The Human Story – Ancient Egypt

Today, we move onto the final and most influential of the River Valley Civilisations: Ancient Egypt. Most people would not recognise Mesopotamian cuneiform or know the names of any Babylonian kings, but chances are that they would recognise hieroglyphic symbols when they see them and have most likely heard of King Tutankhamun. When we think of ancient civilisations, it is often Ancient Egypt that our minds wander to. There are several reasons for this. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but more importantly, Ancient Egyptian Civilisation lasted a really long time: over 2,500 years!

Due to the longevity of the civilisation, Egyptologists tend to decompartmentalise Ancient Egypt into neat packets of time:

• Early Dynastic Period (3050 – 2686 BCE)
• Old Kingdom (2686 – 2181 BCE)
• First Intermediate Period (2181 – 1991 BCE)
• Middle Kingdom (2055– 1690 BCE)
• Second Intermediate Period (1674 – 1549 BCE)
• New Kingdom (1549 – 1069 BCE)
• Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 653 BCE)
• Late Period (672 – 332 BCE)

The history of Ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable periods (the Kingdom periods), separated by periods of relative instability (the Intermediary periods). For the purposes of this post, we will be focusing on the Old, Middle and New Kingdom periods of Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Harnessing the Nile

The fertile floodplain of the Nile had been the lifeline of its region for much of human history and it gave humans the opportunity to develop a sophisticated agricultural economy and a more complex and centralised society. Early nomadic hunter-gathering homo sapiens had begun living in the Nile region of northeast Africa as early as 120,000 years ago. As the arid north African climate became increasingly warmer and dry, populations were forced to concentrate on the shores of the Nile.

Egypt-Hieroglyphs

So far in our discussions of the River Valley Civilisations, we have been focusing on the distribution of resources and geography. Just as the violent and unpredictable Tigris-Euphrates River System had shaped the world view of early Mesopotamians, the Nile shaped the world view of the Ancient Egyptians. Unlike the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Nile is regular, easily navigable and gentle. Each summer the river flooded fields at precisely the right time leaving behind nutrient rich silt for the planting season, making it one of the richest and safest agricultural regions of the ancient world.

Unlike the labour intensive, complicated hydraulic engineering projects required in Mesopotamia to irrigate the crops, the Nile was so chilled that the Egyptians used a simple form of water management, known as Basin Irrigation, where the farmers used the flood waters to fill earthen boxes and canals used for irrigation. Planting was so easy in the region that farmers would throw seeds around their fields and then let animals tread over to press the seeds into the ground: no need for the back-breaking tilling that the Mesopotamians relied on their slaves to do.

The predictability and benign nature of the Nile allowed the Egyptians to produce large food surpluses with relative ease and little work allowing time and energy to be spent elsewhere: think incredible monumental projects. It has been suggested that the nature of the Nile may also be the cause of Ancient Egypt’s optimism. One example of this can be seen in the contrasting views of death; whereas the Mesopotamians saw the afterlife as a gloomy and dark place to fear, their Egyptian counterparts viewed the afterlife as nothing more sinister than a continuation of the current life.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt can be viewed as the glory age of the civilisation. It was during this time that the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx were erected. The Sun-King Ra and the idea of Divine Kingship also have their roots in this period of Egyptian history. Divine Kingship stated that the pharaoh was either a god or very close to a god which sounds like a good gig to have if you are the pharaoh, but they were not expected to act like a person, instead they were expected to act like a god. In Ancient Egypt this meant behaving like the River Nile – cool, calm and benevolent.

The pyramids are impressive to behold but they also represent an extraordinary degree of political and social control over the population. After all, it can not be easy to convince thousands of people to dedicate their own lives to constructing a massive tomb for someone else: unless they believe that person to be a deity. The most famous of the pyramids are the Pyramids of Giza which were built between 2575 and 2465 BCE. The grandest of these, the Great Pyramid was built to entomb the pharaoh Khufu. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Great Pyramid was built by a workforce of 5,000 permanent, salaried employees and up to 20,000 temporary workers who were summoned under a system of national service to work on a three or four month shift before returning home. These temporary workers were housed in a nearby camp and received payment in the form of food, drink, medical treatment and, for those who died on duty, burial in the nearby cemetery.

Now we need to ask the question: Why would you build such a colossal structure in the first place?

