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 technologicalinfluence 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 theNile," as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus observed.The Nile valley, extending 750 miles from the first cataract tothe Mediterranean, is a fertile oasis cut out of a limestoneplateau.

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 begunto 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 Egyptcomprised the broad Nile delta north of Memphis, while UpperEgypt extended southward along the narrow tento twenty-mile-widevalley as far as the first cataract at Syene (Aswan).

Each kingdom contained about a score oftribal 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 withits 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 allpower was centered in the king, or pharaoh (Per-ao, "GreatHouse"). The pharaoh was considered a god rather than thehuman agent of a god, as was usual in Mesopotamia.

As the god of Egypt, the pharaoh owned allthe 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 surplusfrom 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 ledto the practice of mummification and the construction of colossaltombs - the pyramids - to preserve the pharaoh's embalmed bodyfor eternity.

The ritual of mummification restored vigorand 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 ofthe 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 latein the Sixth Dynasty. The burden of building and maintainingpyramid tombs for each new king exhausted the state.

The Nile floods failed and crops werediminished, yet taxes were increased. As the state and itsgod-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 asthe First Intermediate Period

(c. 2200-2050 B.C.), civil war raged among contenders for the throne. Outsiders raided and infiltrated theland.

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, ... Eachman'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 thepharaohs of the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties, who reunited thecountry 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 onpublic 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 theright to have their bodies mummified and thereby to enjoyimmortality like the pharaohs and the nobility.

Following the Twelfth Dynasty, Egypt againwas 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 afamine.

The New Kingdom Or Empire, c. 1570-1090B.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 ofThebes who proclaimed: "No man can settle down, whendespoiled by the taxes of the Asiatics.

I will grapple with him, that I may ripopen his belly! My wish is to save Egypt and to smite theAsiatics!" ^19

Adopting the new weapons introduced bytheir 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 thenucleus of an Egyptian empire in western Asia.

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

The outstanding representative of theaggressive 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 duringhis minority.

Supported by the powerful priests of thesun-god Amon, Hatshepsut proclaimed herself "king." Inmany of her statues and reliefs she was portrayed wearing thecustomary 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; 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 thebanks of the Euphrates, called by the Egyptians "the riverthat runs backward."

Nubia and northern Sudan were also broughtunder 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 Babyloniaand Crete, among others, sent gifts, including princesses for thepharaoh's harem. In return, they asked the pharaoh "forgold, for gold is as common as dust in your land."

During the reign of the succeeding pharaoh,Amenhotep IV (1363-134)