A General Introduction To Ancient Egyptian Civilization

Egypt was one of the oldest civilizations of Africa. It has been referred to as “the gift of the Nile.” Like other civilizations river systems sustained human life and activity. Egyptians often referred to the Nile Valley as Kemet. This means black land. calling it the black land was in reference to the black silt that enriched the soils. This silt from flood waters from the Blue Nile and Apara river from the Ethiopian highlands. Plentiful water and arable land made this area where a civilization could flourish. Egyptian  farmers built networks of dikes and canals giving them more control over flood waters. The flooding was predictable and waters would rise in late June. The waters would then decline by September. The Nile occupied an important place in Egyptian life and society. It continues to do so in the contemporary period. Ancient Egyptian history can be divided into several periods Which include pre-dynastic Egypt, the Old Kingdom ( 2700-2200 B.C.E. ) , the Middle Kingdom (2050-1800 B.C.E.), the New Kingdom (1570-1090 B.C.E),  and Third Intermediate Period (1090-332 B.C.E). These were periods of rapid change and transformation in Egyptian history. The reason ancient civilization is till studied is due to its timeless impact on the modern world. Egypt is one one of many ancient civilizations that captivate scholars and the general public.

        Predynastic Egypt emerged when settlers came from the savanna grasslands. It has been theorized that climate change changed the grasslands west of the Nile Valley. Around 4800  B.C.E farming settlements were being formed. The population of the western Nile delta increased. The result meant that social groupings and a more complex society would emerge.When societies become larger a social system has to become more intricate to meet the needs of the members in a civilization. Leadership emerged in a network of chiefdoms to counter floods,  drought, and plagues. Kingdoms then appeared in Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt was divided into smaller nomes. These nomes were districts under the administrative authority of a chieftains. The predynastic period would end with the rise of King Narmer ( also referred to as Menes in some texts). He successfully combined both Upper and Lower Egypt, establishing a capital at Memphis. The year 3100 B.C.E was the beginning of a civilization that would continue for 3,000 years.

        The old kingdom saw a golden age. There was stability and gradual progress in the societal structure.  This period has often been called the pyramid age. Kings now had an elevated political power which around them. The pharaohs would dominate Egypt challenging the the nobility and getting them under control. The legal system functioned on the pharaoh’s ability to maintain maat. Justice and order were the main political objectives that a pharaoh was to fulfill. The pharaohs were considered divine, which explains why enormous tombs were constructed for them. The pyramids were resting places for the revered kings.

kheops-pyramid
The Great Pyramid of Giza ( or Great Pyramid of khufu)

Such labor relied more on conscripted Egyptians rather than slavery. Enslaving people to do long term projects would have certainly induced revolt. The construction of these structures is a testament to engineering. The majority of Egyptian buildings were constructed from mud brick and plaster. Limestone,  sandstone, and granite were used as quarried construction material for enormous structures. The shaping of blocks for large structures had to be done with care. They would be molded at the quarry, then transported to the construction site. Additional measuring and detailing would be done on site. The bay was used for seeing lines over a distance. Measuring rods were used and a tool used for gauging  astronomical units known as the merkhet.

pyramid  These tools were helpful in constructing a durable edifice. It is not specifically known how large projects such as pyramids were built up. A network of ramps could have facilitated the transport of blocks weighing tons. This would be highly likely without cranes. These large burial sites were thought to be gateways to the afterlife for the pharaoh. Egyptian pyramids are long lasting icons of Egyptian civilization. This was not just confined to Egypt, but Nubia which is now modern day Sudan. Nubia contains at least 225 pyramids compared to Egypt’s 118. The Kingdom of Kush, which was a Nubian state which had mostly brick pyramids. Meroe was the capital of the Kingdom, which still has remains of the pyramids. It was thought that the Kushites adopted Egyptian architecture and ritual practices. Although, it could have been an indigenous style that has been lost with time. Merotic script has yet to be fully deciphered.

meroepyramids The Old Kingdom lost stability around the sixth dynasty.  The irony was that building pyramids of such large size and keeping up maintenance burdened the state. Lack of floods essential to farming induced famine. provincial governors sensed this vulnerability and decided to rule autonomously. The First Intermediate Period  ( 2200 B.C.E to 2050 B.C.E) was a time of disorder, civil war, and a weak central authority. Raids from foreigners and the brutality of local rulers made life difficult. Order would be restored during the Middle Kingdom.

