HistoryBits: Ancient Egypt

HistoryBits: Ancient Egypt

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

geography

Egypt’s topography formed a natural setting for the kingdoms’ protection. Except for its vulnerability from the northeast, Egypt’s natural barriers enabled the kingdom to thrive unmolested for countless centuries. While Mesopotamia did not have the natural barriers of Egypt surrounding their land, it would still thrive with many outside influences. Egypt’s closure from the rest of the world can be compared to the Chinese belief in isolation. They were both civilizations that were world leaders in technology but would later falter with their continued blockage of outside knowledge. In what ways did geographical factors form Egyptian civilization? How did Egypt’s comparative isolation impact upon its culture and history? Isolated from the outside world by vast deserts and the unnavigable cataracts of the Nile, Egypt developed a supreme self-assurance that was rudely disrupted when at last the outside world did intrude. Its sense of superiority towards the outside world and its assurance that the gods smiled most of all upon it assured that Egypt was setting itself up for a fall. That the gods smiled on Egypt was a central presumption of Egypt’s world-view. Egypt’s benign climate and the renewed fertility brought by the annual flooding of the Nile ensured that nothing–whether economic or social revolution or the forces of the outside world–need intervene in the clockwork harmony of its slave-based, monument-building, fishing and farming, and pharaoh-adoring way of life. Its sense of superiority toward foreigners, and that Egypt was the center of a world beyond which lay barbarism (largely true), was one result. As its High Priests, the pharaohs held sway for as long as they did because they were understood to be divine… and for those who pleased the gods, the rewards of blessed immortality awaited. Egypt remained a supremely self-assured theocracy that would thrive unchallenged in its desert fastness–prepossessed with building its monuments to its Gods-on-Earth–until the barbarian hordes of Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, Kushites, Nubians and Englishmen demonstrated once again that civilization and the gods are no match for barbarism and military might.

Geography/Nile

Isolated from the outside world by vast deserts and the unnavigable cataracts of the Nile, Egypt developed a supreme self-assurance that was rudely disrupted when at last the outside world did intrude. Its sense of superiority towards the outside world and its assurance that the gods smiled most of all upon it assured that Egypt was setting itself up for a fall.

Comparisons with the United States

Admittedly, there seem to be more divergences between modern America and the Egypt or long ago—most of all in the cosmopolitan nature of American society (which derives its greatest strength by attracting the boldest and brightest from around the world), and the insular conceit of ancient Egypt. Both America and Egypt were insulated from the outside world—by the broad oceans in America’s case, by vast deserts in Egypt’s. But it wasn’t that long ago that America was smug and secure in its self-imposed isolation from the outside world, and only World War II dragged it kicking and screaming into the global arena, and into its current position of global supremacy. The same isolation led to a very different outcome for Egypt, whose supreme self-assurance was rudely disrupted when at last the outside world did intrude. Certain similarities persist: America’s sense of superiority towards the outside world and its assurance that the gods smiled most of all upon it recall Egypt’s similar presumption. And the devastating results of Egypt’s sole experiment with Empire may well anticipate an outcome that awaits America’s adjustment to the global economy, as entire industries are shipped offshore to China and other low-wage economies. The enormous disparities between America’s standard of living and that which is endured by most of the rest of humanity may prove just as impossible to reconcile, in the fullness of time, as the gulf that separated the glory of ancient Egypt from the savagery of the barbarous peoples that eclipsed it.

Comparison with Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Rivers”, was—as Egypt was—a gift of its rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Its cities and their diversified trade economies were supported by well-irrigated farms. While it had no natural barriers with which to seal itself off from the rest of the world, Mesopotamia both thrived and suffered from the constant incursions of “barbarian” peoples from beyond—whether Assyrians, Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Chaldees, or Persians. But at least they kept them on their toes! Apart from irrigation and the world’s first cities, the Sumerians developed bronze and bricks, math and calendars, writing, the wheel and plow. But all of these glorious of civilization were ultimately laid low by the life-giving waters that had made it all possible: heavy irrigation led to deposits of salts which rendered the soil infertile. As farmland became desert, Mesopotamia’s cities were abandoned, and its civilization withered. Egypt’s topography formed a natural setting for the kingdoms’ protection. Except for its vulnerability from the northeast, Egypt’s natural barriers enabled the kingdom to thrive unmolested for countless centuries. Egypt’s closure from the rest of the world can be compared to the Chinese belief in isolation. They were both civilizations that were world leaders in technology but would later falter with their continued blockage of outside knowledge.

Homes

It’s striking how little has changed in the urban warrens of the Middle East since those days many thousands of years ago. While we marvel at the monuments of Egypt’s master builders, I wonder whether the more enduring legacy might not be the standard of living of the common man; the pyramids may well crumble before any of that changes!

