When modern humans think of ancient civilization–the phenomenon created by congregation, cooperation, organization, and specialization—the exotic images of ancient Egypt often come to mind. Others might think of Greece or Rome, or even of China or India. The startling fact, however, is that when the people of Greece or Rome thought about ancient civilizations, the one thought they had was of Egypt. Egypt’s civilization is so old it was ancient to those we consider ancient. Even the word, “Egypt” comes from Homer, who wrote of this ancient land with the Greek word, “Aiguptos.” Furthermore, the ancient civilization of Homer (and that of Rome) lasted only hundreds of years. The civilization of ancient Egypt lasted thousands of years, thirty centuries at least. The Greeks selected the monuments of man that made up the seven great Wonders of the World; the only one of the seven to survive today, you guessed it, is the Great Pyramid at Giza, in Egypt.
As you will see in this course, we modern folk think the Renaissance thinkers of 15th-century Italy were clever people. You will see that Italians became clever partly because they perused ancient texts of their ancestors, the Romans, who referred them to the Greeks, who referred all of us to the Egyptians as the embodiment of knowledge. Ancient Egyptians did some things we still haven’t quite figured out today although theories pop up annually. The funny thing to see when the History Channel shows the reenactment of the raising of some obelisk or theories about the quarrying of stone blocks for pyramids or temples is the modern workers’ use of iron tools. The Egyptians had only stone and bronze tools and still accomplished feats that dumbfound us. Did you know that modern men could not build buildings as tall as the pyramids until well into the twentieth century?
Mr. Pickering has shown you that the beginnings of civilization can be traced back to ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. One important task as we go forward is for you to compare and contrast Egypt and Sumer as two examples of river civilizations. Life in arid climates along rivers required more complex organization and cooperation than in more favorable climes. Those who had congregated along the rivers of Mesopotamia and along the Nile had to drain swamps, control floods, and irrigate the surrounding lands with canals. Villages developed into cities, cities into city-states, and in the case of Egypt, the city-states developed into an empire that at its height controlled 400,000 square miles. Remember, Sumer never made it to this stage. Be on the lookout for the advantages Egypt had that allowed it to become the world’s first empire.
While we are discussing how these river civilizations faced similar challenges and responded similarly, some important contrasts should be made. As early as 3,000 BC Egypt was united under the rule of a single monarch, the pharaoh, and therefore its political and economic development was rapid as opposed to Mesopotamia who saw infighting among its city-states throughout its history. Even the Nile contributed to Egyptian stability better than the Tigris and Euphrates did for Sumer because the Nile flooded regularly, so regularly that the Egyptians based a calendar on it that is still in use today (although the flooding is controlled now by dams). Sumer’s rivers flooded irregularly. A roughly equal comparison between the two civilizations is that both developed pictographic writing. Egypt’s hieroglyphs, however, were recorded in a simpler fashion than were Sumer’s cuneiform writing (more on that later).
Another strength Egypt experienced was its being surrounded by open desert on both sides. This barrier prevented invasion except from the north or south, further encouraging unification for defense but also simplifying it. Sumer was open to invasion from all sides. Finally, the engineering of the first large stone structures reveals the surpassing level of control and organization achieved by Egyptian rulers over their people. The first Egyptian pyramids were known as step pyramids and closely resembled Sumerian ziggurats. The Egyptians, however, devised a way to make smooth-sided monuments early in the development of their civilization, and the pyramids remain the best symbol in the ancient world of what congregation, cooperation, organization, and specialization could accomplish. . When comparing Sumer and Egypt, a key theme is exposed: While the beginnings of civilization lay in Mesopotamia, Egypt took civilization further faster.
A final introductory focus on Egypt’s strengths as a civilization must center on the pharaoh. This strong monarch controlled all the abundant agricultural potential of the Nile valley. He (and at least once, she) essentially owned all of Egypt and ran it as his (or her) private estate. That’s one reason I insist that you learn how to spell “pharaoh” and count off if you misspell it in your notebook or in an essay. A simple way to remember it is to note that the second “a” comes before the “o” just as it does in our alphabet.
That being said, the pharaoh’s power was largely based on Egyptian religious beliefs. The land belonged to the gods, and the pharaohs convinced the people of Egypt to see their ruler as descended from the gods and the earthly representative of all the gods. This nifty arrangement soon saw the pharaohs themselves being worshipped as gods. They had to make the right sacrifices at the right time to keep the usually benevolent gods happy and helping Egypt prosper, so you worked for the pharaohs not as slaves but as an act of worship. Since the “gods” remained benevolent since, presumably, the pharaoh correctly appeased them, the peasants remained in their place of service century after century for three thousand years.
Even in death the pharaohs held sway over the people. All Egyptians were tremendously interested in the afterlife which they believed to be not a separate existence but the eternal continuance of this one. The souls of men after death were thought to hover near their bodies waiting for judgment day. If the pharaoh’s soul was preserved in comfort, all Egypt would be taken care of in the afterlife. Death was simply viewed as “crossing the Nile” from the east bank to the west bank where bodies were first simply preserved by burying them in the sand on the fringe of the desert. While this comfortable fixation on death stabilized the civilization of Egypt for centuries, it also stifled their culture and harnessed the energies of a tremendously productive people to the past.