       The Eleventh  and Twelfth Dynasties set about reuniting Upper and Lower Egypt. This period saw the resumption of public works projects and the building of new pyramids. Memphis got a advanced irrigation system in the Fayum district. Thus arable land was reclaimed. New rulers came as invaders. During the Thirteenth Dynasty the Hyksos took power over Egypt. These were a Semitic people from Western Asia. Not all were invaders some Hyksos  migrated into Lower Egypt as traders. The Second Intermediate Period ( 1800 B.C.E to 1570 B.C.E) allowed them to gain control of territory. The reason they were successful was that they adopted Egyptian government administration practices. Hieroglyphic writing was not abandoned  and  religious ritual practices were kept in place. Assimilating and then dominating was a method for subjugation of Egypt. The Hyksos would rule until the challenge from a rival dynasty in Thebes. This was the beginning of the New Kingdom ( 1570- 1090 B.C.E).  The Hyksos were driven back to as far as Phoenicia.

           The New Kingdom saw immense gains in territory.  Nubia was incorporated including Phoenicia. The era produced strong and capable leaders. Thutmose I, Thutmose II, Thutmose III, and Hatshepsut  were the pharaohs that expanded the empire and built more structures.

map_of_ancient_egypt1340919807559map-egypt-nk Thutmose I established the ground work for future expansion. Thutmose II and Hatshepsut  who was his half sister  wed, but did not produce a male heir. Thutmose II then fathered a child with a concubine producing Thutmose III. When Thutmose II dies in 1479 B.C.E  his son is too young to rule. Hatshepsut then becomes regent until he is old enough to ascend the throne. Hatshepsut becomes pharaoh in her own right claiming she had the right to succession. She would dominate the throne for twenty years. During this reign she promoted trade with Nubia and Punt. The horn of Africa was a market that had not been explored to such a large extent until her rule. Hatshepsut also embarked on an ambitious program of construction which produced many temples and palaces. It was clear that Hatshepsut wanted to maintain power for as long as she could. Only when she died could Thutmose III take the throne. Attempts at deposing her would have been a precarious risk.

hatshepsut
Hatshepsut  (1507-1458 B.C.E)

    When he comes to power he attempts to erase her memory. Her statues were destroyed and reliefs effaced. This may have served two purposes. Thutmose III either wanted to legitimize his rule or cement his own legacy. Undermining  her accomplishments would highlight his own. Thutmose decided to engage on more military campaigns. This time the target was Syria. He conducted a total of seventeen campaigns. He defeated the Mitanni in Mesopotamia crossing the Euphrates. One method of  managing Syrian towns was to take the sons of existing rulers and bring them to Egypt. There they would be taught Egyptian ways and culture. When they were sent back they would be more willing to remain vassals to the empire. Thutmose III wanted to preserve his legacy by constructing obelisks. These structures which were tall stone monuments recorded his accomplishments on the battle field and at home. The most detailed accounts of the battles in Syria are the King’s Annuls at Karnak Temple. Thutmose III’s gains and accomplishments inspired others that came after him. Under Amenhotep III the empire reached the zenith of its power.

thumose-iii
Thutmose III (1481- 1425 B.C.E)

Under his leadership Thebes was restored as the capital and was given infrastructure additions. Temples were erected for the god Amon at Luxor and Karnak. Commerce and relations with other lands improved. The Kings of both Babylonia and the Mitanni even proposed that their daughters marry Amenhotep III. Doing so would allow for security and the possible exchange of gold. The empire did experience a decline with the rise of  Amenhotep IV. An internal power struggle between the priests of Amon and the pharaoh escalated. To counter the power of the priests, Amenhotep IV then drastically changed Egyptian religion. Instead of worshiping Amon, the people would recognize Aton. It was the sun disk that was to be the sole deity. This appears to be one of the first cases of monotheism documented in human history. He even changed his name to Akhenaton to reflect his dedication to religious reform. The worship of Aton ended with his reign. Most Egyptians did not favor a monotheistic religion. Tutankhamen would be his successor and restore the worship of Amon. He went about destroying any records of Amenhotep IV and his successors continued this policy. Tutankhamen died young leaving no successors. A general and adviser by the name of Horemheb. The Nineteenth Dynasty (1305-1200 B.C.E) was the established.  He later appointed an heir who was a vizier. Ramses I ( Paramessu) was his name. Ramses I wanted to retake Syria and Palestine.  Ramses II  was able to regain Palestine, but Syria remained under the control of the Hittie Empire.  His reign revived an empire that was crumbling. Ramses II ruled from 1279 to 1213 B.C.E  and saw the construction of large monuments.

ramses-ii
Ramses II ( 1303- 1213 B.C.E)

A reign of sixty-six years reversed some previous troubles from predecessors. Ramses II broke tradition by having himself represented as a God during his lifetime. The temples of Abu Simbel  and  the immense funerary temple known as the Ramesseum are perfect examples. Although a conqueror, he realized that the Hittite Empire could not be destroyed or turned into a client state. Instead he chose to craft a peace settlement. The accounts that are know it appears to be one of the first preserved peace treaty  documented in human history. Ramses II was diplomatically skilled getting two Hittite princesses to marry him. As a gesture of peace he provided grain and the development of a naval fleet to the Hittite Empire.

