Lecture 2: Civilization and the Empire on the Nile

In the lecture on Mesopotamian civilization, we began by noting that its location between the Tigris and the Euphrates offered both opportunities and challenges. First, from the perspective of opportunity, these rivers made civilization possible. Growing sufficient food supplies and engaging in large trading enterprises would be impossible without water. Second, as a challenge, the Tigris and Euphrates’ unpredictability could only be countered by a central authority that kept the hostile waters at bay. We also noted that the difficult conditions the Mesopotamians confronted had cultural effects. Mesopotamian religion was, for example, dour and fearful. The constant danger of flooding and foreign invasion impelled the Mesopotamians to imagine a dangerous world of capricious Gods that tormented men and women for no apparent purpose. The lack of a clear purpose in the Mesopotamian worldview reverberated throughout its religious culture. As you have, no doubt, already seen in your the Epic of Gilgamesh, there was no afterlife for the Mesopotamians. A person was born, lived, and died—nothing more. So what we want to consider now, is how a different environment could also create the conditions for a different kind of civilization.
In this lecture we turn to another river, the Nile, and another people, the ancient Egyptians. As the ancient Greek historian called Herodotus (c. 484-430/20 BC) said, Egypt was “the gift of the Nile,” and we need to understand how central this river was to the rise and maintenance of this civilization. Unlike the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Nile was a docile river in ancient times. Its pattern of flood and ebb was regular and predictable. The Nile flooded in the spring for approximately three months, and when it ebbed, it left behind a layer of silt that farmers plowed under to fertilize the next planting. The Nile’s cycle gave Egypt three distinct three-month periods during the year—flood, planting, and harvest—which became the foundation for their civilization and, as we will see, shaped their culture as well.
However, before we pursue the origins and course of Egyptian civilization, we need to place both the Nile and the Egyptians in a broader geographic and temporal context. We will begin with geography. The Nile flows from inner Africa North to the Mediterranean. This means historically that Egypt was a product of both African and Mediterranean influences. In the South, along the Nile’s upper cataracts, Nubia and the Sudan exerted significant influence over Egyptian society through both war and trade. In the North, influences would come from the Mesopotamians, as well as from a variety of peoples living on the Red Sea. So, again, we see the importance of water to ancient civilizations, but we also get the sense, as was the case with Mesopotamia, for how the different civilizations both influenced and interfered with each other. The notion of interference leads us to the strategic situation. Outside the Nile, there was only desert to the east and the west, and to the south the land became more mountainous and difficult to cross. Hence, unlike the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians were more secure within their own borders.
Now I turn to the temporal context. Archeological evidence suggests that people lived in this area as far back as 90,000 BC. We will pick up the story about 10,000 BC when new arrivals from the area that is now northern Ethiopia brought new skills in grain gathering and Coptic, the ancestor to the Egyptian language, to the region by traveling down the Nile. To this mixture of peoples was added another migration from the Sudan in about 5000 BC. These peoples moved North in response to a warming trend that made Africa hotter and increased the size of the deserts. The people from the Sudan brought with them other new foods and skills, including gourds and watermelons, as well as the ability to raise cattle and donkeys. At about the same time, wheat and barley came from Mesopotamia, and this is when we begin to see the appearance of farming settlements along the Nile. By 4000 BC, villages appeared, and soon thereafter small kingdoms cropped up. By 3300 BC the Nile was divided into mall small kingdoms, all fighting with each other.
The chaos of warring settlements ended, however, tradition says, in the year 3100 BC, which is when the first unified Kingdom of Egypt up to the first cataract appeared. Egypt’s first king was named Menes. He had been a minor official from Upper Egypt, who somehow moved to Lower Egypt and founded a kingdom and a new capital city, Memphis, which is near modern-day Cairo. It is here that we being to see the kind of centralized state that appeared in Mesopotamia. But we also see the origins of a unique Egyptian institution, the pharaoh. (I should note that although the position of pharaoh appeared here, the name pharaoh did not apply to Egypt’s leader until the New Kingdom, which we will discuss in a moment.) The pharaoh’s office is distinctive because it combined and centralized political and religious roles. This arrangement was probably borrowed from the exalted status of Sudanese kings, but for our purposes it is important because it represents a great leap in Egyptian civilization, and it allows us a glimpse into Egyptian culture. First, the Egyptians seem to have moved directly from villages to empire, leaving the city-state stage out, in contradistinction to the Mesopotamians. Second, the pharaoh became an extraordinarily important figure in Egyptian culture. He was responsible for the weather and for controlling the flood, which was Egypt’s life line. Moreover, he was not merely anointed by God, but was a God, and as late as 2600 BC, the pharaoh was buried with all his servants. In this sense, the pharaoh was also the gift of the Nile.
With that we need to consider a basic chronology. We will be tracing Egyptian history from its inception in 3100 BC until 1070 BC. We stop with 1070 mainly because Egypt lost its independence at that time and was never able to regain it for long, as other empires took over. We will divide this temporal expanse into five periods. 1) the Archaic Period (3100 – 2660 BC). 2) the Old Kingdom (2660-2160 BC). 3) the First Intermediate Period (2160-2040 BC). 4) the Middle Kingdom (2040 – 1640 BC). 4) the Second Intermediate (1640-1550 BC). 5) the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC).
