Egypt Essay, Research Paper
The civilization of ancient Egypt is significant in several ways. Together with those of Mesopotamia, India, and China, it was one of the earliest civilizations, and it is perhaps the best example of continuous cultural evolution based on internal stimuli, rather than the complex mix of internal and external factors found, for example, in Mesopotamia. Egyptian influence on other peoples was also significant. Its hieroglyphic writing system and other cultural elements were adapted by ancient kingdoms of the Sudan. Syria-Palestine was strongly affected by Egyptian religion and art. And the cults of some Egyptian gods had followers in both Greece and Rome. The two last regions and the Bible are the most important antecedents of the modern Western world that owe something to Egypt. The Western alphabet is derived from a Phoenician one possibly modeled on Egyptian hieroglyphs; Egyptian ideas are found in some parts of the Bible; and Greek sciences and, especially, art were originally influenced by Egypt. Finally, archaeology and historical writing have made Egypt a subject of general public interest.
The image of Egyptian history moves continually closer to reality as new facts are discovered and new kinds of research–anthropological and other–supplement more traditional archaeological techniques. Egypt’s well preserved pyramids and cemeteries on the dry desert, and sturdy stone-built temples, have been studied by archaeologists since the early 19th century, but river-plain town mounds and all sites in densely settled northern Egypt now receive more attention than previously. Funerary and temple inscriptions survived well, but they paint an idealized, oversimplified picture of history and society. Papyrus texts and ostraca (pottery fragments) are rarer but more realistic. They now are better studied and are supplemented by new types of archaeological analysis (see Egyptology).
Environment strongly affected history. In a largely rainless climate, Egypt’s agricultural productivity depended on a long but very narrow floodplain; on average 19.2 km (11.9 mi) wide, it reached a maximum of 248 km (154.1 mi) in the Delta and was formed by the Nile’s annual inundation. Periodic, long-term decreases in its volume might create social stress and political and military conflict; increases in volume increased food supplies and favored stability and centralized government. The deserts to the east and west had valuable stones and minerals and helped protect Egypt from much external attack or infiltration. To the south (northeast Africa) and northeast (Syria-Palestine), however, important kingdoms developed. Egypt traded with and exploited these kingdoms but was sometimes threatened by them. Beyond Syria-Palestine greater powers–in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Iran–were alternately allies and rivals in imperial expansion, but none was a direct threat before the 7th century BC.
Achievement, continuity, and innovation characterized Egyptian civilization. Major achievements included a continuous drive toward political unity and social stability; the creation of a surplus in food and materials that supported a superstructure of administrators, soldiers, priests, and craftsmen; and the invention or adoption of a writing system (c.3100 BC). Literacy made government more effective; it also stabilized and enriched religious, intellectual, and scientific information. In turn, these developments promoted the growth of elaborate and often colossally scaled architecture in brick and stone, and the growth of highly accomplished art forms (statuary, relief, and painting), which were among the most distinctive of the ancient world.
Continuity was very strong. Egypt’s religion (see mythology), its concepts of social order, and its system of strong monarchical government remained fundamentally the same for over 3,000 years. Environmental stability helped, as did ethnic and linguistic continuity; unlike other areas of the Near East, Egypt did not periodically have to absorb large new populations with languages and ideas different from those already established. Equally important was a powerful and tenacious worldview shared by all Egyptians–an orderly cosmos, enfolding gods, humans, and nature, had been created in complete and perfect form at the beginning of time; its perfection held off the destructive, chaotic forces that surrounded it. Adherence to traditional forms of belief, politics, and culture was believed necessary to maintain perfection and prevent the collapse of the universe. Egyptian art and religious architecture (temples and tombs) closely followed established conventions of style and content because their role was to depict this ideal order–and thus be one of several means ritually integrating Egypt with the cosmos.
Change and innovation nevertheless occurred, sometimes violently. Egypt’s periodic interludes of disunity were politically disorderly and economically painful in part because inherent problems and contradictions (for example, obvious weakness in “perfect” institutions such as kingship) came to the surface and demanded solutions. Less obviously, change also took place in more stable periods. Bureaucracies were periodically reformed or restructured in the interests of both royal power and fairer government. Religious concepts became increasingly rich and complex. Styles in art and architecture changed subtly to meet new needs, but all successful innovation required adherence to basic, traditional norms.
Egyptian history is usually divided into periods roughly corresponding to the 30 dynasties of kings listed by Manetho, an Egyptian chronicler of the 3d century BC. The period before c.3100 BC, a time for which no written records exist, is called the Predynastic era.
Well before 5000 BC many communities of Paleolithic hunters and gatherers lived in the Nile valley and across savanna lands stretching far to the east and west. As rainfall decreased, especially after 4000 BC, the western lands became arid deserts and human settlement was confined to the valley and its fringes. However, here exotic fauna such as elephants and giraffes persisted as late as 2300 BC before finally retreating southward.
