thought. It was now believed that

instead of sacrificial offerings the gods were interested in good character

and love for one's fellows: "More acceptable [to the gods] is the character of

one upright of heart than the ox of the evildoer....Give the love of thyself

to the whole world; a good character is a remembrance." ^21

 

[Footnote 21: From "The Instruction of Meri-ka-Re" in The Burden of Egypt,

trans. John A. Wilson, p. 120.]

 

Osiris, the mythical god of the Nile whose death and resurrection

explained the annual rise and fall of the river, became the center of Egypt's

most popular religious cult when the new emphasis on moral character was

combined with the supreme reward of an attractive afterlife. "Do justice

whilst thou endurest upon earth," people were told. "A man remains over after

death, and his deeds are placed beside him in heaps. However, existence yonder

is for eternity....He who reaches it without wrongdoing shall exist yonder

like a god." ^22 The original premoral myth told how Osiris had been murdered

by Seth, his evil brother, who cut the victim's body into many pieces. When

Isis, the bereaved widow, collected all the pieces and wrapped them in linen,

Osiris was resurrected. The moralized Osiris cult taught that Osiris was the

first mummy and that every mummified Egyptian could become another Osiris,

capable of resurrection from the dead and a blessed eternal life.

 

[Footnote 22: From "The Instruction of Meri-ka-Re" in The Burden of Egypt,

trans. John A. Wilson, p. 119.]

 

But only a soul free of sin would be permitted to live forever in what

was described as the "Field of the Blessed, an ideal land where there is no

wailing and nothing evil; where barley grows four cubits high, and emmer wheat

seven ells high; where, even better, one has to do no work in the field

oneself, but can let others take care of it." ^23 In a ceremony called

"counting up character," Osiris weighed the deceased's heart against the

Feather of Truth. If the heart was heavy with sin and outweighed the Feather

of Truth, a horrible creature devoured it. During the Empire the priesthood of

Osiris became corrupt and claimed that it knew clever methods of surviving the

soul testing, even if a person's heart were heavy with sin. Charms and magical

prayers and formulas were sold to the living as insurance policies

guaranteeing them a happy outcome in the judgment before Osiris. They

constitute much of what is known as the Book of the Dead, which was placed in

the tomb.

 

[Footnote 23: Quoted in George Steindorff and George Hoyingen-Huene, Egypt

(Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin, 1943), p. 23.]

 

Akhenaton's religious reformation was directed against the venal priests

of Osiris as well as those of the supreme god Amon. As we have seen, Akhenaton

failed to uproot Amon and the multiplicity of lesser gods; his monotheism was

too cold and intellectual to attract the masses who yearned for a blessed

hereafter.

 

Mathematics And Science

 

The Egyptians were much less skilled in mathematics than were the

Mesopotamians. Their arithmetic was limited to addition and subtraction, which

also served them when they needed to multiply and divide. They could cope with

only simple algebra, but they did have considerable knowledge of practical

geometry. The obliteration of field boundaries by the annual flooding of the

Nile made land measurement a necessity. A knowledge of geometry was also

essential in computing the dimensions of ramps for raising stones during the

construction of pyramids. In these and other engineering projects the

Egyptians were superior to their Mesopotamian contemporaries. Like the

Mesopotamians, the Egyptians acquired a "necessary" technology without

developing a truly scientific method. Yet what has been called the oldest

known scientific treatise, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, was composed

during the Old Kingdom. Its author described forty-eight cases requiring

surgery, drawing conclusions solely from observation and rejecting

supernatural causes and treatments. In advising the physician to "measure for

the heart" that "speaks" in various parts of the body, he recognized the

importance of the pulse and approached the concept of the circulation of the

blood. This text remained unique, however, for in Egypt as elsewhere in the

ancient Near East, thought failed to free itself permanently from domination

by priests and bondage to religion. The Greeks were to be the first to

accomplish this task.

 

The Old Kingdom also produced the world's first known solar calendar, the

direct ancestor of our own. In order to plan their farming operations in

accordance with the annual flooding of the Nile, the Egyptians kept records

and discovered that the average period between inundations was 365 days. They

also noted that the Nile flood coincided with the annual appearance of the Dog

Star (Sirius) on the eastern horizon at dawn, and they soon associated the two

phenomena. (Since the Egyptian year was six hours short of the true year,

Julius Caesar in Roman times corrected the error by adding an extra day every

four years.)