Archaeologists and “Egyptologists” spend their lives in awe of the impact this tremendous outpouring of unified energy created. You might feel a little flutter of this sentiment when you contemplate a simple list of the human accomplishments for which the first evidence ever discovered rests in the sands of Egypt. The oldest origins of agriculture and clothing were found in Egypt. The oldest stone house, the earliest clock, the first four-legged chair, and the first four-legged table are among their inventions as is beer. You make daily use of paper (papyrus) and ink, which they developed first, and you think that there is a 24-hour day and 12 months and 365 days in a year. The Egyptians came up with all of these time concepts and only missed the ¼ day each year that necessitates a leap year for us because their calendar was based on the Nile River and not on the sun like ours. They invented sailing, cooking as an art form, and art as something meant to endure beyond the lifetime of the artist, or at least their culture valued of these things first. They invented shaving, and both sexes shaved their heads, so Egyptians also invented wigs.
Egyptians were the earliest people to study physics, astronomy, medicine, and engineering, and those fields might cover half of the career choices of the best and brightest students at ORHS (you). They generated some of the earliest ideas about law, government, and organized religion. Luxor, the modern city on the site of an ancient capital, Thebes, is a place of worship 3,500 years old, the oldest continually-used religious site in the world. Speaking of religion, the Egyptians were the first to name twelve main deities, something both the Greeks and the Romans adopted in their own religious beliefs (the Romans got it from the Greeks who got it from the Egyptians). On the other hand, one pharaoh whom you’ll meet was the first leader to try to get his entire people to believe in monotheistic religion (he failed). Oh, and while we’re studying recorded history in history class let me “note” that the Egyptians were the first to do that, too. They were the first to use writing to record historical events. If you are at all “wowed” by this list, slap your neighbor on the back or “whoop” or something. I got chills just typing it! All I’ve ever invented was a way to get my youngest son to remember to brush his teeth each morning since I am paying thousands of dollars to straighten them all in neat rows!
Can you believe one key to all this accomplishment is geography? The study of any society should begin with its geography because history is partly set in motion by geography, especially on hills! Egypt’s civilization possesses perhaps the clearest manifestation of this connection since it possesses an entirely unique geography. The first component of this reality is not even the Nile River. Don’t fixate on the River and forget that Egypt’s is the only ancient civilization to touch three continents. Even the location of their river is crucial to the diversity of their river civilization since they were in contact with peoples from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Another reality that separates them from say, life along the Amazon or the Congo is simply the fact that their climate and soil were dry. They themselves could monitor their past better because it was naturally preserved. Being buried in dry sand naturally mummifies the human body. The complex process of mummification that later came in vogue was necessary because rich people started burying themselves in above-ground stone enclosures called mastaba. Still, for our study, dry is better. We just recently discovered wooden boats buried in mastaba to accompany the ancient kings, and the wood is still intact! Try that in Brazil.
The Nile River is, however, the central geographical reality of Egypt. The key was the black soil deposited by the annual floods that allowed soil nutrients to be replenished. In fact, Egyptians called their land Kemet, or “the black land” because of this life-giving soil. While we’re on names, the Egyptians called themselves “the cattle of Re,” the sun god (I don’t know that word in Egyptian). The geographical interplay between the Nile and the sun virtually explains all of Egyptian thought and society.
From the Nile Delta on the Mediterranean Sea in the north, the Nile Valley lies in almost a straight line 600 miles south into the desert. The Nile itself is approximately 750 miles long (it curves). The fertile soil along the banks is anywhere from two miles to thirteen miles wide. The land in the delta is nearly all fertile with a water table just below the surface and is about 30 miles wide. The rest of Egypt is desert with little to no rainfall. The arable land together totals 12,500 square miles, or roughly the size of the state of Maryland. The population of ancient Egypt at its peak was roughly five million people. Maryland, today, has about 5.3 million, and what have they done to change world history?
The Nile River’s flooding cycle is tied to summer rainfall in Ethiopia and Sudan. The River begins to rise in late June and crest in late September, then slowly recedes. The crest of the flood is New Year’s Eve to Egyptians. Irrigation is carried out through the growing season with the use of a shaduf, a device consisting of a long pole mounted on the bank of the receded Nile that allows a farmer to lower a bucket into the water and have the help of a counterweight to lift it out again. Some Egyptian farmers still irrigate their fields this way today. The Nile has made the Egyptians boaters and farmers. Life on the Nile gave them their meanest god, the sun god Re and their “happiest” god, Hapi, the life-giver from the river.
To conclude a look at geography and its impact on the Egyptian mind, a strange orientation based on the Nile must be explained. Egyptians divided their nation into Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. The Nile was so important to them that Upper Egypt is upstream, not in the north. Lower Egypt is in the north because it is downstream.
The creation story of Egypt says that the world was covered not in water but in a chaos of mud. A god, it is said, pushed up a mound of solid ground at Egypt as an island of safety. Looking around at the desert with this belief, wouldn’t you want to organize a stable society and build a pyramid, too?