It boils down, like so much throughout history, to religious beliefs. If humans did their jobs well then the pantheon of gods would maintain the cosmic order of things and seeing as the pharaohs became gods upon death it was only logical that the populace would want to please their pharaoh. So, if Khufu wants a tomb 150 metres high, then Khufu shall receive a tomb 150 metres high.

Pyramids_of_the_Giza_Necropolis

When Khufu left this earthly plain to join the gods he would have found Ra at the head of the proverbial table. Ra began as a regional god to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis but eventually became the central figure of the pantheon of gods. He was the god of both the sun and creation and represented light, warmth and growth.

To move away from religion, the Old Kingdom was unusually literate and possessed two forms of writing: hieroglyphs for sacred writing and a form of demotic script for contracts and other administrative duties. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom had much use for contracts and governing administration as they were ridiculously rich. However, like all good things, Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom came to an end and around 2250 BCE a series of droughts led to infighting over power which then led to the first Intermediate Period.

The Middle Kingdom

When the civilisation emerged from the first chaotic Intermediate Period, after roughly a century, the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt blossomed and saw pharaonic rule return to the land but with some distinct changes. Firstly, the rulers were outsiders from the south: Nubia to be precise. And secondly, this new ruling class fostered a new pantheon of gods, of which Amen replaced Ra at the head of the table… only to later merge with Ra and become Amen-Ra.

The Middle Kingdom Egyptians developed a new hobby: conquering. More specifically, they conquered the homeland of the new rulers, Nubia, with its rich goldmines and quarries. In turn, they themselves were conquered by Semitic-speaking peoples wandering west from the Levant who dominated the natives with superior weaponry. These people brought weapons made of bronze, composite bows and chariots. One of these wandering groups, the Hyksos (meaning “ruler(s) of foreign lands”) were able to conquer all of Egypt, but rather than destroy the native culture, they assimilated into it. In a cruel twist of fate (from the Hyksos point of view at least) the angry and conquered Egyptians adopted these advanced military technologies brought over by the Hyksos and campaigned against them until they were able to expel these foreign rulers. This period of instability was known as the Second Intermediate Period.

The New Kingdom

By 1549 BCE Egypt, once again, had an Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose I, and after all the warring, Egypt emerged from its position of geographical isolation. This New Kingdom Egypt continued the military expansion and began to take the form of a proto-empire.

Interestingly, the most expansive pharaoh was a woman, Hatshepsut, who expanded Egyptian influence, not through conflict, but through trade. However, most pharaohs, being men, focused their efforts of expansion through military means. This would eventually bring the Egyptians into conflict with the Assyrians, the Persians, Alexander the Great and finally, the Romans.

One pharaoh, Akhenaten, attempted to force a previously obscure god, Aten, onto the people as the supreme deity and suppressed the veneration of most other gods. Soon after Akhenaten’s death the cult of Aten was abandoned, and the traditional religious order was restored. One leading figure of this divine restoration was Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun. This was pretty much all that the young king did, however, before dying at the age of 17. The only reason that Tutankhamun is so famous is because his tomb was plundered by 20th century British archaeologists whereas most other pharaohs had their graves robbed by ancient people.

The last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt worth mentioning is Rameses II or Rameses the Great (although as you are about to see, Rameses the Creator would be a more appropriate epithet). He ascended to the throne in around 1279 BCE and went on to build more temples, and erect more obelisks and statutes and sire more children than any other pharaoh in history (Photo below shows the Great Temple of Rameses). Rameses was a bold military leader and led his army against the Hittites in the largest chariot battle ever fought at Kadesh (in modern Syria) and, after fighting to a stalemate, agreed to the first recorded peace treaty in history. Rameses II is also believed by many to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus story.

Temple_of_Rameses_II,_eight_Osiris_pillars

The story of Moses’ departure from Egypt with the Israelites leads us perfectly to the most crucial aspect of Ancient Egyptian culture. Rameses and Moses lived around the same time as the Pyramids of Giza were being built, right? Wrong. The Pyramids were built around 2500 BCE during the Old Kingdom, whereas Rameses died at the grand old age of 90 in 1213 BCE… 1,300 years later! The fact that Egyptian culture remained so similar for such an extensive period means that it all sort of blends together when we tend to imagine it.

The reality is that the Pyramids were more ancient to Julius Caesar than Julius Caesar is to us by an additional 500 years (let that sink in for a moment). Ancient Egypt lasted 1,000 years longer than Christianity has even been around and it lasted longer than western civilisation has so far too and its time had ended before the idea of western civilisation was even a twinkle in Herodotus’ eye.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia

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