The Old and Middle Kingdoms of Egypt (page 2)
The Old and Middle Kingdoms of Egypt
The single most important factor in the history of Egypt is the Nile River. The Nile is literally an oasis, providing the only relief in an otherwise vast desert. Without the river, Egypt would be unfit for human habitation. To this day, more than 99 percent of all Egyptians live along the banks of the Nile.
Since at least 5000 BC, the Nile has provided Egyptians with fish and seafood for eating and fresh water for drinking, bathing, and irrigation. In ancient times, the Nile overflowed its banks each year, depositing silt that created some of the world’s richest and most fertile soil. This annual flood was a fact of Egyptian life until the building of the Aswan Dams in the twentieth century.
The earliest Egyptians were good at crafts of all kinds. They soon learned to make small boats, using sails to harness the wind and travel south along the Nile or flow north with the current. This made trade possible. Two distinct Egyptian kingdoms developed. Because the Nile flows from south to north, the southern river valley is called Upper Egypt and the northern river delta is called Lower Egypt.
Three factors combined to mark the beginning of Egyptian civilization: the unification of the two kingdoms, the establishment of a capital city at Memphis, and the appearance of writing.
Menes, the king of Upper Egypt, united the entire Nile delta under one rule between 3200 and 3100 BC. With two relatively brief intermissions, Egypt remained united under central rule for many generations. Through the periods known as the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was a remarkably stable and prosperous civilization.
The Old Kingdom of Egypt ended about 2180 to 2160 BC. A weakening of the central monarchy, aggressive claims of power by local officials, and a period of drought and famine are possible reasons for its end. Nearly two hundred years—known to history as the First Intermediate Period—went by before Mentuhotep II reunited Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. About 1985, his successor Amenemhet I strengthened the unification and inaugurated an era of prosperity and efficient rule known as the Middle Kingdom.
Like the later Roman Empire, Egypt was a well-organized bureaucracy under a strong central monarch, with classes of officials, priests, and scribes. Surviving Egyptian records show that this was a society that loved rules, order, and method. Under the first pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt attacked Libya, the gold-rich kingdom of Nubia, and the Semitic Bedouin tribes to the east, thus securing its borders on all three sides. This freed Egypt to turn its attention to improvements in agriculture, which led to greater prosperity for all, even for the lowest ranks of society.
Egypt differed from the Mesopotamian civilization in one very striking respect—there was no tension between the forces of church and state. In Egypt, church and state were the same thing. The king, or pharaoh, was descended from gods and was himself (or herself) considered a god. Egyptians believed that the pharaoh controlled the ebb and flow of the Nile and its annual flooding. The pharaoh was an absolute ruler, omniscient and all-powerful, and the only being in Egypt who was granted the blessing of life after death. This belief in the pharaoh’s afterlife is the reason for the most famous of all ancient Egyptian achievements—the pyramids.
The Great Pyramids
A pyramid is a final resting place for the pharaoh. The impressive size and scale of the pyramids at Saqqara and Giza make three things clear. First, they demonstrate the pharaoh’s power, authority, and central importance in Egyptian society. Second, they prove the Egyptians were able to organize and carry through a project on a grand scale. Some of the Great Pyramids took more than twenty years to build, and some of the stones were brought to the Nile River valley from five hundred miles away. Third, they provide evidence of an orderly society. The pyramids represent the combined efforts of thousands of laborers who had to fit every stone into place with no technology except levers, sleds, and their own strength. It is clear that only a stable and well-organized society could have carried through such massive projects over such a length of time.
There is clear archaeological evidence of Mesopotamian influence on the early Egyptians. The styles of art and architecture, the systems of writing, and the use of official seals all came from the Mesopotamians. This indicates a certain degree of trade and cultural exchange between the civilizations.
Surviving Egyptian art and architecture are remarkable both for their state of preservation and their beauty and style. Egyptian artists portrayed gods and goddesses, ordinary mortals, and animals in a variety of settings and activities— everything from battles and royal ceremonies to fishing, cooking, and farming. This extraordinary level of artistic achievement and the prominence given to its display are typical of highly advanced human civilizations.
The Egyptians were the first to use papyrus—a plant material similar to thick paper or parchment—as a writing surface. Papyrus is prone to curl, and thus the scroll format was adopted for texts of any length. The Egyptians developed a complex writing system of hieroglyphs—a small picture to represent each word. This system took a long time to learn and was used only by priests. Scribes, of whom there were hundreds throughout the bureaucracy, wrote in a kind of shorthand called hieratic script.
Mathematics and Science
The Egyptians achieved little of note in the areas of mathematics and science; the pyramids are impressive feats of engineering, but they are not the result of sophisticated mathematical ability. The Egyptians did invent the embalming process by which corpses are preserved as mummies—the hot, dry climate of Egypt, of course, was a powerful aid in preservation. Egyptians also devised the first calendar that divided the year into twelve 30-day months, with an extra five-day week at the end to account for the full 365-day year.
Egyptian women seem to have had more choices, more power, and greater opportunities than women in other ancient civilizations—more, in fact, than most women would have in any culture for many centuries to come. The records show that women served as pharaohs, priestesses, and scribes. Female pharaohs were considered just as divine and powerful as their male counter- parts; the fact that both men and women were given the same title, pharaoh, shows that they were considered equals.
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