The Quest for Eternity: Egypt

Ancient Egypt

A second civilization grew up in northeastern Africa, along the Nile River. Egyptian civilization, formed by 3000 B.C., benefited from trade and technological influence from Mesopotamia, but it produced a quite different society and culture.

Because its values and its tightly knit political organization encouraged monumental building, we know more about Egypt than about Mesopotamia, even though the latter was in most respects more important and richer in subsequent heritage.

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 tento 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

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.

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."

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."