Introduction: The Geographical and Historical Background


Not only is the Egyptian climate peculiar to that country and the Nile different in behaviour to other rivers, but the Egyptians themselves, in most of their manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practices of mankind. For example, the women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home and weave at the loom… The women likewise carry burdens upon their shoulders while the men carry them upon their heads… Sons need not support their parents unless they chose, but daughters must, whether they chose to or not.

Herodotus tells of the wonders of Egypt

When the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt at the very end of the dynastic period, he was struck by the topsy-turvy nature of both the land and its people. There was no question about it, Egypt was a very peculiar country. The climate could only be described as unusual, the River Nile behaved like no other river in the classical world, and the relations between the sexes were simply extraordinary. Herodotus had never before encountered women who appeared to be as free as their menfolk, and he was intrigued by their behaviour. As he travelled around the country he made detailed notes of all that he observed, taking every opportunity to participate in local customs and chatting to the locals wherever possible. On his return to Greece he recorded his experiences in a combined travel-guide and history of Egypt; the first book to introduce the exotic and mysterious land of the pharaohs to European readers.1

Herodotus was quite correct to single out the long thin geography of Egypt as a crucial factor in the development of her people. The River Nile, flowing north through a narrow strip of cultivated land to branch into the separate streams of the Delta, dominated every aspect of Dynastic life, and it would be impossible to gain any insight into the thoughts and deeds of the ancient Egyptians without an understanding of the land in which they lived. As Herodotus himself remarked, in an often-repeated phrase, ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile.’

Egypt is an African Mediterranean country with close geographical links with Palestine and the Near East. The first cataract of the Nile, just to the south of the modern town of Aswan, marks the traditional southern boundary of Egypt, although at times of imperial expansion this border was pushed further south into Nubia. Conventionally, this southern region is known as ‘Upper Egypt’ while the northern area including the Nile Delta is known as ‘Lower Egypt’. To the north, Egypt is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea. During the Dynastic period the narrowness of the fertile land effectively restricted expansion to the east and west of the Nile, though the deserts were exploited for natural resources as and when required. Egypt maintained fluctuating economic ties with her immediate neighbours – Nubia to the south and Syria and Palestine to the east – while contact with the more distant lands of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Crete led to Mediterranean and Near Eastern influences being absorbed into Egyptian society. However, thanks to her abundant natural resources and her geographical near-isolation, Egypt was able to remain a basically independent and self-sufficient country throughout her long history.

The Egyptians themselves knew their country as the ‘Black Land’, referring to the all-important ribbon of highly fertile soil which lined the banks of the Nile. The cultivated Black Land was in turn enclosed by the ‘Red Land’, the barren desert and cliffs which were only suitable for the construction of burial grounds and royal tombs. The difference between the fertile Black Land and the infertile Red Land has always been both clear and extreme, and many visitors to Egypt have noted how it is literally possible to stand with one foot in the desert sand and one foot on the green cultivation. This perpetual reminder of the stark contrast between the living and the dead, the fertile and the infertile, left an indelible mark on secular and religious thought, and the constant cycle of birth, death and rebirth became an endlessly repeated theme of Egyptian life.

All hail the god Hapy who springs out of the earth to water the land!

You of the secret ways, darkness in daylight, to whom your worshippers sing.

You flood the fields which Re has made, and give drink to all who thirst.

Middle Kingdom hymn to Hapy, god of the Nile inundation

The River Nile allowed the first Egyptians to settle successfully in an otherwise arid part of North Africa by providing a dependable source of water for drinking, cooking, washing and waste disposal. In the absence of major roads and wheeled vehicles the Nile served as the major transport route linking the towns and cities and, as the stream flowed from south to north while the prevailing wind blew from north to south, movement both up and down the country was made very easy for any boat equipped with both an oar and a sail. However, it was the annual Nile inundation or flooding which had a profound effect on the development of Egyptian culture.

