Ancient History—Egypt: The Old and Middle Kingdoms 1. The Gift of the Nile 2.

Divine Kingship and ma’at a) kingship b) ma’at 3. The Old and Middle Kingdoms (2650-2200 BCE; 2200-1650 BCE) a) government b) religion --No place exhibits the impact of the natural environment on the history and culture of a society better than ancient Egypt. --located at the point where Africa and Asia meet, Egypt is protected by two primary barriers: 1) the desert on either side of the Nile Valley; 2) the harborless, marshy seacoast. --and while Mesopotamia was wide open to migration and invasion, and was dependant on imported goods for its survival, the isolation of Egypt together with its wealth of natural resources combined to create a unique culture that for very long periods of time had very little to do with the outside world. 1. The Gift of the Nile --the primary and fundamental natural feature of Egypt is, of course, the mighty river that bisects the nation into two elongated halves. --I’m speaking, of course, of the Nile—the world’s longest, and perhaps most evocative river. --the Nile originates in Lake Victoria, between the modern-day countries of Uganda and Tanzania, as well as in several tributaries that begin in the hills of central Africa --the river flows northward through Sudan and Egypt until its broad delta empties into the Mediterranean west of the Sinai peninsula. --in antiquity, just as today, more than 90 % of the Egyptian population lives in the alluvial lands that straddle the river --this is because the remainder of the country (again, more than 90%) is a bleak and barren wasteland of desert, rocks and mountains. --there are oases and waterholes scattered throughout the desert (the Egyptians call them wadi), but these are generally too small to sustain any sort of large scale settlement. --so inhospitable is the Egyptian desert that ancient Egyptians used to distinguish between the so-called “Black Land” (the lush, fertile river valley) and the “Red Land” (i.e., the desert).


--so important was the Nile River to its existence, the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus (about whom I’ll be telling you more later), called the land of Egypt, “the Gift of the Nile”. --from earliest times, the river was the primary means of travel and communication, and the most important cities were located considerably upstream. --and because the river flows from S to N, Egyptians and others called this southern part of the country “Upper Egypt”. The northern part they called “Lower Egypt” --Throughout most of its history, the southern boundary of the land of Egypt was the socalled “First Cataract” (i.e., the first of a series of rapids that extend southward through Sudan) --at times, Egyptian control extended south into Kush, or Nubia (in modern Sudan) but for the most part, as I say, the first cataract was the southern border of Egypt --and, while the hot, sunny weather of the Sahara would seem to favor agriculture, rain rarely falls south of the Nile Delta, so seed crops were entirely dependant on river water for their growth --from earliest times, therefore, water engineering and irrigation has been a prominent feature of Egyptian life. --each September (since the ancient of days) the Nile has flooded its banks, spreading water and silt throughout the low-lying basins that exist on both sides of the river --fortunately for Egyptian farmers, the September flood occurred at precisely the right time for irrigation (unlike in Mesopotamia) --the farmers would simply watch the flood from high ground, and when it receded late in the month, they would descend to sow their crops. --perhaps this is why many Egyptian creation myths feature the emergence of human life from fertile, swampy soil. --the height of the flood usually determined how successful that year’s grain harvest would be and so from time immemorial, Egyptian peasants have gathered on the banks of the river to examine the so-called “Nilometers” that are placed at regular intervals along the shore (i.e., stone steps with incised units of measure) --in addition to grain and vegetable crops, the Nile supplies Egypt a wide variety of useful products: the reeds and rushes along its banks were used to make sails, rope and a kind of writing surface called papyrus (from which we get the word “paper”) --hunters pursued game along the banks of the river, fishermen netted or caught fish --building stone could be quarried up river and floated downstream for a variety of architectural purposes --clay from the riverbed was used to make bricks --and deposits of gold, turquoise and other minerals could be located not far away in the Sinai.


