Ancient History & Civilisation


THE DEATH OF CLEOPATRA DELIVERED EGYPT INTO THE HANDS OF Rome, just as she had feared. With her demise, the proud three-thousand-year-old tradition of pharaonic independence was snuffed out, once and for all, and Egypt became the personal property of a foreign emperor, to be plundered at will. For the next four centuries, Augustus and his successors exploited Egypt’s fabled wealth to serve their own interests. Grain ships from Alexandria fed Rome’s teeming population; gold from the Eastern Desert filled the imperial coffers; vast columns and architraves of stone were hewn from the Red Sea hills to adorn public buildings in the Roman Forum; and the remote quarry of Mons Porphyrites kept the empire’s finest sculptors supplied with the most precious of all materials, the deep purple imperial porphyry.

But Egypt’s importance to Rome was not confined to its agricultural and mineral wealth. With unique access to both the Mediterranean and Red seas, the country played a key role in Roman commerce—especially trade with India, source of the oriental luxuries so beloved of the ruling class. Egypt’s strategic location, at the nexus of routes linking Arabia, Asia, Africa, and Europe, had been a prime reason for its prosperity as an independent nation; the same geographical advantage now ensured Egypt’s subjugation by a succession of foreign empires. Rome, Byzantium, and Persia; the Caliphs, the Ottomans, and the British—all looked upon Egypt as a source of wealth and a trading hub without peer.

Yet the cloud of exploitation had a silver lining. At the end of the eighteenth century A.D., Napoléon launched an expedition to Egypt with the objective of annexing it as a French colony, dominating world trade, and undermining British control of India. The mission is remembered today not for its primary economic and strategic purpose but for an almost incidental outcome—the birth of Egyptology. Although Bonaparte himself was little concerned with the rediscovery of ancient Egypt, he did take 150-odd savants with him when he set sail from Toulon on May 20, 1798. It is to their meticulous observations, published in the monumental Description de l’Egypte, that we owe the beginnings of the scientific study of pharaonic civilization.

While the savants are today given star billing in accounts of Napoléon’s expedition, at the time they paled into insignificance beside the thousands of infantry and cavalry who journeyed with them to the mouth of the Nile. Moreover, of the learned men who accompanied the invading French army, by far the most important were the surveyors. Their task was to determine the feasibility of cutting a ship canal between the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Suez. Strategic advantage, not scientific knowledge, was uppermost in Bonaparte’s mind. And despite British admiral Horatio Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of the Nile—echoing the great naval encounter between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples three thousand years earlier—the French got their way in the end, and the Suez Canal (modern successor to Darius I’s great project) was duly completed in 1869.

The parallels between Egypt’s ancient and modern history continued into the twentieth century. Following in Napoléon’s footsteps, another expansionary empire, the Third Reich, sought to occupy Egypt in order to dominate Middle Eastern trade routes—this time for the region’s oil. As Axis panzer divisions headed for the eastern delta, following the same route used by invading Libyan armies in the late New Kingdom, the Allied offensives at El Alamein in July and October 1942 marked a crucial turning point in the course of the Second World War. In Churchill’s famous phrase, El Alamein was “the end of the beginning.” How ironic, therefore, that just fourteen years later, the débâcle of the Suez Crisis—which once again saw armies fighting over a small corner of Egypt—signaled the beginning of the end for the British Empire.

From the clash of ancient civilizations to the cold war and beyond, Egypt has found itself at the center of things: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!”1

Alongside Egypt’s geopolitical importance, the country’s profound cultural influence has also been felt ever since Caesar sailed up the Nile with Cleopatra. Hand in hand with more material exports, the cult of Isis was carried from Egypt throughout the Roman world, even as far as the shores of Britain. Its impact was significant and long-lasting, especially in Egypt’s old stamping ground of the Near East. Despite the proscription of “heathen” cults by the emperor Justinian in A.D. 553, the deep wellspring of ancient Egyptian religion proved a fertile source for the development of early Christianity. For Isis and Horus, substitute Virgin and Child—the iconography (and much of the underlying theology) remained virtually identical.

Ancient Egyptian imagery on a U.S. one-dollar bill

On a subsconscious level, the allure of pharaonic civilization has proved irresistible to the Romans and their sucessors in the West. Beginning with Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli and the Egyptianizing frescoes of Pompeii, and continuing down to the present day with art deco jewelery and the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, ancient Egypt has continued to exert a powerful influence on Western art and architecture. Individuals and popular movements, too, have appropriated pharaonic ideas in pursuit of their particular cause. Akhenaten, to take just one example, has been co-opted as a role model by Freudian psychoanalysts, Protestant fundamentalists, fascists, Afrocentrists, new age spiritualists, and gay rights campaigners. Hollywood has been especially mesmerized by ancient Egypt’s blend of exoticism and antiquity, this fascination giving rise to a succession of hugely popular films, from The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra to Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Scorpion King.

In short, through Roman rule, the coming of Christianity, the Arab conquest, and the vicissitudes of the modern world, ancient Egypt as a concept and an ideal has not only survived but prospered. The rulers of the Nile Valley and their hard-pressed subjects succeeded in creating a uniquely powerful culture, one that has fascinated and bewitched all who have come into contact with it—from Alexander the Great to Agatha Christie. Today, in film and literature, and through architecture, design, and tourism, the civilization of the pharaohs is alive and well in the imaginations of people the world over.

The ancient Egyptians could not have wished for more.

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