Annually inundated, and with natural irrigation basins that retained floodwaters, the Nile valley was an ideal setting for Mesolithic economies with incipient agriculture to evolve into Neolithic ones based on sedentary agriculture, with domesticated crops and animals. The process is hard to follow in Egypt because major Predynastic sites, on the floodplain, are inaccessible or destroyed and most data come from peripheral settlements and low-desert cemeteries. In northern Egypt, however, the development of Neolithic life can be traced at Merimdeh and in the Fayum (5000-4000 BC); there and elsewhere in the north the pervasive northern culture emerged, characterized by monochrome pottery sometimes using incised and applied decoration. The earliest Neolithic phases of southern Egypt are not yet identified, but two cultures existed there by c.4000 BC: the Tasian, influenced by the north, and the Badarian, which originated in the eastern desert. The former evolved into phases labeled Nakada I (Amratian) and II (Gerzean), representing a material culture very different from that of the north. In the south, among other differences, pottery is more varied in fabric, often has a black top, and favors painted decoration (white on red and red on light-colored desert clays).
Historically significant patterns can be discerned. Political elites developed, supported by agricultural surplus, partly through control over valuable resources that were beginning to be used in new technologies. Originally, tools and weapons were made of stone and organic materials, but in southern (and slightly later in northern) Egypt copper and precious metals became increasingly important. By Nakada II times, larger, more efficient river ships were built and trade along the Nile was expanding. These and other factors stimulated the emergence of an elite class whose graves are larger and richer than normal, and ultimately regional political leaders are identifiable by “chieftain’s tombs” at several sites. According to later traditions, by late Predynastic times (c.3300 BC) chiefdoms had coalesced into two competitive kingdoms, northern and southern. Gradually, the characteristic material culture of the south had been spreading, and it replaced the once different one of northern Egypt in Nakada III times.
Throughout the period 5000-3100 BC foreign influences were significant, but direct ones are hard to distinguish from indirect. Domesticated grains and some domesticated animals came via Syria and Palestine, perhaps at the time of Merimdeh’s earliest phase, which shows influences from these regions in material culture also. Both northern and southern Egypt traded with Syria, Palestine, and northeast Africa throughout Predynastic times. Particularly striking and so far found mainly in southern Egypt (Nakada I and II) are Mesopotamian-style cylinder seals, pottery, and artistic motifs, but these may have come through intermediaries rather than by direct contact.
Predynastic architecture, using wood, matting, and mud brick, is best attested in cemeteries, where pit graves were lined with wood or brick and roofed with matting or stone slabs; eventually, some graves had small, solid superstructures of brick and rubble. Some settlements have been partially excavated, and a possible Predynastic temple was recently found at Hierakonpolis. Art was well developed but small scale. Figurines and statuettes of individual humans or animals, some modeled realistically, were made in mud, pottery, and ivory; slate cosmetic palettes might be in bird or animal form; and painted designs on pottery placed humans, animals, and boats together in sometimes complex designs. Most of these art forms were from tombs and were magical or religious representations. In later Predynastic times, however, ivory knife handles and ceremonial palettes, perhaps dedicated to temples, bore scenes in relief, possibly including depictions of historical events, as did a wall painting in a chieftain’s tomb at Hierakonpolis. Battles, hunts, and ceremonial scenes were favorite motifs. In all areas, conventions typical of historical art were emerging.
Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom
The two kingdoms were apparently unified by King Narmer (later called Menes or Meni, “the founder”); a ceremonial slate palette shows him surveying slaughtered prisoners, striking a northern enemy, and wearing the regalia of both kingdoms. He and his immediate predecessors were buried at Abydos, at or near the southern capital; Buto in the northwest Delta had been the northern capital. Narmer’s successors were the pharaohs (kings) of the 1st and 2d dynasties. Some argue that the 1st dynasty kings were buried at Abydos, in pit tombs topped by moundlike superstructures with associated cult buildings, possible prototypes for the later pyramid complexes. This theory assigns the pharaoh unique status from the outset. However, Memphis was the new capital of united Egypt, and 1st dynasty tombs at nearby Saqqara, also claimed as royal, are similar in size and type to other elite tombs (implying that royal status was yet to grow). Second dynasty royal tombs are less well documented; two were at Abydos, with cult complexes, and the rest were at Saqqara.
Royal power had greatly increased by the 3d dynasty (c.2686-2613 BC), when much larger royal tombs, now dominated by step pyramids in stone, were built at Saqqara. The best preserved is Zoser’s (Djoser’s); the pyramid was 62 m (190 ft) high and surrounded by a complex of buildings, representing both a funerary cult place and eternal palace, the whole protected by a towered stone wall. Even more dramatic were the pyramids of the 4th dynasty at Giza and elsewhere. Khufu’s (Cheops’s) Giza pyramid, the largest ever, has a volume of 2.59 million m(3) (91.46 million ft(3)). Pyramids of the 5th and 6th dynasties at Abusir and Saqqara were smaller but still impressive.