We will begin by discussing the Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom. It is during this period that the pharaohs are at their height. Egypt’s most famous monuments, the Pyramids, are built mostly in the period 2600-2500 BC. Much like the early signs of agriculture in Mesopotamia, the pyramids signal that a complicated and well organized society had appeared. Pyramids were built as royal tombs befitting the pharaoh’s god-like status. Nonetheless, to us they reveal tremendous social and administrative organization. Under the direction of royal scribes, thousands of workers—many of them slaves—cut, moved, and installed hug blocks of stone, with no more than levers, sleds, and basic stone-working tools. (This work process is all the more impressive when we consider that Egypt’s quarries were many miles distant, and the stones had to be moved by ship.) The work on the pyramids began under the third dynasty. One of the first was the so-called “Step Pyramid.” It was designed by a one of the king’s chancellors, Imhotep (27th century BC), and this work made him so famous that we was later deified and became the god of medicine. This step pyramid was only the beginning as much larger pyramids were built later during the fourth dynasty, such as the great Pyramid at Giza (c. 2575 - c. 2465 BC). It is important to note here that we are dealing with a well organized society, not a particularly brilliant technological one. The pyramids were built with nothing more than the ability to figure ratios and measure accurately. The Egyptians were not the astronomers or the mathematicians that the Babylonians later proved to be.
This complicated society then came into conflict with its southern neighbor, the Nubians, who had established a kingdom called Ta-Seti. The Egyptians made five separate military campaigns between 3100 and 2600 BC, subduing this region. Around 2500 BC the Nubians began to reorganize and founded a new kingdom called Kush, with its capital at Kerma. This kingdom rose up and slowly pushed the Egyptians out of the southern realm.
At this point we can begin talking about the First Interregnum and the Middle Kingdom. While the Nubians were pushing Egypt back to its earlier frontiers, internal problems began to appear. The southern region of ancient Egypt enjoyed such a large agricultural surplus that it became too powerful for the northern part of Egypt to hold. As local nobles became wealthier, they ignored orders from the central government, which led to political fragmentation and the foundation of a second and rival capital in Thebes. The split was only brought to an end a century later by the founding of the Middle Kingdom, which recentralized power, though the pharaohs no longer had the god-like power they had once enjoyed. The pharaohs were no longer the only political figures in Egypt, but during the Middle Kingdom, they did bring political stability back to Egypt.
The Middle Kingdom ended with the arrival of a new people in Egypt, the Hyksos. We know very little about them, beyond the fact that they rode horses and used chariots in battle. Around 1670 BC the Hyksos descended on Egypt and took Memphis, the ancient capital. Here, however, is an example of cultural exchange through military conflict. The Hyksos had learned to use chariots from the Mesopotamians and a people called the Hittites, who resided Anatolia, which is today’s Turkey. The Egyptians then learned how to use chariots from the Hyksos, which helped them eventually to push the Hyksos out of Egypt entirely. The New Kingdom was founded in 1550 BC, and right after that point the Hyksos were finally expelled.
The New Kingdom set Egypt up for its most glorious period, for the new state expanded well beyond its borders and became an empire. The Nile continued to provide massive agricultural surpluses for the people of Egypt, which made the support of a large population (probably 4 million people) possible, and a complicated state arose in which departments multiplied. For example, the Egyptians had separate departments for the army, religion, agriculture, the treasury, local affairs, and administration of conquered territories. The army, in particular grew, and Egypt projected its power south into Africa and up North into the Mediterranean.
Egypt’s territorial expansion was greatest under a pharaoh named Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC). His troops invaded Palestine and Syria, before heading across North Africa and then South into Nubia, where they destroyed the Kingdom of Kush again. Nonetheless, this expansion led to reactions from other peoples. By 1100 BC, Egyptian power is on the wane against the rise of other peoples, and in 1040 BC the New Kingdom collapsed under outside pressure. Trouble continued to come in waves. The Kingdom of Kush was refounded further to the south, and even got revenge by invading Egypt in the 8th century. It conquered the city of Thebes in 760 and founded the Kushite dynasty, which ruled over Egypt until the next people, the Assyrians, arrived. By the mid-7th century, they took over Egypt, and with only brief intervals in between, native Egyptians would not rule themselves again until the 20th century.
Having considered the basic chronology, we can return to the broader theme of the Nile and its relationship to Egypt. Ancient Egypt was an historical entity for almost 3,000 years. As a result, it cultivated continuous traditions and was respected and admired by much of the Mediterranean and African world. It was the Nile that made the unity of these three thousand years possible. With the Nile came agriculture and trade. And the Nile’s cycles injected into Egypt a cycle of permanence whose cultural effects are supposedly felt even today. I will now discuss the Egyptian life in cities, its economy, its culture, and then its religion with respect to the Nile. Let us begin by considering urbanization, which we have already discussed in Mesopotamia. Unlike in Mesopotamia, cities were not central to life in Egypt. It may be that the Nile‘s docility required less cooperation among people. Cities only really appeared in Egypt after the empire was already founded. Over time, however, these cities became great centers of wealth, creating well-defined social classes. There were many laborers in these cities and they became sharply differentiated from the upper classes. Egypt had no real nobility, but an upper class appeared around the single pharaoh, including an army of professionals and bureaucrats. Unlike in Mesopotamia this actually meant that some upward mobility was possible.