--the rich natural and mineral wealth of Egypt drew large numbers of settlers from all over; this process accelerated after ca. 5500 BCE when the Sahara, which to that point had been relatively fertile grassland or savannah, dried up into desert. 2. Divine Kingship and ma’at a) Divine Kingship --before long, this increase in population produced new, more complex levels of political organization, including an indigenous form of early kingship. --traditionally, the first king of Egypt was a ruler from the south named Menes; although some modern scholars question whether Menes was a historical or a mythological figure; --nevertheless, the “idea” of his reign is generally regarded as a pivotal event in the early history of the country. --and, whether or not there was an actual historical figure named Menes, the early Egyptian kings quickly became the “Rulers of the Two Lands”, i.e., Upper and Lower Egypt—and they were depicted with two crowns and other implements symbolizing the unification of the country at a very early date. --this is unlike Mesopotamia, where you’ll remember the various city-states lived together in a loose confederacy (that occasionally coalesced around a strong ruler). --the system that historians use to organize Egyptian history is based on 30 dynasties (i.e., sequences of kings from the same family) --these dynasties presided over Egyptian affairs between ca. 3200 and 332 BCE, when the last Egyptian monarch fell to the Macedonian (i.e., late Greek) ruler, Alexander the Great --the rise and fall of the Egyptian dynasties often reflects the dominance of one part of the country over another: so, sometimes the north was in ascendancy and other times, the south held power. --at a broader level, historians and Egyptologists divide Egyptian history into the following categories: the Old Kingdom (roughly 3000-2100 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (2000-1600 BCE) and the New Kingdom (1500-1050 BCE) --each of these periods of centralized political power and stunning cultural achievement punctuated by short periods of fragmentation and cultural decline --the central figure of the Egyptian state was the king, who was actually called pharaoh only during the New Kingdom era (i.e., after ca. 1500 BCE). --throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms he was referred to simply as the “king of Egypt”. --nevertheless, from the time of the Old Kingdom, Egyptians considered their king a divine presence: a god who had left the ethereal realms to dwell among mere mortals. --he (or more rarely, she) was the incarnation of two important deities: 1) Horus (the king of the gods) and 2) Re (the Sun God) b) Ma’at


--Egyptians believed that the king had been sent to them by the other gods in order that he might preserve or maintain the so-called “ma’at,” the divinely sanctioned order of the universe --in fact, ma'at, for Egyptians, ma’at occupied a strange zone between concept and goddess --the idea of ma’at was personified into a sort of divine character like Horus and Re, but she wasn’t really worshiped like a goddess --her name, literally, meant 'truth' in Egyptian: and it appears that she represented order, balance and justice personified. --she was harmony, she was correctness or rightness, she was what things were supposed to be. --it was thought that if Ma'at didn't exist, the universe would descend into a sort of primordial chaos, an unformed stew of cosmic randomness --and this was scary/shocking to Egyptians because they believed that the universe was, above everything else, an ordered and rational place. --they believed that it functioned with predictability and regularity; the cycles of the universe, like the cycles of the river, always remained constant and true --similarly, in the moral sphere, Egyptians believed that purity was rewarded and that sin was punished. So, at both a moral and physical level, the universe was in perfect balance. --because of ma'at, the Egyptians knew that the universe (and everything in the universe) worked according to a divinely ordained pattern, or plan --it was very much like the Greek concept of the logos (a term which means order, stability and regularity): "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God and the logos was God." - John 1:1 (Logos was the 'Word', another name for Jesus). --just as the logos of Christendom bound together every created thing, so to in Egypt, there could be nothing without the ma'at. --so, maintaining the ma’at was the central, vital preoccupation of the king, and because of this, the king became a conduit, or an indispensable link, between the people and the realm of the Egyptian gods --the king’s benevolent and serene government ensured the prosperity and welfare of the Egyptian people: if he misbehaved, the other gods would punish him, if he acted generously and piously towards the gods and his people, Egypt would be blessed many times over. --indeed, so central was the king to the Egyptian idea of good government that his death provoked widespread anxiety and elaborate efforts to ensure his safe passage on his perilous journey to rejoin the gods in their celestial home. --massive amounts of money and resources were poured into rituals connected with his death: 1) the construction of royal mausoleums, 2) elaborate funerary rites, 3) votive offerings of food and other articles