Agriculture, the backbone of the Egyptian economy, was totally dependent upon the inundation. Each year, from July to October, heavy summer rains in Ethiopia caused the river level to rise dramatically, flooding all of low-lying Egypt, irrigating and cleaning the land and depositing a deep layer of fertile mud





rich in minerals. During this part of the year much of the Nile valley became submerged and the settlements, carefully built on higher ground and protected by dykes, became little islands rising above the floodwaters and linked together by raised pathways. When the waters retreated in late October they left behind a thick moist soil ideal for crop cultivation. Only private gardens and the most outlying fields needed any further form of artificial irrigation. Crops sown in November almost invariably led to a splendid harvest in the late spring, and the land had plenty of time to dry under the hot Egyptian sun, which effectively killed many agricultural pests, before the next flood. The level of the Nile was at all times carefully monitored at various points along its course: while too high a flood could cause damage to the settlements, a series of low floods could become a national emergency, causing famine throughout the land and ultimately leading to civil unrest and the fall of kings.

He built as a monument to his father Amen, the Lord of the Thrones-of-the-Two-Lands, a magnificent temple on the west side of Thebes. It was built as an everlasting monument to last for all eternity. It was made of fine sandstone and worked with gold throughout; the pavements were made of pure silver and all the doors were made of gold. It was very wide and very great and decorated to endure.

Extract from the New Kingdom stela of King Amenhotep III2

The geography and climate of the Nile valley had a profound effect on contemporary building practices. As a general rule, the Egyptians constructed their temples and tombs out of stone and their palaces and houses out of humble mud-brick. Given the hot and dry weather, the plentiful supply of Nile mud and the prohibitively high cost of building in stone, this choice of materials made practical good sense. A well-built mud-brick house was naturally insulated, being both warm in winter and cool in the summer, had the advantage of being cheap and easy to maintain and would certainly last for several generations. Unfortunately, this contrasting use of stone and mud-brick has distorted the surviving archaeological evidence. Over the passing centuries the mud-brick domestic structures have gradually crumbled, eroded and collapsed to form huge mounds of highly fertile soil which, until the relatively recent enforcement of protective legislation, were exploited by the local peasant farmers who had no understanding of their archaeological importance. Many ancient sites were simply dug up and spread on to the neighbouring fields.

In contrast, the robust rock-cut tombs, known to their owners as ‘houses of eternity’, and the solidly built temples, the ‘mansions of millions of years’, were designed to last quite literally for all eternity. While the majority of the tombs have been robbed and badly damaged, and the masonry blocks of many of the temples have been commandeered by subsequent generations, these structures have survived in a far more intact condition than the houses and palaces. They have consequently received a higher proportion of egyptological attention.3 The unfortunate result of this bias in the archaeological evidence is an enforced reliance upon information taken from the burials of the upper echelons of society; although perfectly acceptable, this type of evidence is by no means typical of the whole population, and to base an understanding of daily life on the type of material yielded by Tutankhamen’s tomb would clearly be foolish.

Fortunately, all is not gloom and doom on the archaeological front, and some extensive domestic sites have survived to be excavated. The pyramid town of Kahun and the workmen’s villages of Amarna and Deir el-Medina were purpose-built housing complexes constructed to provide homes for the communities working on great royal projects.4 These communities included not only the artisans and their overseers but also their wives, children, dependants and pets, together with those who provided services for their households such as the washermen, midwives and potters. They were by no means typical Egyptian settlements, being constructed in inhospitable and arid zones and occupied by skilled workmen rather than peasants, but they have provided us with many intimate details of ordinary, everyday activities.

