As human beings, we are not wired to grasp really large numbers. After a certain point, even numbers that are wildly different in magnitude begin to possess the same abstract quality of large in our minds, which is why we are unlikely to ponder on the difference in value between a quadrillion and, say, a quintillion. History can be much the same, especially where ancient history is concerned, all of which we sometimes abstractly classify together in our minds, not realizing the sheer scales at play.
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It is not uncommon to associate ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and Persia with the same epoch, all being civilizations that are now thousands of years old. This mental image can often belie just how long ago ancient Egypt rose. To better put it into perspective, consider this: The birth of Jesus Christ is closer to us in years than it is to the foundation of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The fertile Nile river gave birth to a remarkably sophisticated civilization, which flourished for nearly three thousand years, developing an endemic culture of art, religion, communication and architecture that would continue to inspire and amaze the world for millennia to come.
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“From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.” On the 21st of July, 1798, before emerging victorious at the Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon Bonaparte addressed his troops, pointing to the iconic burial grounds of the pharaohs into the distance. Like many before and after him, Napoleon was aware of, and in awe of, an incredible civilization, exhorting his men by highlighting the significance of the sight before them. Egypt has truly shared in the world’s history, and been a core part of more major civilizations than possibly any other place on the planet. It has also been a homeland to several major religions, changing hands between the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Christian and Muslim faiths.
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It is only natural that our cultural odyssey would take us to this most revered of ancient civilizations, so we can peel back what life was like in the Nile river valley. A peculiar fact of Egyptian civilization is that it has always, to this day, been supported almost entirely along the Nile river, one of the most fertile places on the planet. It was the extremely rich yield of this soil that most likely allowed the native population the surpluses of food necessary to move beyond agriculture, and laid the building blocks of what was to come. The very early origins of the civilization remain shrouded in mystery, but we do know that by the start of the third millennium BCE, Upper and Lower Egypt had been unified into one realm, and several of the cultural markers of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as hieroglyphic writing, the Egyptian pantheon, and peculiar tombs known as mastabas (which would later evolve into the pyramids) were already in place. These systems were then developed and grew more sophisticated for nearly three thousand years!
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Based on archaeological evidence, modern scholars can attest that by approximately 3100 BCE, Narmer had unified the Egyptian world into a single, powerful realm, and kicked off what we now know as the First of Thirty Three (Thirty of them native) Dynasties of Egypt. This Early Dynastic period is believed to have flourished for about four centuries before the rise of the “Old Kingdom of Egypt”, or the age of pyramids. Around 2700 BCE, remarkable changes were afoot in the floodplains around the Nile. A sharp increase in agricultural productivity and consequent rise in population saw the Old Kingdom explore in a flurry of activity, kicking off a golden age with the large scale construction of the pyramids, and increased the prestige of the king (who had not come to use the title of pharaoh quite yet), who acquired divine status. The rule of King Djoser proved particularly noteworthy, as he moved the capital to the now iconic Memphis, and his architect Imhotep designed the step pyramid.
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Large changes to Egyptian society, culture, politics and religion took place, as the divine Monarch assumed control of formerly independent or semi-independent states and turned them into full-blown provinces, their rulers reduced to mere governors. This increased centralization was reflected in the beliefs of the people.
The secret of the fertility of the Nile river valley lay in its floodplains. These low lying areas are renowned for the richness of their soil as the result of irrigation by flooding rivers, but they are often double-edged swords as these floods that support life may just as easily snatch it away. The yellow river in China is a particularly good example, having created vast expanses of fertile plains but also having wrought terrible destruction upon the Chinese people through the millennia. The Nile, on the contrary, flooded very predictably, which allowed the Egyptians to, usually, escape its wrath and reap its benefits. During the Old Kingdom period, the King came to be worshipped as a living God, responsible for the regular periodic flooding of the valley. It was during this period that art required its religious and ideological purpose in Egyptian culture, and the Great Pyramid at Giza, and other architectural wonders like the Temples to the sun God Ra were built.
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Egypt, like other great civilizations, saw itself rise and fall through the ages, and the Old Kingdom collapsed into disorder as regional governors grew at the expense of central authority, coming to an end as the result of an extended drought. Although not much is known about this near-cataclysmic natural event, it has been hypothesized that the drought was a major global phenomenon and contributed to the collapse of other major civilizations in West Asia, India, and China. At any rate, Egypt fell into a dark period of chaos, famine and poverty for approximately one and a quarter-century. Now called the First Intermediate Period by Egyptologists, there is little documentation of this era, which was marked by widespread destruction of art and architecture amid political upheaval, and a reversion to two political entities in Egypt, located in the upper and lower reaches respectively. This conflict was finally resolved by Mentuhotep II’s merging of the two kingdoms sometime in the 20th century BCE and government reform leading to another period of centralization.
It is, of course, impossible that a vast and great civilization spent nearly thirty centuries without major changes, and Egypt saw its fair share of great heights and terrible lows, struck by famine, internal chaos, external aggression, and sometimes a combination of all of these. So keep an eye out for the Culture Kraze blog, as we make another deep dive into Egyptian history!