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Ancient Egyptian Civilisation is one of the oldest and most advanced among the early civilisations of the world. For more than 2000 years, a highly organised and relatively stable society thrived along the Nile Valley. It produced innovations in social, economical, political and technological spheres as well as intellectual and artistic wonders. It contributed to the advancement of many aspects of the world heritage in science, technology and arts.
In this article we will review some of these contributions to human civilisation.
Agriculture started along the Nile Valley 5000 BC or before that. Urbanization started in Egypt with the agricultural communities developing into small villages. Crops were grown including wheat, barley, cotton, beans, onions, lettuces, cucumbers, and dates. By 1250 BCE Lower Egypt (Nubia) & upper Egypt were rearing & grinding wild grains. Between 510 – 400 BCE agricultural practices begun to be adopted
Animals were domesticated very early in history in Egypt for food and wool such as sheep, goats, camels and donkeys for transport, and oxen were used to plough the land. Ancient Egyptians practiced irrigation using water from the Nile by Shadoof method where water was raised from the river or canals using buckets in crane-like structure. Until dams were built in 1950- the Nile flooded yearly. Canals & dikes were built & . Dykes were used to control flooding.
Villages grew to become little towns & attracted more people e.g. Nagada (4000-3500 BCE). Pottery & painting developed in these villages.
Consolidation of communities had begun as early as 4000-3500 BCE. The country was divided into small nomes. Challenge and conflicts in the Valley & Delta over the Nile and land arose. Hence, each nome needed to develop a strong leadership for protection. One such leader was to fuse the different “Nomes” into one unity.
Aha Menes (Narmer) of Thinis unified Upper Egypt in 3200 BCE and then conquered his neighbours and defeated the Lower Egypt. Narmer built a new capital city in Upper Egypt near Modern Cairo. This was the start of the 1st Dynasty as a ruling family.
Egyptians established an elaborate political system. Pharaoh was the highest official- or the King of upper and lower Egypt. Pharaoh ruled with chief administrative officer/Vizier who was also chief judge and superintendent public works. There were provincial administration- nomarchs. Scribes were the Highest servants of the government who were responsible for the art of writing on the newly invented Papyrus paper. Scribes inherited their profession. This helped in planning the building of pyramids later on. .
The Nile influenced the way of life of the Egyptian people , Strong government was needed to control the irrigation system. Unification gave birth to an alliance between Pharaoh and priests. Pharaoh was considered as incarnation of the will of god-king and later as a god.
Social structure was based on class. The class order goes from The Pharaoh, Pharaoh family & relatives nobles, Priests, Scribes, Soldiers, Workers, Peasants, down to Foreigners & Slaves.
Pharaoh was considered the Head of state & representative of god on earth. He owned the land, mineral, human & labour. Egypt had a strong centralized government to ensure that the high officials did not amass political & economic power. Foreigners were refugees or people deported from their original countries – like Syrians, Phoenicians, or Greeks. People paid taxes according to the proportion of crops & animals. Slaves were used on a small scale.
Irrigation, administration of an empire, first professional army,
Egypt was Self-sufficient in many resources. Egypt possessed enormous quantities of stones, which served as raw materials for architecture & sculpture. Clay was used for pottery, Gold for jewellery & ornaments.
The geographical location made Egypt closed to the outside world : To the west of the Nile Valley there was a huge desert, and down south Cataracts of Nile discouraged penetration along the river, leaving only the Mediterranean sea and Sinai Desert for invaders.
Historically speaking, Ancient Egyptians solved major architectural problems. The ancient Greeks learned a lot from Egypt and then went ahead with their own contributions to the world. The obelisk is still used and other features of Egyptian architecture, such as the temple pylon, figured relief, and columns, have been used in the last few centuries in the construction of structures such as museums, mausoleums, office buildings, and government buildings.
The ancient Egyptians were masters of the arts of stone-working and metalworking and the production of faience and glass. Their understanding of astronomy was very advanced, and this knowledge was passed on to the generations that followed. Based on their observations of the Sun and the stars they developed a calendar. Eventually they produced a version of the zodiac.
The oldest work of philosophy known to us is the "Instructions of Pta'h-hotep," which apparently goes back to 2880 B.C.—2300 years before Confucius, Socrates and Buddha. The ancient Greeks credited the Egyptians with many early discoveries in the fields of philosophy, art, and science. It is clear also that the Greeks benefited from and were influenced by the achievements of the Egyptians in sculpture and architecture.