The priests say that Men was the first king of Egypt, and that it was he who raised the dyke that protects Memphis from the inundations of the Nile… By banking up the river at the bend which it forms about one hundred furlongs south of Memphis he laid the ancient channel dry and dug a new course for the stream…

Herodotus telling the history of Egypt

The time-span covered by this book is vast; it stretches from the dawn of the Dynastic age in about 3000 BC until Egypt’s conquest by the Greek forces of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. This is the equivalent of studying European history from a century before the founding of Rome to the present day, or American history from the War of Independence to President Clinton twelve times over. It includes thirty-one royal dynasties, the rise and fall of a vast and influential empire, and periods of chaos, anarchy and foreign invasion. No one would sensibly expect a flourishing and dynamic nation to remain culturally stagnant for well over 2,500 years and, indeed, there were always continuous and subtle changes to all aspects of Egyptian life. Nevertheless, it is startling to realize just how little the fundamental core of Egyptian society varied throughout this long period. In particular, although there were shifts in the nuances of religious thought, and changes in emphasis in various cults and mortuary practices, the underlying theology remained unaltered and basic to the Egyptians’ way of life. The same stability is apparent when looking at the day-today life of the ordinary people; the Old Kingdom peasant wife may have worn different clothing from her New Kingdom descendant and her husband may have been labouring to build a pyramid rather than a rock-cut tomb, but their lifestyle and outlook would have been very similar. It is this continuity of thought and belief which makes the study of such a long time-span valid.

Tradition holds that Egypt was unified at the start of the Dynastic period by the warrior-king Menes, who led his fierce troops from the south to conquer the traditional enemies of the north and establish one kingdom. Menes then became the first king of the newly unified land. More realistically, it would seem that Egypt’s formation must have been both more gradual and more complex, as the increasingly large agricultural communities along the Nile started to recognize the advantages of bonding together and sharing common policies. Whatever the mechanics of unification, it is clear that the resultant country was geographically too large to be ruled as a single administrative unit, and powerful local families of governors or princes were appointed to oversee the provinces which retained a certain degree of independence at all times.

Egyptian history is from the point of unification divided into dynasties, or periods of varying length defined by their different ruling families. The dynasties themselves are conventionally grouped together into three ‘Kingdoms’ and the so-called ‘Late Period’, punctuated by three ‘Intermediate Periods’ of varying length and character. This is not done merely to confuse the non-specialist. The Egyptians themselves never developed the equivalent of our modern calendar, preferring to date their years by reference to the length of the present king’s reign. For example, wine jars labelled ‘Year 9’ were recovered from the New Kingdom tomb of Maya; there was no need to include the name of the king (Horemheb), as everyone at the time knew who he was. This complicated system meant that in order to understand their own history the Egyptians were forced to keep a long and very accurate chronological list of all their rulers and their reign-lengths. Fortunately, enough of these so-called king lists have survived to allow us to date long-ago events to the reign of a particular king with a fair degree of accuracy.

The Archaic period of unification and consolidation (1st and 2nd Dynasties) was succeeded by the Old Kingdom (3rd to 6th Dynasties). This was a time of strict feudal rule, with the semi-divine king recognized as the rightful owner of all material possessions and therefore fully entitled to requisition all surplus produce. Position and power within the country were directly dependent upon royal patronage, and the heads of the political and religious establishments who controlled Old Kingdom Egypt were more often than not members of the King’s immediate family. The sun-god Re soon became the principal state deity and developed an influential priesthood based at ancient Heliopolis, now a suburb of modern Cairo, while the king himself ruled his land from the nearby northern city of Memphis. The pyramids which characterize this period serve as impressive symbols of the power of the monarchy and the role of the pharaoh as god-king, indicating the extent to which the resources of the country were concentrated on specific royal monuments intended to emphasize the position of the king. No one knows what caused the Old Kingdom to collapse into a period of chaos and near anarchy, but a series of low Nile levels resulting in crop failure and famine must certainly have contributed to the growing civil unrest and the eventual breakdown of central authority.

The gradual reimposition of law and order following the disruptive First Intermediate Period (7th to 10th Dynasties) marked the start of the Middle Kingdom (11th to 13th Dynasties) and a period of peace and tranquillity throughout the land. The reunified country was ruled by a succession of strong kings residing at Itj-Tawy, a new capital lying somewhere between the mouth of the Faiyum and the Old Kingdom capital Memphis, and the power of the hereditary local rulers was significantly reduced by a 12th Dynasty reorganization of provincial government. The 12th Dynasty survived the assassination of its founder, Amenemhat I, to become a time of great internal stability which lasted for over 200 years and allowed literature and the arts to flourish. Building works progressed and, although there were no projects on the scale of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx, the pharaohs continued to build impressive tombs in the form of pyramids. Foreign policy became more adventurous at this time, and Egypt started to carve out an empire in the south while becoming more involved with her neighbours along the eastern borders.