         After Ramses II reign came to an end, Egypt once more fell into chaos. Rival dynasties began to emerge in the Third Intermediate Period (1090- 332 B. C.E). Upper Egypt broke away due to the insubordination of a rouge high priest. The Amon priesthood  at Thebes became so potent that it could form its own administrative unit. Princes who were mostly merchants then established their own rule in the Nile delta. Libyans then invaded central and then established a dynasty in 940 B.C.E under Shoshenq. Kush became stronger and was able to conquer all of Egypt. This was another period of resurrection and revival of past grandeur. The Twenty-Fifth Dynasty was strong and prosperous. Piankhy  was another skilled and powerful leader following in the tradition of Thutmose III.

nubia-kingdom-kush
Piankhy ( Piye ) depicted in an artistic rendition.

 Piankhy embarked on a campaign to unite both Nubia and Egypt into one empire. His first target was to depose Osorkon III based in Lower Egypt. He took a naval fleet of warriors up the Nile to gain riches and form unity. When the battles in Memphis and Heliopolis were over then came the task of administrating large areas. Local leaders were given some measure of autonomy as long as they recognized Piankhy as supreme ruler. The priests of the temple of Amon Piankhy  did not try to persecute. They became allies and this worked to his political advantage. Piankhy’s successor Shabaqo  was more stern in governance. Egypt came under direct control of Kush. Power was centralized at Thebes, which became the new capital.

kush-empire

There is a cycle in ancient Egyptian history of building powerful empires, collapse, conquest, and revival. Around 670 B.C.E the Assyrians invaded and absorbed Egypt into their empire.  This was once again another period of decline. However, Egypt was resilient and the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty came to power in 663 B.C.E.  They used Greek mercenaries to fight off the Assyrians and recapture their land. Recapturing Syrian territory was blocked by Nebuchadnezzar. Pharaoh Necho II chose to build Egypt’s strength through trade, rather than conquest. The first full fledged navy was developed to establish trade routes. Necho II permitted Greeks to have trade colonies in the Nile delta. He started an ambitious project digging a canal between the mouth of the Nile and the Red Sea. He also funded an  expedition to find new trade routes in further south on the African continent. Phoenicians were going on his behalf, because of their knowledge of sea travel. Some scholars have speculated that they mat have gotten further than the Horn of Africa. Egypt then lost its independence in 525 B.C.E.  Then by 404 B.C.E independence was regained. Persian domination became a threat. Then Alexander the Great defeats the Persians taking Egypt as part of his growing empire.

         There has been a long term debate about whether Egypt was an African civilization. The historical and geographical evidence shows that it was in fact African. The problem with Egyptology was that it was developed by European scholars with racially prejudiced view points. During the 19th century German and English Egyptologists  did not attempt to study in depth the Nubia region or the artifacts of Kush. Egypt was thus viewed through an orientalist and colonialist perspective. The African was considered too primitive to build advanced civilization and the Arab too savage. These myth were promoted to justify imperialism in Africa and Western   Asia. If one is to have a full understanding of Egyptian history, Nubia and Kush are essential. Calling the region Egypt in modern study was technically a misnomer. It was known as Kemet in the ancient world. The rise of the Nubian region goes back to 4000 B.C.E.  The society consisted of hunters, fishermen, farmers, and seminomadic pastoralists. Nubia produced ceramics, sculptures, and numerous clay figurines. Trade with Egypt was extensive and there were many occasions contact was made. It was not always a positive affair. When Egypt became a centralized political unit it began attempting to colonize Nubia. The region became a source of slaves, gold, ivory, and timber. Hostilities escalated, but this did not stop Nubians  and Egyptians from marrying one  another. Nubians were even recruited to be archers and government administrators. The Kingdom of  Kush came into existence in 1600 B.C.E  and established a capital at Kerma. It enjoyed trade with cities to the north, south, and east. When the Hyksos were removed the Egyptians invaded Nubia reaching Kerma. Nubian gold over four centuries was used to finance military operations in Asia. Over the years a level of acculturation occurred between Egyptians and Nubians. The eighth century B.C.E  The Assyrians came after the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty and the Nubians retreated to Meroe. Kush would later be annexed into Aksum in 400 C.E.  There is some knowledge of Kush that has been uncovered by archaeology. One mystery remains; the challenge of deciphering Meroitic script.  The writing system and language emerged around the second century B.C.E. If this writing system is ever fully understood it will reveal more about Egyptian civilization. There could be more kings and queens than once thought.

                                                                          References

Edgar, Robert. Civilizations Past and Present . New York : Pearson Education, 2008.

Manuelian, Peter. Thirty Second Ancient Egypt. New York: Metro Books, 2014 .

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