Along the banks of the Nile River there is a society known as Egypt, but during the times of ancient Egypt, things were very different than the way they are now.
The Importance of Geography
To the Egyptians, the Nile River, which is the largest river in the world, was of central importance. Along both sides of the river, there was an area several miles wide which was fertile and produced abundant harvests. This area, known to the Egyptians as the “Black Land,” was created by regular flooding of the Nile. During the summer, the water level would increase due to Ethiopian and African rain, then when it went back down, it left dark silt deposits which enriched the soil. The civilizations that were established along the banks of the Nile were known as Upper Egypt.
About 100 miles before the Nile runs into the Mediterranean, the river branches out in a triangular-shaped delta, where Lower Egypt was established. Most important cities were established at the tip of the delta.
Egypt was lucky enough to be blessed with natural barriers all around. To the east and the west were the deserts, to the south were the rapids of the Nile, and to the north was the Mediterranean sea.
Due to the predictability of the Egyptians’ lifestyle, most Egyptians faced life with confidence in the stability of things.
The Old Kingdom
Around 3100 BC, a king called Menes combined both Upper and Lower Egypt into one single kingdom, beginning the period known as the Old Kingdom, which lasted until around 2181 BC. During the Old Kingdom, Egypt was divided into provinces known to the Egyptians as “nomes.” The ruler of each nome was known as a nomarch.
It was during the Old Kingdom that the pyramids were build. They were built as tombs for the pharaohs and their families, and were well prepared for their residents. They were furnished and stocked with supplies, such as chairs, boats, chests, weapons, and a variety of foods. This may seem extravagant for a dead person, but the Egyptians believed that human beings had two bodies, one physical and one spiritual (known as the ka). If the physical body was properly taken care of (i.e. mummified), the ka could return and continue life.
The Old Kingdom saw its fall due to a drought caused by a decline in rainfall and economic troubles.
The Middle Kingdom
During the First Intermediate Period, rival dynasties were established. The most significant of these was the rivalry between Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt and Thebes in Upper Egypt. Finally, the king of Thebes, Mentuhotep, defeated the leader of Heracleopolis and began the Middle Kingdom.
The Middle Kingdom lasted from about 2055 BC to 1650 BC. It was later seen as a golden age, and was mostly centered around the 12th dynasty, which was founded by Amenemhet I, a vizier who established himself and his successors as pharaohs.
During the Old Kingdom, the pharoah was seen as inaccessible and god-like, whereas during the Middle Kingdom, the pharaoh was now seen as a “shepherd” of his people.
The Middle Kingdom is also when Egypt set out on an expansion attempt and conquered Lower Nubia. Military expeditions were also sent into Palestine and Syria during this time.
The New Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom fell when the Hyksos, a Semitic-speaking people, invaded Egypt in the seventeenth century. The Hyksos ruled Egypt throughout most of the Second Intermediate Period, but while they ruled, they taught the Egyptians how to use bronze to make new weapons and agricultural tools. They also brought new aspects of warfare to Egypt, such as the horse-drawn war chariot, heavier swords, and the compound bow. Ironically, the Egyptians used their new weapons under the pharaoh Ahmose I to throw off Hyksos domination, which marked the beginning of the New Kingdom.
Ahmose I reunited Egypt, founded the 18th dynasty, and took the Egyptians down a new militaristic and imperialistic path. He developed a more professional army, and now viziers (in charge of the state bureaucracy) were chosen only from the ranks of military commanders.
During the New Kingdom, Amenhotep IV introduced the worship of the god of the sundisk, Aten, as the chief god. He changed his name to Akhenaten (“Servant of Aten”) and closed the temples of other gods, and also tried to lessen the power of the priests dedicated to the sun god Amen-Re. He also changed the capital of Egypt from Thebes to Akhetaten (“Horizon of Aten”), but his attempt to change Egypt’s religion failed. Once he died, his successor, Tutankhamen, undid all of his changes.
The New Kingdom fell when the “Sea Peoples” as the Egyptians called them, invaded. They drove the Egyptians back within their original borders, and before Egypt became a province in Rome’s Empire, it was dominated by Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, and finally Macedonians.
The Structure of Society
The society in the Old and Middle Kingdoms had a simple hierarchical structure with the pharaoh at the top. The upper class, directly beneath the pharaoh, consisted of nobles and priests who participated in the daily rituals involving the pharaoh. The members of this class helped to run the government and typically owned their own estates.
Beneath the upper class were the merchants and artisans. The merchants participated in active trade up and down the Nile, as well as in village market; and the artisans of this time showed unusually high levels of craftsmanship and beauty in their work.
The majority of the population was at the bottom of the hierarchy, and they were typically land workers. They paid crops to the king as taxes, and typically provided military service and labor for building projects.
Writing was introduced to Egypt during the first two dynasties. It was not originally called hieroglyphics, that was later keyed by the Greeks, because it meant ‘priest-carvings” or “sacred writings.”
The Egyptians lacked a word for religion because it was seen as an inseperable part of life. They worshipped a number of gods, and each was linked to heavenly bodies and natural forces.
The sun was the source of life, so therefore it was worthy of worship – so were the beliefs of the sun cult. The sun god was believed to take many forms and names, but was typically worshipped as Atum in human form, and as Re, who had a human body and the head of a falcon.
Osiris and Iris, along with their son Homer, were the gods of river and land. Osiris became an important symbol of resurrection, due to an ancient Egyptian myth, which told of Osiris’s evil brother, Seth, who cut Osiris’s body into 14 pieces and threw them into the river. Osiris’s loving wife, Iris, gathered all of the pieces out of the river and called upon the help of the other gods to bring him back to life. Osiris was important to the Egyptians because they believed that through him they could gain new life, just as he had done. To gain this “new life,” the dead were embalmed and mummified, then placed in a tomb and given the name of Osiris. By this process, they could become Osiris and be reborn.
Later, Osiris’s role as judge of the dead put an emphasis on morality. Upon facing Osiris, the dead would give an account of their earthly deeds. As seen in the Book of the Dead, there were specific instructions on what to do when encountering the judge of the dead. First, a speech was given of the things the person had not done, “I have no commited evil against men. I have not mistreated cattle,” etc. Then a speech was given of the things the person had done, “I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and a ferry-boat to him who was marooned,” etc.
Marriage and Family
Egyptians followed the advice of the wisdom literature by marrying young and establishing a family. Monogamy was general a rule, but if the first wife was childless, men were allowed to keep additional wives. The husband was considered the master of the house, but wives were in charge of the household and the education of children, so they were also very respected.
Although most careers and offices were closed to women, they did still have their own rights. For instance, even during marriage, they were allowed to keep their property and inheritances; and some women were allowed to operate businesses. Peasant women worked in the fields and sometimes at numerous tasks – particularly cloth weaving.
Marriages were arranged for the children by the parents, and the main concern of marriage was to produce children, especially sons. Even though sons were preferred by parents, daughters were still cared for also. Even though marriages were arranged, some of the love poems that survived Egypt show that some marriages still had an element of romance.
Surprisingly, marriages could end in divorce, with compensation for the wife. However, adultery was strictly against the law, and punishments were severe, particularly for women.
Overall, ancient Egypt was extremely abundant and prosperous, and its legacy still lives on.
Jackson J. Spielvogel. Western Civilization. Seventh Edition.