Eventually, the large-scale immigration of Semitic peoples into the fertile Nile Delta became a contributory factor in the gradual de-stabilization of the Middle Kingdom. Central authority gradually collapsed and the country slowly fragmented into a small number of geographically distinct and mutually unfriendly enclaves: the ‘Hyksos’ Palestinian invaders and their Egyptian vassals in the north, the Nubian kingdom of Kerma in the extreme south and a small rump of independent Egyptians based, as at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, on the southern city of Thebes. The Hyksos ruled over Egypt for approximately 100 years, bringing with them such new-fangled Asian influences as the horse, the horse-drawn chariot and the vertical loom, and retreating only when defeated in a series of vigorous military campaigns led by Ahmose, the dynamic founder of the 18th Dynasty.

The New Kingdom (18th to 20th Dynasties) quickly recovered from this brief phase of ignominious foreign occupation and soon developed into the period of greatest Egyptian wealth and prosperity, characterized by internal peace and external conquest. The high military standards set by Ahmose were continued by his descendants, and the Egyptian empire steadily expanded until, ruled from the northern capital of Memphis, it stretched from the Sudan in the south to the River Euphrates in the north-east. This policy allowed Egypt to gain control over many valuable natural resources and made it easy to open trade routes to Africa, western Asia and Greece. The new-found Egyptian wealth was reflected in the building of large-scale stone monuments such as the magnificent temples of Karnak and Luxor, and in the exquisite works of art which are typified by the spectacular golden treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb. At this time there was a large expansion of both the army and the civil service; middle-class bureaucrats were now needed to maintain the vast machinery of state.

Egypt continued to prosper during the 18th and 19th Dynasties, but by the reign of Ramesses III she was being badly affected by the movement of the ‘Sea Peoples’; hordes of invaders from southern Europe who were attempting to settle in the Near East. Egypt managed to fight off these raiders but the country was greatly weakened, and during the 20th Dynasty the Asiatic empire was lost and the internal structure of the country again started to collapse.

Throughout the Third Intermediate Period (21st to 25th Dynasties) Egypt was effectively split into a number of independent units, the two most important being controlled by the High Priests of Amen who ruled over most of the south of the country, and by the 21st Dynasty of kings who ruled the immediate area around Tanis in the eastern Nile Delta. Initially relationships between these two governments were relatively amicable, and there was a degree of co-operation between the two capitals. However, the fragmentation of authority grew steadily worse, so that during the 22nd to 24th Dynasties local chieftains, often military families of Libyan descent, sprang up to simultaneously proclaim themselves pharaoh. Egypt was only brought back under central authority when a Nubian king marched north from the Sudan to reunite the country and establish the 25th Dynasty, a period of comparative stability which lasted for just over 50 years until an Assyrian invasion led by Ashurbanipal penetrated as far south as Thebes, reducing Egypt to the status of a mere province of the Assyrian Empire.

The major Egyptian collaborators who worked in conjunction with the Assyrians were an influential and wealthy family of local chiefs from the city of Sais in the western Nile Delta. These Saite rulers gradually became more and more powerful until they were able to ease out the Assyrians and again unite Egypt at the start of the Late Period (26th to 31st Dynasties). The resultant Saite phase was the final flourishing of Egyptian culture with art reverting back to the classical styles of the Old Kingdom. This strong emphasis on all things Egyptian seems to have been a calculated political move designed to emphasize the individual national character of a once-powerful country which was rapidly becoming a bit-part player on the stage of international affairs. The whole of the Near East was precariously unstable at this time and Egypt’s neighbours, weakened by constant infighting, had become themselves highly vulnerable to attack. In 539 BC the Persian army, led by Cyrus II, conquered Babylon and in 525 BC Cyrus’s son Cambyses entered Egypt and established the Persian 27th Dynasty.