 

Monumentalism In Architecture

 

Because of their impressive, enduring tombs and temples, the Egyptians

have been called the greatest builders in history. The earliest tomb was the

mud-brick mastaba, so called because of its resemblance to a low bench. By the

beginning of the Third Dynasty stone began to replace brick, and an

architectural genius named Imhotep, now honored as "the father of architecture

in stone," constructed the first pyramid by piling six huge stone mastabas

one on top of the other. Adjoining this Step Pyramid was a temple complex

whose stone columns were not freestanding but attached to a wall, as though

the architect was still feeling his way in the use of the new medium.

The most celebrated of the true pyramids were built for the Fourth

Dynasty pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Khufu's pyramid, the largest of

the three, covers thirteen acres and originally rose 481 feet. It is composed

of 2,300,000 limestone blocks, some weighing fifteen tons, and all pushed and

pulled into place by human muscle. This stupendous monument was built without

mortar, yet some of the stones were so perfectly fitted that a knife cannot be

inserted in the joints. The Old Kingdom's eighty pyramids are a striking

expression of Egyptian civilization. Their dignity and massiveness reflect the

religious basis of Egyptian society - the dogma that the king was a god who

owned the nation and that serving him was the most important task of the

people.

 

As the glory and serenity of the Old Kingdom can be seen in its pyramids,

constructed as an act of faith by its subjects, so the power and wealth of the

Empire survives in the Amon temples at Thebes, made possible by the booty and

tribute of conquest. Here on the east side of the Nile stand the ruins of the

magnificient temples of Karnak and Luxor. The Hypostyle Hall of the temple of

Karnak, built by Ramses II, is larger than the cathedral of Notre Dame. Its

forest of 134 columns is arranged in sixteen rows, with the roof over the two

broader central aisles (the nave) raised to allow the entry of light. This

technique of providing a clerestory over a central nave was later used in

Roman basilicas and Christian churches.

 

Sculpture And Painting

 

Egyptian art was essentially religious. Tomb paintings and relief

sculpture depict the everyday activities that the deceased wished to continue

enjoying in the afterlife, and statues glorify the god-kings in all their

serenity and eternity. Since religious art is inherently conservative,

Egyptian art seldom from the traditions established during the vigorous and

self-assured Old Kingdom. Sculptors idealized and standardized their subjects,

and the human figure is shown either looking directly ahead or in profile,

with a rigidity very much in keeping with the austere architectural settings

of the statues.

 

Yet on two occasions an unprecedented naturalism appeared in Egyptian

sculpture. The faces of some of the Middle Kingdom rulers appear drawn and

weary, seemingly reflecting the burden of reconstructing Egypt after the

collapse of the Old Kingdom. An even greater naturalism is seen in the

portraits of Akhenaton and his queen, Nefertete, which continued on into the

following reign of Tutankhamen. The pharaoh's brooding countenance is

realistically portrayed, as is his ungainly paunch and his happy but far from

godlike family life as he holds one of his young daughters on his knee or

munches on a bone. The "heretic" pharaoh, who insisted on what he called

"truth" in religion, seems also to have insisted on truth in art.

Painting in Egypt shows the same precision and mastery of technique that

are evident in sculpture. However, no attempt was made to show objects in

perspective, and the scenes give an appearance of flatness. The effect of

distance was conveyed by making objects in a series or by putting one object

above another. Another convention employed was to depict everything from its

most characteristic angle. Often the head, arms and legs were shown in side

view and the eyes, shoulders, and chest were shown in front view.

Writing And Literature

 

In Egypt, as in Sumer, writing began with pictures. But unlike the

Mesopotamian signs, Egyptian hieroglyphs ("sacred signs") remained primarily

pictorial. At first the hieroglyphs represented only objects, but later they

came to stand for ideas and syllables. Early in the Old Kingdom the Egyptians

took the further step of using the alphabetic characters for twenty-four

consonant sounds. Although they also continued to use the old pictographic and

syllabic signs, this discovery had far-reaching consequences. It influenced

their Semitic neighbors in Syria to produce an alphabet that, in its

Phoenician form, became the forerunner of our own.

 

Egypt's oldest literature is the Pyramid Texts, a body of religious

writing found inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers of Old Kingdom

pharaohs. Their recurrent theme is a monotonous insistence that the dead

pharaoh is really a god and that no obstacle can prevent him from joining his

fellow gods in the heavens.

 

The troubled life that followed the collapse of the Old Kingdom produced

the highly personal literature of the First Intermediate Period and Middle

Kingdom. It contains protests against the ills of the day, demands for social

justice, and praise for the romantic excitements of wine, women, and song as a

means of forgetting misery. The universal appeal of this literature is

illustrated by the following lines from a love poem, in which the beloved is

called "sister":

 

I behold how my sister cometh, and my heart

is in gladness.