Plague

The possibility that plague may have accounted for the decline of ancient Egyptian civilization should remind us that the greatest dangers to civilization—both historic and modern—are those that could not possibly have been anticipated. Events have a way of blind-siding us, but human nature, at least, is consistent. That’s why we study history: the reason that history repeats itself is that human nature is so consistent, and we keep making the same mistakes and incurring the same lessons over and over again.

Winemaking

The Egyptians’ discovery of fermentation as a means of preserving the gastronomic virtues of grapes and grains seems of a piece with their unique talent for prolonging the shelf life of things—whether of fine wines or pharaohs!

Women

It’s remarkable that the ancient Egyptians well appreciated what has only recently become brain-dead obvious to people today: to wit, the need for absolute equality of opportunity for women, which has been so utterly impossible for so many people to get a grip on since. (We’ll overlook, for the moment, that Egyptian society was extensively based on slavery). But their enlightened view of gender equality points up the likelihood that the farther we reach back into time, the more sophisticated the civilizations we’d uncover if only we could. For us to believe that history is a linear progression from the primitive to the present is a massive conceit.

Culture

Mummies

It’s ironic how certain mummies even outlasted human nature: by the early 20th century, Egypt had a dandy little business going in exhuming cat mummies and exporting them to Europe for use as fertilizer.

Pyramids

While the pharaohs—reposing in their pyramids– certainly enjoyed appreciably better accommodations than the commoner, what’s striking is how little has changed in the urban warrens of the Middle East since those days many thousands of years ago. While we marvel at the monuments of Egypt’s master builders, I wonder whether the more enduring legacy might not be the standard of living of the common man; the pyramids may well crumble before any of that changes!

Rosetta Stone

With its parallel texts in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek, the Rosetta Stone made it easy to bridge a ponderous chasm that had taken civilization thousands of years to find its way across. In progressing from hieroglyphics and pictorial writing to phonetic writing (by around 3000 BC), we accomplished the ability to represent abstractions—ideas and concepts—as well as tenses of adverbs and degrees of adjectives. That was perhaps the first great revolution in communications, and one that gave man the ability to document the full dimensions of his mental capabilities. After all, so much of civilization is embodied in concept: property rights and other laws, literature, science, and much more. In time, the Phoenicians would give us the beginnings on an alphabet that would better enable us to articulate in writing the full range of human speech. So, when you realize that you’d sooner starve as not pay your cell phone bill, you have some intimation of the primacy of communication… there’s so much to say, and the Mesopotamians and Phoenicians appreciated–no less than you do–the importance of enhancing our means to say it all.

SphinX

It had been commonly thought that the Sphinx was 5,000 years old. Recent archaeological discoveries now indicate that it’s more on the order of 25,000 years old. What gives here–that’s back when people were supposedly shaking spears at mastodons! Could it be that time is not the linear event we usually perceive it to be? Given the sophistication of the Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations, I sometimes wonder whether, if we could reach back into the past far enough, we might not encounter a civilization as advanced as (or more advanced than) ours. I suspect that we’d find that technology would have occupied a very low profile in such a civilization; after all, the trend with technology today is that the less intrusive, the better.

Medicine

Ancient Egyptian medicine presents a rich vein of oddities. The test that ancient Egyptians used to determine whether a woman was pregnant, for example, consisted of inserting a clove of garlic in the vagina and checking her breath the next day–if you could smell garlic, she was pregnant. Then, with that much ascertained, you could determine the sex of the baby by having the mother-to-be urinate into a dish of emmer wheat and barley; if the wheat sprouted before the barley, it was a girl (or maybe it was the barley, I’m not sure!).

Religion

Isis and Osiris

Everything about life in ancient Egypt (the rhythmic rise and fall of the Nile, most notably) and death was regulated to the gnat’s eyelash, and the legend of Osiris and Isis informed much of the Egyptian view of the afterlife. To ancient Egyptians, a fundamental order and harmony had existed throughout the universe since the Back of Beyond. They had no word for religion as something distinct from state or society, since religion was itself the cosmic order to which Egyptian society belonged. As the Main Mechanic of this Cosmic Clockwork Mechanism, their pharaoh was a divine being whose function it was to maintain Egypt’s stability within that cosmic order, and who was himself subject to it. The persistence of the cult of Isis and other mystery cults through Roman times reflected the desire of their participants for a personal relationship with the gods that was once implicit, for Egyptians, in the role of their pharaoh. Yet, the greatest appeal of the mystery cults may have resided in their exclusivity—not much different from that of Masons and the Rosicrucians or, for that matter, country clubs and elite colleges. But that, in turn, is what made Christianity so appealing: everyone was welcome. Amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to love (yes, even for the likes of me and thee!). To be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power.