Out of that ancient religion survived a basic belief in a good and moral life on earth as a major means of attaining an afterlife, a concept that is reflected in most modern religions.
Ancient Egyptian were one of the most religious people. They were polytheists, and worshiped many gods. Some Gods represented animals.
Osiris (god of judgment) initially had been a good ruler and teacher of agricultural arts and he had kept order in the land. His success had aroused the anger of Set, a brother, who killed him and cut him to pieces. His wife, Isis Collected his corpse and he was resurrected to give birth to Horus who took revenge for his father. Horus–Anubis is also the god of Mummification, and Isis–Khepri is the God of creation
Amun-Re is the Chief god in charge of heavens. He represents light, life and continued stability to the state whose earthly representative was the king.
Egyptians believed in life after death. They practiced embalming. Embalming of the dead body involved washing and purifying the body, body organs were removed and stored in a jar and then the body was preserved with natron for 40 days. They believed that the body had two parts the “ Ka” & “Ba” – The Ka was the soul that was expected to return afterwards and enjoy material comforts on earth. Embalming and burial patterns depended on individuals social status.
The focal point of political & religious life in Egypt was the Pharaoh who commanded wealth, resources and people. He was considered to be a falcon god, Horus in human form. Pharaoh was a living god on earth & became one with Osiris after death. He was a mediator between god and men. He has a power that achieved integration between human & gods, nature & society and ensured peace & prosperity.
Religious texts recorded and preserved the major tenets of Egyptian beliefs. Literary papyri cover a broad range of genres, from epics, love poetry, and wisdom literature (selections from which are the ancestors of some biblical proverbs) to political propaganda, satire, comic stories, and drama (perhaps the first recorded examples). What may have been the world's first fairy tale came from ancient Egypt. Oral communication helped spread the literature, and some myths appeared in later Roman stories. Collections of assorted texts were deposited in early examples of libraries, known as houses of life.
Bureaucracy and hierarchy
Literacy may have been limited to a small percentage of the population, but the large quantity of written material that survives indicates the importance of the written word to the ancient Egyptians. Their hieroglyphs may well represent humankind's earliest attempt to write. Ancient Egyptians are credited with making of paper-papyrus- later copied by the Greeks and the Romans, Arabs and Byzantine.
Some of the mathematical texts taught the finer points of arithmetic, geometry, and even word problems, and are not unlike modern primers. These and other texts indicate that the ancient Egyptians understood and could add fractions and could even find the area of a trapezoidal pyramid. Without the advanced mathematics they originated, the ancient Egyptians would not have been able to build the pyramids and other large structures.
Medical papyri taught physicians how to deal with both internal medicine and surgery, and there were texts devoted to pharmaceutical remedies, dental procedures, and veterinary medicine. These papyri represent some of the earliest known texts on these subjects. Mummification (embalming of the dead) involved chemistry, physics and surgery.
They lasted for 300yrs. The two dynasties helped establish a model of governance, Religion and Social Organization. Writing was developed, Hieroglyphics, Craft and the practice of learning.
After the two dynasties, Egypt history was divided into 3 chronological segments-kingdoms : old, Middle and New
Established by King Zoser, instituted royal absolute and grandiose structures. The 1st pyramids were built. The power of Pharaoh was unlimited and there was no separation between politics & religion headed by a chief priest. There was no standing army or national militia.
King Zoser had as premier Imhotep who as an architect, physician, writer and priest. Imhotep is reputed to be the founder of modern science. Due to this, Egyptians elevated him to a godlike status. He designed pyramids (architect) and started using bricks. These two dynasties weaved a society with no standing army and maintained peace through avoiding quarrels hence helped maintain a cohesive theocratic state.
Snefru (2650) was imperialistic, militaristic and extravagant. Snefru had no royal blood and usurped power but married into royalty hence the legitimate standing. He invaded- Syria, Nubia, and made Egypt an imperial power. At the same time, inaugurated a massive construction projects of gods statues, pyramids and fortresses for defence. Smaller pyramids for queen and noble members also existed.
Imperialistic dynasties which made contact with Somali coast (Punt) for trading purposes.