--the earliest rulers (i.e., before the Old Kingdom) were buried in large, flat topped rectangular tombs that were made of mud bricks --however, around 2600 BCE, Djoser, a 3rd Dynasty king, ordered the construction of a spectacular stepped pyramid (i.e., a ziggurat) at the royal town of Saqqara near Memphis. --by the 4th Dynasty, however, Egyptian kings ordered their architects to fill in the steps of the ziggurat to create the smooth-sided, geometrically advanced pyramids that have come to symbolize ancient Egypt --between 2550 and 2490 BCE the pharaohs Khufu, Khefren and Menkaure erected large memorial pyramids at Giza, several miles north of Saqqara on the west bank of the Nile --these are some of the largest stone monuments ever to have been built by human hands: Khufu’s pyramid originally reached a height of 480 feet (146 meters), and remained the tallest human structure until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. --what is perhaps more amazing is the method of construction: for the most part, the Egyptians relied on *stone* tools: bronze tools were in use during this period, but the metal was too expensive and too rare for everyday use. --for machinery they relied on simple levers, pulleys and rollers of varying shapes and description. --what made the pyramid projects viable was an almost unlimited supply of human muscle power: in order to create a pyramid within the life of a single Egyptian king, a staggering amount of human resources would have been deployed. --historians figure that much of the building must have been carried out during the flooding of the Nile, when agricultural workers couldn’t go down into the fields even if they had wanted to. --and although work on the pyramids appears to have been compulsory, it also seems that most Egyptians saw such labor as a form of religious worship and probably didn’t mind all that much. --it is also interesting to note that the age of the Great Pyramids lasted only about a century, after which a number of smaller monuments were built, but nothing to match the great pyramids at Giza. 3. The Old and Middle Kingdoms a) Government --but how were building projects on such a massive scale directed and administered? --what sort of bureaucratic machinery existed to organize and direct such labor? --to answer this question, let’s talk briefly about the Egyptian governmental and administrative apparatus during the Old and Middle Kingdoms --the kings of Egypt usually placed their dynastic capitals in the region where they first built up a power base.


--so, during the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian capital was located at Memphis, near the apex of the Nile delta (and close to the site of modern Cairo). --during the Middle and New Kingdoms, power shifted south to Thebes, which lies much closer to the first cataract. --at these centers, the kings of Egypt developed a large and complex bureaucracy, one that kept precise and detailed records of the resources of the country. --the administrative structure began at the village level, where local officials kept track of the resources and manpower of the community --above the level of the village officials, there were district or provincial administrators who coordinated public works projects, irrigation, agricultural affairs and other regional issues --at the top of it all, a central bureaucracy directed the provincial administrations --the central bureaucrats, working at Memphis or Thebes, kept track of land, labor, agricultural products and people, and extracted as much as 50% of total revenues in tax. --the money that the bureaucracy scooped up was used to subsidize the royal palace, to pay for the bureaucracy and the army, as well as to build and maintain temples and other aspects of the Egyptian infrastructure (i.e., roads, canals, river ports, etc). b) Hieroglyphs --one of the key characteristics of the Egyptian bureaucratic class was literacy, and by the early Dynastic period (i.e., the Old Kingdom), the Egyptians developed a complex written system of symbols and pictures called hieroglyphs or hieroglyphics. --each symbol could stand for an entire word, a syllable or a vowel sound or even a consonantal cluster. --here is the symbol for Akhenaten, an important pharaoh from the New Kingdom era --could be expressed left to right, right to left; could be expressed up-down --often the Egyptian desire for symmetry intruded on their writing system: on monuments, statues, we often see the same passage written twice: once facing left, another time facing right --the meaning of these symbols remained unclear until the late 18th century (i.e., 1799) when a French official (during the Napoleonic era) discovered an ancient stone panel which recorded the same statement 3 times: once in Greek, a second time in demotic Egyptian (i.e., Egyptian words using a Greek spelling) and a third time in Egyptian hieroglyphs. --this panel is known as the Rosetta Stone (after the city where it was found), advanced our understanding of Egyptian history and Egyptian culture immeasurably --for the first time, scholars could hear the voices of the Egyptians themselves