Book of the Dead

Everything about life in ancient Egypt (the rhythmic rise and fall of the Nile, most notably) and death was regulated to the gnat’s eyelash, and to those who had lived well, the Egyptian Book of the Dead was the writ on how to die well. To ancient Egyptians, a fundamental order and harmony had existed throughout the universe since the Back of Beyond. They had no word for religion as something distinct from state or society, since religion was itself the cosmic order to which Egyptian society belonged. As the Main Mechanic of this Cosmic Clockwork Mechanism, their pharaoh was a divine being whose function it was to maintain Egypt’s stability within that cosmic order, and who was himself subject to it.  That the gods smiled on Egypt was a central presumption of its religion and world-view. Its sense of superiority toward foreigners, and that Egypt was the center of a world beyond which lay barbarism (largely true), was one result. As its High Priest, the pharaoh held sway for as long as they did because they were understood to be divine… and for those who pleased the gods, the rewards of blessed immortality awaited.

Religious Values

That the gods smiled on Egypt was a central presumption of its religion and world-view. Its sense of superiority toward foreigners, and that Egypt was the center of a world beyond which lay barbarism (largely true), was one result. As its High Priests, the pharaohs held sway for as long as they did because they were understood to be divine… and for those who pleased the gods, the rewards of blessed immortality awaited. Egypt remained a supremely self-assured theocracy that would thrive unchallenged in its desert fastness–prepossessed with building its monuments to its Gods-on-Earth–until the barbarian hordes of Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, Kushites, Nubians and Englishmen demonstrated once again that civilization and the gods are no match for military might. Egypt’s topography formed a natural setting for the kingdoms’ protection. Except for its vulnerability from the northeast, Egypt’s natural barriers enabled the kingdom to thrive unmolested for countless centuries. Egypt’s closure from the rest of the world can be compared to the Chinese belief in isolation. They were both civilizations that were world leaders in technology but would later falter with their continued blockage of outside knowledge.

Power

Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut seems to have set a precedent that relatively few women have risen to since. Women in history were not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they generally had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it.

Pharaohs

To ancient Egyptians, a fundamental order and harmony had existed throughout the universe since the Back of Beyond. They had no word for religion as something distinct from state or society, since religion was itself the cosmic order to which Egyptian society belonged. As the Main Mechanic of this Cosmic Clockwork Mechanism, the pharaoh was a divine being whose function it was to maintain Egypt’s stability within that cosmic order, and who was himself subject to it. In obeying him, his subjects helped maintain that cosmic order. Although they possessed absolute power, pharaohs were supposed to rule not arbitrarily but according to set principles, the foremost of which was the ma’at, a spiritual precept that conveyed the idea of truth and justice, especially right order and harmony. Any breakdown in royal power could only mean that citizens were offending divinity and weakening the universal structure. With God so squarely on its side, how could the pharaohnic institution have failed to endure the thousands of years that it did?

Hyksos Invasion

The highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of not just Egypt, but of the Minoans, the middle dynasties of China, Rome, and Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief. As the Hyksos invaders of Egypt did, the barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery–as Egypt ultimately did not). The devastating results of Egypt’s sole experiment with Empire may well anticipate an outcome that awaits America’s adjustment to the global economy, as entire industries are shipped offshore to China and other low-wage economies. The enormous disparities between America’s standard of living and that which is endured by most of the rest of humanity may prove just as impossible to reconcile, in the fullness of time, as the gulf that separated the glory of ancient Egypt from the savagery of the Hyksos that eclipsed it.

Economy

Mining

It’s very likely that in Egypt, remote and disinclined toward trade with the outside world, its pyramids, Sphinx, and many other monuments would have been built without the wealth that flowed from its veins of gold. Forced labor isn’t enough to built pyramids or Great Walls or what have you, since if it comes at the expense of the agriculture that underwrites the rest of the economy, it risks raising popular dissatisfaction to the boiling point and imperiling the regime. Wealth is what builds empire and their monuments, though it’s poignant to reflect upon how little it matters in the end. While the pharaohs—reposing in their pyramids– certainly enjoyed appreciably better accommodations than the commoner, what’s striking is how little has changed in the urban warrens of the Middle East since those days many thousands of years ago. While we marvel at the monuments of Egypt’s master builders, I wonder whether the more enduring legacy might not be the standard of living of the common man; the pyramids may well crumble before any of that changes!

Trade

The trade goods of empire are surely different from those of the global economy. By the early 20th century, Egypt had gone from trading wheat, gold, and slaves and such to running a dandy little business exhuming cat mummies and exporting them to Europe for use as fertilizer!


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