The 28th and 29th Dynasties were periods of confusion and disunity, probably representing local resistance to Persian rule. Egypt was again, and for the last time, controlled by Egyptian rulers in the 30th Dynasty. The final king of this dynasty, Nektanebo II, had the dubious honour of being the last native Egyptian to rule over a unified country until President Nasser. He was eventually chased south into Nubia and historical obscurity by the invading Persians who established the 31st Dynasty. The subsequent brief period of Persian rule was in turn ended when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, adding Egypt to his Macedonian Empire and allowing General Ptolemy to become governor, and eventually king, of the captured land. This conquest marks the end of the Dynastic Period and the start of Graeco-Roman rule. Ptolemy’s Greek descendants continued to reign over Egypt until the defeat of the renowned Queen Cleopatra VII, when Egypt lost all semblance of independence, becoming a province of the Roman Empire.

Do not spare your son work when you can make him do it… Teach your son to write, plough, catch birds and set traps in case there is a year of low Nile, so that he will be able to reap the benefit of what he has learned.

Late Period scribal advice to parents

All through her long history Egypt retained an inflexible, pyramid-shaped society. At the very top of the social hierarchy perched the king, or pharaoh, an acknowledged semi-divine ruler who owned the entire land and who simultaneously acted as head of the priesthood, the army and the bureaucracy. A long way below him came the upper classes, a select band of privileged families who owed their exalted position to royal patronage and who were almost all related to the king. These fortunate few assisted in the government of the country by functioning as high-ranking priests, generals and senior civil servants, receiving significant estates as payment for their hard work. Further again down the social scale came the educated middle classes who, being literate, were able to join the bureaucracy as scribes and accountants, while directly beneath them were the lower middle class semi-literate and illiterate artisans who worked as joiners, potters, sculptors or artists. The lowest and largest layer of society included private soldiers, servants and, above all, the peasants who spent their lives working the land owned by either the king, the private landlords or the religious foundations. Slaves, who were never very numerous during the dynastic period, did not really form an important or independent social class.

Obviously, this pyramid model gives a somewhat over-simplified view of Egyptian society, and there were many variations on the basic pattern described above. Nevertheless, it does serve to convey the curiously static and unchanging nature of Egyptian dynastic life. At all times there was remarkably little movement between the classes, and it was very difficult for anyone, male or female, to advance from one social group to another. This was at least partially due to the traditional Egyptian method of education and training; fathers invariably apprenticed their sons in their own trade or profession so that, generally speaking, a boy’s career was mapped out before his birth and whole castes of doctors, washermen, reed-cutters or bureaucrats developed. Young girls had even less need of career advice, as it was automatically assumed that all daughters would marry and have children. Denied the benefits of modern medicine girls were to a large degree restricted by their biology, a restriction reinforced by both cultural conditioning and the lack of modern conveniences which made the running of the household a full-time job. The vast majority of women, therefore, remained uneducated and untrained in anything other than domestic skills.

Even though the Egyptian woman enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom, it would be naive to regard her as a fully liberated prototype of the modern career woman. Indeed, all evidence suggests that men and women led very different lives. The Egyptians themselves, an instinctively conservative people who placed great value on the continuance of traditions, were happy enough to accept that everyone had his or her particular and predetermined role to play in the maintenance of natural order and stability. This belief in a correct and unalterable way of doing things became absolutely fundamental to the Egyptian way of thought. To a people who continually sought out and emphasized the reassurance of links with the past and who at all times felt an unusually deep bond with their ancestors, the realities of an unchanging social structure were not so much stifling as immensely comforting. No one thought of questioning the uneven distribution of wealth and status throughout the community, just as no one ever questioned the inherited right of the pharaoh to rule, because these were the traditional and correct social divisions which, it was fully understood, were necessary to maintain the status quo. Egyptian daughters therefore looked forward to leading a life very similar to that led by their mother and grandmothers before them, interpreting this continuity as a sign that Egypt, and therefore the world, was functioning correctly.

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