Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ancient Egypt



A. Geography

1. Nile River--the longest river in the world has had a huge role in shaping Egyptian society. Early civilization in Egypt was dependent upon learning to live with the annual flooding of the river. As this  adaptation was made, the civilization that grew alongside the river became dependent upon these yearly floods, and civil upheavals and the rise and fall of political dynasties occurred when the floods were too severe, or did not occur.

a. Climatic change--the climatic change that helped to transform agriculture in Mesopotamia had a similar effect on the lands to the southwest of that region. The growing aridity of the former fertile grassland across northern Africa (known to us today as  the Sahara Desert) found people moving eastward, toward a reliable source of life-giving water. This growing aridity had also moderated the flooding of this river, which previously had such wildly unpredictable flooding so as to make the Nile Valley largely uninhabitable for humans.

2. Upper Nile--refers to southern Egypt (the Nile flows south to north). The Upper Nile is more fertile than the Lower Nile, because it is a slightly higher elevation and the temperatures are slightly more moderate. The earth, or dirt, in the Upper Nile region is a rich black color, a result of alluvial deposits, and is prized for farming.

3. Lower Nile--the northern portion of Egypt. While the Upper Nile region is also referred to as the White Kingdom (probably a result of it being adjacent to the White Nile), the Lower Nile region was also called the Red Kingdom, because of the predominant color of the earth there.

4. The Rhythm of Life Along the Nile--human habitation was completely dependent upon learning to use the Nile River to the advantage of humans.

a. The Nile Delta is the only part of the country of Egypt that receives any substantial amount of rainfall, which emphasizes the aridity of the rest of the country--and of the importance of the river to agriculture there.

b. Nile Flooding--agriculture adjacent to the Nile is only possible because of the annual flooding. The floods bring  fresh soil--silt washed along by the river as it descends from the tropical highlands to the Mediterranean Sea--that has prevented the soil in Egypt from becoming too heavily salinated.

c. The annual rhythm of this cycle--and the disaster that ensures when the cycle is interrupted--helped to reinforce the belief by most Egyptians that the world should be kept in balance. When the world was not in a state of equilibrium, bad things like too much flooding, or no flooding, occurred.

B. The Divine Kingship

1. King Scorpion--the name of two kings, father and son, from Upper Egypt who an Egyptian named Manetho credits with being the first to unite the two kingdoms of Egypt, and two wear the two crowns. The kings Scorpion straddle the divide between myth and history, and besides the ceremonial mace, we have little to tell us about their rule.

2. King Menes--ruler of the White Kingdom, who united the two kingdoms under his rule, and is credited with being the first king of the first dynasty of Egypt. Ancient Egyptian history has been divided into three main eras--the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom--with the years intervening between labeled the "Intermediate Periods" to designate the political fragmentation and cultural decline that characterizes those era.

3. 1st Dynasty--8 kings  ruled  about 600 years, and created a centralized state, a royal court, collected taxes, and created an economy that was able to support a huge number of people who did not work to raise their own food for at least part of the year.

4. Burial rites--Egyptians viewed their kings--not known as pharaohs until the New Kingdom era--as a personification of their gods living on earth. When these kings died (or, in the Egyptian view, began their journey to rejoin the other gods in the afterlife), they needed a great deal of material and assistance to ensure a safe journey and that they had to proper acoutrements when they arrived.

a. Common Egyptians--simply laid on the sand at the edge of the desert facing west (the direction of the underworld), where the sun and lack of humidity (and the occasional vulture, undoubtedly), disposed of most of the body.

b. Egyptian nobles--buried in what we would recognize today as a cemetery, which was located near Saqqara, just west of Memphis, which served as the political center of Ancient Egypt.

c. Kingly monuments--early during the 1st Dynasty, kings were buried in rooms made of mud bricks that were partially underground, but this raised concerns about their permanence--and their legacy.


i. Brotherly rivalry--Egyptians believed that the Underworld was ruled by Osiris, who was murdered by his brother Set over Set's jealous reaction to Osiris being given the right to rule over the entire world. Set drowned Osiris in the Nile. Isis, Osiris's wife (and sister to both Osiris and Set) found him, and brought him back to life enough that he was able to impregnate her. Their offspring, Horus, became king of the world (or at least, that part of it that most concerned Egyptians), while Osiris was given a new kingdom, the Underworld. Egyptian kings claimed descent from Horus, and soon after used the example of Osiris and Isis, since gods should not be made to mate with mere mortals; this began quickly to shrink the gene pool, of course.

ii. When Egyptian kings were living, the were the embodiment of Horus; when they died, they became the embodiment of Osiris.

iii. As long as everything remained in a state of equilibrium, common Egyptians were willing to go along with this interpretation. When the Nile failed to flood sufficiently, or flooded to sufficiently, and famine resulted, the ability of the king to maintain divine order was immediately called into question.

C. The Pyramid Scheme

1. 3rd Dynasty--during the era of the Old Kingdom, burial rites for the kings became increasingly more elaborate and abstract; by the time of the 3rd Dynasty kings no longer had to authority to order the murder of  hundreds of courtiers to accompany them on their journey across the River Styx.

a. Heb-sed festivals--by the time of the 3rd Dynasty, kings had to prove annually that they were physically capable of handling the rigors of their office by  partaking in a series of contests--which sometimes proved they were not physically capable, and ended their time in office.

2. Permanent tombs--before the reign of Djoser, the tombs of kings were low, flat affairs, largely underground and made of mud brick.

a. Tombs of stone--Djoser's prime minister, a man named Imhotep, changed the way the tombs were constructed. Probably influence by the construction of  Mesopotamian ziggurats, Imhotep directed the construction of the Step Pyramid, the earliest of these new permanent structures.

b. Inside the tomb, in a room called the serdab, a small figure of Djoser sat the represent the body of the king, and sat within the a structure tiers high.

c. Subsequent kings of the 3rd Dynasty died too quickly in their reigns to get their own tombs constructed,  and the resulting power vacuum meant that the dynasty itself fell into disarray.

3. Snerfu--the first king of the 4th Dynasty, he actually finished the pyramid of his predecessor, the Meydum Pyramid, which was the first pyramid to contain the burial chamber within its structure, rather than being built on top. The pyramid collapsed, however, and was never used

a. Snerfu quickly then turned to constructing a suitable pyramid for himself. This pyramid initially had a 52 degree pitch, but when it became apparent that this would mean that the base wasn't wide enough, the pitch was changed to 43 degrees, giving the pyramid a hunched appearance. Although the pyramid was finished, it was never used.

b. The construction of a third pyramid, north of the Bent Pyramid, incorporated the lessons learned from these earlier failures, and the imaginatively named (by Egyptologists) North Pyramid, also known as the Red Pyramid, became the final resting place of Snerfu.

4. Khufu--learning the lessons learned by his father Snerfu, Khufu directed the construction of one of the most stupendous buildings in the history of mankind, the Great Pyramid of Giza







Conclusion--our fascination with the engineering feats of building the pyramids tends to hide their real historical significance--the resources dedicated to their construction. Herodotus (not always the most reliable source on these things) claimed that the people of Egypt suffered terribly during this time because of the resources--and labor--dedicated to these projects. It is not hard to imagine that this must have been the case. But it also reveals much about the hierarchical nature of Ancient Egyptian society, and the apparent willingness of many people to accommodate this desire for immortality.

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