--they could read the hieroglyphs by translating from the Greek, and they could hear the sounds that the hieroglyphs stood for when they matched the symbols with the demotic Egyptian --it’s actually a rather boring document, it’s a decree that affirms the royal cult of King Ptolemy V (from 196 BCE). --nevertheless, it provided access to a host of other documents, documents which told us about: 1) Egyptian religion, 2) Egyptian literature), 3) the economy and government, 4) diplomatic relations --this was because the Egyptians used hieroglyphics (2 types, one ornamental, the other cursive) for a variety of purposes: tales of adventure and magic, love poetry, religious hymns, technical manuals, etc --armies of scribes made copies of documents for the priests, nobles, merchants, administrators, technicians and other literate peoples --to get an idea of how sophisticated the Hieroglyphics system became, let’s look at a symbol called the “Eye of Horus” --Horus, represented as the falcon-headed god, was an important god in Egyptian legend. --the symbol representing his eye, was a powerful symbol used to protect from evil. --pronounced "udjat" by the Egyptians, the Eye of Horus represents a human eye with the cheek markings of a falcon. --the 'Rx' symbol which is used even today by pharmacies and in medicine has its origins in the Eye of Horus. --in ancient Egypt, however, “the Eye of Horus” was used to express mathematical fractions --fractions were created by combining sections of the Eye of Horus symbol. --each section of the symbol had a different value. --the complete Eye of Horus with all parts in place has a value of 1. --but each individual line had its own value:

Separated sections with fraction values --so, to get the value 5/8, you would write down the line for ½ and the line for 1/8 --to get a value of 33/64, you would write down ½ and 1/64, and so on…


--it might seem a little cumbersome to us, but using this system, bureaucrats could express most any fraction they wanted: they could write memoranda where ¾ of a grain shipment was placed in one silo and ¼ was placed in another --they could draw up contracts where 9/32 of a field was given to a certain farmer or where 9/16 of a pasture was given to a certain temple priest --anyway…one of the main reasons that the country was so well administered was that throughout most of its history (i.e., throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms), Egypt practiced an isolationist foreign policy. --rather than expending valuable resources in wasteful imperialistic ventures, most Egyptian monarchs concentrated on the internal government of the nation --thus, throughout the Old and New Kingdoms, Egyptian contacts with the outside world were limited; the kings maintained polite relations with the other advanced civilizations of the region (i.e., Mesopotamia, Israel, Nubia, Greece), but for the most part, they were only interested in maintaining the flow of commodities that were unavailable at home. --so, for example, Egyptians would trade with the towns and cities of the Levant (especially cedar); in return, Egypt would send gold, papyrus and surplus grain. --the situation was rather different when the pharaohs turned their gaze to the south --this was because the countries which existed there (i.e., Nubia, Ethiopia, Yemen) were Egypt’s primary trading partners --it was largely from these regions that Egyptian craftsmen got the materials they need to make the exquisite treasures that they buried along with their dead pharaohs --so, from the wealthy little villages of the Horn of Africa, and from the bustling port towns of Arabia, Egypt received a constant stream of precious metals such as gold and silver, rare commodities like ivory, incense and ebony --but despite this highly advanced trading relationship with the south, the fact remains that Egypt remained, for the most part, isolationist; to give you an idea of how isolationist Egypt was, consider the fact that any foreigner in their midst was technically considered an enemy of the pharaoh. --there was no political/diplomatic category called “allies” c) Religion --of course, government and trade do not a civilization make, and much of the talent and creative energy of the Nile Valley civilization was devoted to religious and spiritual systems --as I stated earlier, the religious ideals of the Egyptians were rooted in the landscape and physical geography of the Nile Valley, and in a vision of cosmic order that their natural environment evoked --so, the constancy and regularity of the environment (i.e., the sun rising daily in a cloudless sky; the river flooding at regular, yearly intervals; bountiful harvests), all of this