In its totality, the pyramid complex served the dead king but also linked kingship and cosmos together. The complex consisted of temple and imitation palace, with the pyramid a means of ascent; scenes within the complex, however, depicted the king’s role in the cosmos as overthrower of chaos, and the pyramid also represented the primeval mound upon which the creation of the universe had taken place. During the 5th dynasty, temples of the sun god Ra (Re), the creator and maintainer of the universe, were built near pyramids, reflecting the unique relationship between sun god and king; the latter was called “son of Ra” from the 6th dynasty on.
The materials, organization, and labor required by the pyramids, and the many estates supporting the cult and personnel of each, clearly reveal the king’s firm control over Egypt and its resources. This was achieved through a complex government, consisting of a central bureaucracy, directly under the pharaoh’s supervision, and more than 30 provincial bureaucracies reporting to the center. Periodically, kings restructured aspects of the system; royal sons were first used, then excluded to avoid rivalries; high central officials were reduced in power if they threatened royal control, but restrengthened if the lower ranks and provinces became too independent. Throughout the Old Kingdom, revenues were collected, labor and resources exploited, and justice and arbitration provided; literary works extolling the bureaucracy and advising on proper behavior were popular.
Internal strength encouraged expansion and aggression abroad. In the Early Dynastic period, the Egyptians already had extensive trade contacts with Syria, Palestine, and northeast Africa; they pushed into the Sinai and northern Nubia, creating both buffer zones and Egyptian-dominated trade routes. Later, in the 4th and 5th dynasties, Egyptian armies went further, raiding Palestine and southern Nubia; by the 6th dynasty, however, regional kingdoms in these areas were stronger, and Egypt, still campaigning, was on the defensive.
Initially, the royal court with its adjacent cemeteries was the major center of intellectual, artistic, and architectural activity, but as towns began to develop in various parts of Egypt, they too shared in the cultural life of the time. Royal relatives and central officials were buried under mastabas, rectangular superstructures of brick or stone. The mastabas contained chapels and other rooms, increasing in number over time and opening up more wall space to be covered with reliefs and paintings. These depicted the funerary cult and also scenes showing the preparation of a multitude of foods, liquids, and objects for the benefit of the deceased.
Such art, appearing realistic, actually followed conventions that were to remain dominant for millennia thereafter. In painting and relief, human and animal figures are always drawn according to a set of fixed proportions, and reality is ignored so as to present the most characteristic aspects. Humans, for example, always have heads, legs, and feet in profile but eye and torso presented frontally. Figures were scaled according to their importance, and perspective was ignored. Landscapes were depicted in schematic form, but architecture was rarely attempted. An idealized world is shown; aging, disease, injury, and death are omitted, except for inferior beings such as foreigners and animals.
Statuary was intended at all times mainly for temples and tombs, and consisted of representations of gods, kings, and deceased individuals. Complex compositions were avoided, although sometimes two or more figures might be shown side by side. Life-size statues were not uncommon, but most were smaller; colossal royal figures embellished temples. As in painting, set conventions were closely followed in statuary; whether seated or standing, figures are always facing forward, with arms and legs in standardized positions. Technically, the carving was often superb, although many clumsy works were also produced. Materials included hard stones, softer stones such as limestone, and wood; statues were often painted in bright colors. Sculptors depicted the ideal human; true portraiture in any form was hardly ever attempted.
First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom
Centralized rule began to break down under the 7th dynasty. In the ensuing First Intermediate period (c.2181-2040 BC), the Memphite monarchs were powerless to prevent provincial warlords from fighting each other over territory; eventually two separate kingdoms emerged, one ruled by the 9th and 10th dynasties from Heracleopolis, the other by the 11th dynasty from Thebes. They tried to dominate each other but were impeded by the semi-independence of provincial rulers. They also had to be simultaneously aggressive against foreigners to protect their rears, secure trade advantages, and recruit or compel the valuable services of Palestinian and Nubian warriors for the civil wars. Finally, in the 21st century, Nebhepetre Mentuhotep of the 11th dynasty conquered the north and rebuilt a centralized monarchy, inaugurating the Middle Kingdom.
The intensity and causes of these disruptive events are uncertain. Later Egyptian writers, appalled by the deviation from accepted norms, exaggerated the revolutionary aspects; they also described an imaginary environmental deterioration, actually a poetic cosmological counterpart to social disorder. More significant were external pressure and internal political instability that long endured; even the 11th dynasty may have been ended by a coup, and the victor, Amenemhet I, was himself later assassinated.