The economy was also different from the kind we have seen in Mesopotamia. Although trade with foreign powers was extensive, Egypt was generally much slower to appropriate new ideas, tools, and weaponry from other peoples. The Mesopotamians started using bronze already around 3000 BC; Egypt did so only around 1700 BC. But Egyptians were also great traders. This, too, was shaped in part by the Nile. The river flows north into the Mediterranean, but the prevailing winds blow south, a combination that allowed goods to move up and down Egypt with relative ease. Egyptians traded heavily with the south and their ships traveled north along the coast of Palestine. Others ships moved south along the banks of the Red Sea. From the south, for example, came things such as ebony, ivory, animal skins, feathers, gems, gold, and slaves. The Egyptians exported things such as pottery, wine, honey, and especially linens, which was made from the local flax grown by Egyptian farmers. Trade with the Mesopotamians was extensive, too.
In spite of all the external connections, Egyptian culture also followed its own unique path. Around 3200 BC writing first appears in Egypt. It may have come from Mesopotamia, but the evidence is not clear. Egypt then developed its own script, which the Greeks hieroglyphics, or “holy writings.” As you may know, hieroglyphics consist of small pictures. Originally these pictures represented words and then, later, sounds. This language was, however, complicated and cumbersome, and only the very few could ever read it. The Egyptians, therefore, developed another form of writing called hieratic, which was a simplified cursive form of the hieroglyph. This writing appeared around 2600 BC and was in use until 600 BC, when the Egyptians adopted the Greek alphabet. With the shift to the Greek alphabet, we get what comes to be called Coptic, a language that is still spoken in certain parts of Egypt. We will talk more about the Greek alphabet’s origins in the next lecture.
Now we will end with Egyptian religion. Perhaps the most famous aspect of Egyptian religion is its burial rituals. Everyone has heard of mummies. The tradition of mummification dates back to the Old Kingdom, though at that point only pharoah’s were mummufied. But mummies give us some insight into some basic attitudes that made Egypt characteristic. Unlike the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians began very early to think of an afterlife. They saw life and death in terms of continuity, with death being something that must be properly prepared for. This belief may have had significant effects on the history of both the Jewish and later the Christian religions, though we cannot be sure of this. Much like the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Egyptians believed that everyone faced judgment after death for the deeds committed while living. Each person would, after death, face the Egyptian God of the underworld, Osiris, who weighed the person’s heart against a feather. A heart heavy in bad deeds condemned the person to torment by strange creatures, half-crocodile and half-hippopotamus. A light heart allowed the person entry into eternity with Osiris and his consort Isis.
Isis is also an interesting figure for us. She is a classic example of the great mother goddess that seems to appear in many cultures. Later in Egyptian mythology she becomes the mother of the falcon god Horus. The image of her cradling the young baby Horus, may have persisted in images of the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus.
There is also another aspect of Egyptian religion that is important to consider. Egyptians seem to have been the first people to develop monotheism, although it did not survive in Egypt. In the 14th century BC Amenhotep IV (1375-1358) instituted a new monotheistic religious cult based on god he called Aten. Amenhotep took the name Akhenaten, saying of his god that he was the “sole God, like who there is no other.” He even built a new city in this God’s name Akhetaten, which is near the modern Tel el-Amarna. Akhenaten may have been trying to take power away from Egypt’s priests, who worshipped the Sun-God Amon-Re. Whether out of religious or political reasons, as you might imagine, Egypt’s priests fought the changeover to a single God. After Akhenaten’s death, his god and his name were expunged from all public monuments. You may never have heard of Akhenaten, but you have definitely heard of his son-in-law and successor, Tutankhamon (1360-1350). The shift to King Tutankhamon brought with it a return to the old religious system, with Amon, the sun god at the head of a series of gods. Nothing makes the change clearer than changes in this king’s name. Before his father-in-law died Tutankhamon had the name Tutankhaten, which he then changed to Tutankhamon. King Tutankhamon reigned only a very short time and died very young, too. He was, at best, a weak King with few accomplishments, but he was given a fantastic burial, as many of you know. It may well be that this burial’s glory had something to do with the priests’ gratitude at the return to orthodoxy. Nonetheless, with respect to Monotheism, it is possible that this idea influenced the ancient Hebrews who, supposedly, were in Egypt at the time. If we follow the Bible, Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt around 1200 BC. We cannot be sure about this, as there is no hard evidence to prove the link, but it does suggest that monotheism was being discussed by more than the one people who made it famous. With that, we conclude out discussion of Egypt.