persuaded Egyptians that the natural world was a place of recurrent cycles and continuous renewal --this imbued Egypt with a world-view in which the concept of “ma’at” was central, but this was by no means the limit of their cosmological system --let me give you an elaboration of the religious/spiritual ideology of the Egyptians during the Old and New Kingdoms to give you an idea of what was in the Egyptian mind: --so far as we can tell, the people of the Nile thought of the sky as a great ocean surrounding the inhabited world --through this ocean traveled Re (or Ra), the great sun god of the Egyptians --on a daily voyage from the east to the west, Ra made a majestic progress through the brilliant African sky --at night, he traversed the underworld, battling demons and giant serpents all the way --of course, his triumph over the forced of darkness was foreordained, and every morning he would emerge fresh from his titanic battle, eager to light the way for the sons and daughters of the Nile --in another popular story, the god Osiris, was slain by his brother Seth, the god of chaos --Seth then dismembered the corpse of his brother and scattered the pieces to the four corners of the earth. --Osiris’s wife and sister, Isis, was disconsolate at the loss of her husband, and so she spent months searching for the various body parts and when she finally found the last piece, she reassembled him and brought him back to life --meanwhile, their son, Horus, searched for the murderer, and, when he found Seth, he took revenge on his uncle. --Horus challenged Seth to a fight, and in the epic contest that followed, the two gods battled each other for more than 80 years --during the conflict, Seth ripped out Horus' left eye and Horus tore off Seth's testicles. --eventually, Horus emerged victorious and Seth was sent to live with Ra --meanwhile Osiris was installed as king of the Underworld, and became one of Egypt’s most popular and enduring gods --his ability to “triumph over death” gave Egyptians hope of a new life in a world beyond the regular confines of time and space --he became a sort of redeemer figure --well, during the Old Kingdom, these two stories (i.e., Re and Osiris) began to inform the cult of divine kingship --remember, as I told you earlier, the pharaoh was seen as the human incarnation of both Horus (the son of Osiris) and Re (the sun god). --this gave the Egyptian monarch a dual association: 1) return of the dead to life; 2) the life-giving and regenerative associations of the sun god --thus, he became not only a king, but also the chief priest of Egypt, and he intervened with the gods on behalf of his land and people


--thus, Egyptians erected fabulous temples and cult-centers at hundreds of sites up and down the Nile --they established priesthoods to the various deities of the Egyptian pantheon, --they lavished money on building projects associated with the gods and goddesses --they held elaborate rituals and feasts on high holy days of the Egyptian calendar --all of this religious activity was designed for a single purpose: to appease the gods and to assist people in their hazardous journey from the point of death to the Underworld --all people had to make this journey, and many dedicated their lives to ensuring a safe passage --they would store up whatever food-stuffs and treasure they were able to amass --they became obsessed with the state of the cadaver, and in the hopes of preserving the human body in as “fresh” a state as possible, they began to develop their skills in a process that we call mummification --this is how it worked: shortly after death the body would be taken to a tent known as the place of purification. --there the corpse would be thoroughly washed in a solution of natron (this is a naturally occurring compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate) --after this, the body was taken to another tent known as the house of beauty. --here the actual mummification process would take place. --first, the viscera (i.e., internal organs) were removed and dried; they were then rinsed, bandaged and placed in so-called canopic jars or parcels which were subsequently placed with the body. --these canopic jars would be decorated with the images of the "four sons of Horus" --after the removal and preservation of the internal organs, dry natron would be molded over the corpse and inserted into the body cavity, in order to assist desiccation. --the body would then be left to thoroughly dehydrate for some forty days --once the body was completely dried, the temporary stuffing would be removed, and the body cavity would be re-stuffed and packed out with bags of fresh natron, resin-soaked bandages and various sweet smelling aromatics. --the brain cavity was filled with resin or linen, the openings in the skull packed with linen bandages and very often, artificial eyes were added. --the whole body was then coated in a preservative resin, and cosmetics were applied to the face in order to give the body a “life-like” appearance. --at the end of the process, the body was completely bandaged and amulets were inserted between the wrappings according to instructions found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead --finally, the corpse was ready for its voyage to the underworld --and, after a perilous trip through various demonic challenges, the dead person would arrive at the place of judgment: Egyptians believed that at this point, their heart (long


considered the seat of the personality, the intellect and emotion) would be weighed on a set of divine scales. --if it passed this test, they would be permitted to reach the ultimate blessed destination: a land of food and luxury…