Mine arms open wide to embrace her; my

heart exulteth within me; for my lady

has come to me....

She kisseth me, she openeth her lips to me:

then am I joyful even without beer. ^24

 

[Footnote 24: George Steindorff and Keith E. Steel, trans., When Egypt Ruled

the East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 125. Copyright 1942

by the University of Chicago Press.]

 

A classic of Egyptian literature is Akhenaton's Hymn to the Sun,

which is similar in spirit to Psalm 104 in the Old Testament ("O Lord, how

manifold are thy works!"). A few lines indicate its lyric beauty and its

conception of one omnipotent and beneficient Creator:

 

Thy dawning is beautiful in the horizon of the

sky,

O living Aton, beginning of life!...

How manifold are thy works!

They are hidden before men,

O sole god, beside whom there is no other.

Thou didst create the earth according to thy

heart

While thou wast alone. ^25

 

[Footnote 25: Quoted in J. H. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (New York:

Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939), p. 284.]

 

Basic Patterns Of Egyptian Society

 

Unlike Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where an original river-valley

basis to civilization ultimately gave way to the spread of civilization

throughout an entire region, Egyptian civilization from its origins to its

decline was focused on the Nile River and the deserts around it. The Nile

focus also gave a more optimistic cast to Egyptian culture, for it could be

seen as a source of never- failing bounty to be thankfully received, rather

than a menacing cause of floods. Egyptian civilization may at the outset have

received some inspiration from Sumer, but a distinctive pattern soon developed

in both religion and politics.

 

Farming had been developed along the Nile by about 5000 B.C., but some

time before 3200 B.C. economic development accelerated, in part because of

growing trade wi,h other regions including Mesopotamia. This economic

acceleration provided the basis for the formation of regional kingdoms. Unlike

Sumer, Egypt moved fairly directly from precivilization to large government

units, without passing through a city-state phase, though the first pharaoh,

Narmer, had to conquer a number of petty local kings around 3100 B.C. Indeed

Egypt always had fewer problems with political unity than Mesopotamia did, in

part because of the unifying influence of the course of the Nile River. By the

same token, however, Egyptian politics tended to be more authoritarian as well

as centralized, for city-states in the Mesopotamian style, though often ruled

by kings, also provided the opportunity for councils and other participatory

institutions.

 

By 3100 B.C. Narmer, king of southern Egypt, conquered the northern

regional kingdom and created a unified state 600 miles long. This state was to

last 3000 years. Despite some important disruptions, this was an amazing

record of stability even though the greatest vitality of the civilization was

exhausted by about 1000 B.C. During the 2000-year span in which Egypt

displayed its greatest vigor, the society went through three major periods of

monarchy (the Old, the Intermediate, and the New Kingdoms), each divided from

its successor by a century or two of confusion.

 

In all its phases, Egyptian civilization was characterized by the

strength of the pharaoh. The pharaoh was held to be descended from gods, with

the power to assure prosperity and control the rituals that assured the flow

of the Nile and the fertility derived from irrigation. Soon, the pharaoh was

regarded as a god. Much Egyptian art was devoted to demonstrating the power

and sanctity of the king. From the king's authority also flowed an extensive

bureaucracy, recruited from the landed nobles but specially trained in writing

and law. Governors were appointed for key regions and were responsible for

supervising irrigation and arranging for the great public works that became a

hallmark of Egyptian culture. Most Egyptians were peasant farmers, closely

regulated and heavily taxed. Labor requisition by the states allowed

construction of the great pyramids and other huge public buildings. These

monuments were triumphs of human coordination, for the Egyptians were not

particularly advanced technologically. They even lacked pulleys or other

devices to hoist the huge slabs of stone that formed the pyramids.

Given the importance of royal rule and the belief that pharaohs were

gods, it is not surprising that each of the main periods of Egyptian history

was marked by some striking kings. Early in each dynastic period leading

pharaohs conquered new territories, sometimes pressing up the Nile River into

present-day Sudan, once even moving up the Mediterranean coast of the Middle

East. One pharaoh, Akhenaton, late in Egyptian history, tried to use his power

to install a new, one-god religion, replacing the Egyptian pantheon. Many

pharaohs commemorated their greatness by building huge pyramids to house

themselves and their retinues after death, commanding work crews of up to

100,000 men to haul and lift the stone. The first great pyramid was built

around 2600 B.C.; the largest pyramid followed about a century later, taking

20 years to complete and containing 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing 5

1/2 tons.