Egyptian kings invaded Palestine under General UNI and dynasty came to an end after the death of Pepi II. It is characterized by chaos, decline of power and many claimants to the throne.
(70 pharaohs in 70 days) Initially Egypt was stable, and progressive, became imperialistic power then collapsed.
Reasons for collapse
Middle Kingdom (Golden/Classical Age) started with 11th dynasty.
This is marked by the reduction of nobles through the establishment of central government. Central government created an alliance with middles class thereby undercutting the power of the nobles. This alliance kept the nobility in check, laying foundation for prosperity.
Bureaucratic officials, merchants, artisans and framers were encouraged to advance thus helping revive the economy.
During this period, major public works were developed e.g. extensive drainage & irrigation projects were replaced, building of pyramids. Social justice started. Democratization of religion started with emphasis on moral conduct rather than ritual based on wealth. In this way, Emphasis was on good moral conduct and opportunities open to all classes.
The 12th dynasty was a period of prosperity – Followed by chaos and created an opening for foreign domination – Nobles revolted against being reduced in status which had incapacitated them.
They had a military advantage- bow, arrows, horses and war chariots. The division among the Egyptians made it easier for Hyksos to conquer and put Egypt under foreign rule. This forced Egyptians to unite against foreign tyranny, and taught them new war techniques. Resistance begun in Thebes
This is a period of more absolute rule, and creation of professional army. Military power formed the basis of Pharaoh rule.
Ahmose I (1560 BC)- defeated the Hyksos and founded the 18th dynasty- also new kingdom. Cities of Thebes and Akhetaton became show case for Egypt. Egyptians became imperialistic and militaristic invaded Palestine, Syria, and Nubia and demanded tributes. Increased trade during his era to Asia, Europe and Africa.
Politically the 18th dynasty (New Kingdom) was marked by rise of three rulers : Queen Hatshepsut, Thutmose III and Amunhotep III.
Achievements Queen Hatshepsut
She was regent of her stepson, crowned herself Queen, claiming to be the son of god Amun, ruled for two decades, sent ships to Punt for incense, picked wise advisers and generals to conquer land, erected monuments and temples for god Amun.
She was succeeded by stepson Thutmose III
18th dynasty was also marked by the cult of Aton. This is linked to Amenhotep II and more so with his son Amenhotep IV.
Amenhotep IV built temples for god Amun then introduced the cult of Aton (Atonism). This is the earliest indication of monotheism in Egyptian History. This lead to attack and destruction of the old religious systems and building a new religion. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaton.
The 18th dynasty was followed by a period of Foreign domination- Pinki- a people originating from Napata in Sudan established their throne for 60 years after which Egypt was invaded by foreigners- Romans, Greeks and Persians
Romans regarded the region as the precious property of Rome due to its fertility. It was the largest trading and industrial centre
The remarkable development of orderly and peaceful government:
* First United Nation * First Centralised Government * Census and post * primary and secondary education * Technical training * Office and administration * The advancement of writing and literature * Science and medicine
The first clear formulation known to us of individual and public conscience: * The first cry for social justice * The first widespread monogamy * The first monotheism * The first essays in moral philosophy * The elevation of architecture * Sculpture and the minor arts
Egypt Civilization Contributed to The improvement of: - Agriculture - Industry * Miners * Manufacturers * Workers * Engineers * Transport, Postal Services and Commerce
* Character * Games * Appearance * Cosmetics * Clothing * Jewelry
Through the Phoenicians, the Syrians and the Jews, through the Cretans, the Greeks and the Romans, the Egypt civilization passed down to become part of the cultural heritage of mankind.
The effect or remembrance of what Egypt accomplished at the very dawn of history has influence in every nation and every age.
Ancient Egypt and modern Egypt are separated by a long period of time, a different language, and distinct concepts and beliefs. Nevertheless, scholars have suggested that the roots of some Arabic folktales may stretch back to ancient Egypt.
Some modern Egyptian phrases and proverbs may also have originated in the ancient language. Certain ancient religious concepts and imagery survive in the Coptic Church, a Christian church that still exists in Egypt today. These concepts and imagery include the Virgin suckling the infant Jesus, based on ancient Egyptian images of Isis and her son Horus; the crux ansata, a Coptic cross derived from the ankh, the ancient Egyptian word for life; and an association of the four evangelists with the four sons of Horus.