 

Some scholars have seen even larger links between Egypt's stable,

centralized politics and its fascination with an orderly death, including

massive funeral monuments and preservation through mummification. Death

rituals suggested a concern with extending organization to the afterlife,

based on a belief that, through politics, death as well as life could be

carefully controlled. A similar connection between strong political structures

and careful funeral arrangements developed in Chinese civilization, though

with quite different specific religious beliefs.

 

Ideas And Art

 

Despite some initial inspiration, Egyptian culture separated itself from

Mesopotamia in a number of ways beyond politics and monument building. The

Egyptians did not take to the Sumerian cuneiform alphabet and developed a

hieroglyphic alphabet instead. Hieroglyphics, though more pictorial than

Sumerian cuneiform, were based on simplified pictures of objects abstracted to

represent concepts or sounds. As in Mesopotamia the writing system was

complex, and its use was, for the most part, monopolized by the powerful

priestly caste. Egyptians ultimately developed a new material to write on,

papyrus, which was cheaper to manufacture and use than clay tablets or animal

skins and allowed the proliferation of elaborate record keeping. On the other

hand, Egypt did not generate an epic literary tradition.

 

Egyptian science focused on mathematics and astronomy, but its

achievements were far less advanced than those of Mesopotamia. The Egyptians

were, however, the first people to establish the length of the solar year,

which they divided into 12 months each with three weeks of ten days. The week

was the only division of time not based on any natural cycles. The achievement

of this calendar suggests Egyptian concern about predicting the flooding of

the Nile and their abilities in astronomical observation. The Egyptians also

made important advances in medicine, including knowledge of the workings of a

variety of medicinal drugs and some contraceptive devices. Elements of

Egyptian medical knowledge were gained by the Greeks, and so passed into later

 

The pillar of Egyptian culture was not science, however, but religion,

which was firmly established as the basis of a whole world view. The religion

promoted the worship of many gods. It mixed magical ceremonies and beliefs

with worship, in a fashion common to early religions almost everywhere. A more

distinctive focus involved the concern with death and preparation for life in

another world, where in contrast to the Mesopotamians the Egyptians held that

a happy, changeless well-being could be achieved. The care shown in preparing

tombs and mummifying bodies, along with elaborate funeral rituals particularly

for the rulers and bureaucrats, was designed to assure a satisfactory

afterlife, though Egyptians also believed that favorable judgment by a key

god, Osiris, was essential as well. Other Egyptian deities included a creation

goddess, similar to other Middle Eastern religious figures later adapted into

Christian worship of the Virgin Mary; and a host of gods represented by

partial animal figures. Egyptian art focused heavily on the gods, though

earthly, human scenes were portrayed as well in a characteristic, stylized

form that lasted without great change for many centuries.

 

Stability was a hallmark of Egyptian culture. Given the duration of

Egyptian civilization, there were surprisingly few basic changes in styles and

beliefs. Egyptian emphasis on stability was reflected in their view of a

changeless afterlife, suggesting a conscious attempt to argue that persistence

was a virtue. Change did, however, occur in some key areas. Egypt was long

fairly isolated, which helped preserve continuity. The invasions of Egypt by

Palestine toward the end of the Old Kingdom period (about 2200 B.C.) were

distinct exceptions to Egypt's usual self-containment. They were followed by

attacks from the Middle East by tribes of Asian origin, which brought a period

of division and chaos, including rival royal dynasties. But the unified

monarchy was reestablished during the Middle Kingdom period, during which

Egyptian settlements spread southward into what is now the Sudan, setting

origins for the later African kingdom of Kush.

 

Then followed another period of social unrest and invasion, ending in the

final great kingdom period, the New Kingdom, around 1570 B.C. During this

period trade and other contacts with the Middle East and the eastern

Mediterranean, including the island of Crete, gained ground. These contacts

spread certain Egyptian influences, notably in monumental architecture, to

other areas. It was during the New Kingdom that Egyptians first installed

formal slavery, subjecting people such as the Jews. It was also in this period

that the pharaoh Akhenaton tried to impose a new monotheistic religion,

reflecting some foreign influence, but his effort was renounced by his

successor Tutankhamen, who restored the old capital city and built a lavish

tomb to celebrate the return to the traditional gods. After about 1150 B.C.,

new waves of invasion and internal conspiracies and disorganization, including

strikes and social protest, brought fairly steady decline.

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