Early Egypt

Few ancient civilizations can compete with Egypt in sheer impact on the modern  consciousness. While few people know anything about ancient Mesopotamia,  except that there were cities there, everyone knows a great deal of miscellaneous  stuff about Egypt.  Reasons:   Ancient Egyptians had easy access to stone, and used it to build large and lasting  monuments.  Egypt has never lacked for tourists, and so the memory of the Egyptians'  engineering accomplishments has been constantly renewed, year by year,  century by century.  Over the past two centuries, scholars have made accessible many skillfully  rendered pictures of life in Egypt and in the afterworld as visualized by  Egyptians.  King Tut's amazing tomb (discovered and heavily publicized in the 1920s and  since).  

 Even to scholars, Egypt is almost synonymous with antiquity, simply because, in  contrast to all other places known to historians, the country's culture was  stable for thousands of years, from the earliest numbered dynasty, around  2900 B.C. right up to the time of Diocletian in the Later Roman Empire.  The uniqueness of Egyptian culture is closely connected to the uniqueness of its  geography. We must first banish from our mind the modern legal boundaries that  turn the country into a huge square in northeastern Africa, plus the Sinai  peninsula. Egypt in historic times has been characterized by a great contrast  between a fertile river valley and a bleak desert. 

The desert is not quite  uninhabited, but most of it is so dry that even herdsmen cannot live there in any  numbers.This means that dense human settlement is restricted to four different  areas.  The two most important are:   he Nile Valley, or Upper Egypt, which  is about 1000 km long from the first  cataract or rapids at Aswan (site of a major dam today) and the base of the  Nile Delta. It is a narrow valley: the cultivatable area between limestone  uplands is no more than 21 km wide at any given place.  Just north of present-day Cairo, however, the Nile branches out into a delta,  known as Lower Egypt. Though Lower Egypt is much shorter on the map,  about 250 km, it is wider, and in usable land it is about the same size as  Upper Egypt. The contrast between the flood plains of the Nile and the desert is stark. One can  stand with one foot on red sand, useless for agriculture, and the other on the black,  rich earth that has fed millions of people for thousands of years.  Egypt as we know it was a product of climactic change. 

 As the glaciers began to retreat, North Africa dried out, and the Nile Valley  became increasingly attractive. But for a very long time, the 10,000 years before  5000 B.C., agriculture did not develop in Egypt. This is because the valley was a  vast marsh, even a jungle, where Neolithic hunters and fishers could make an easy  living.  Agriculture developed rather slowly in the face of this wild bounty. It perhaps  became widespread because population growth led to over-hunting. Long after  food production was commonplace in the country north of Mesopotamia, but  about the same time that farming was being introduced into Sumeria, the  Egyptians began to rely primarily on growing grain and domesticated animals.  

Once they did this they developed a way of life that took maximum advantage of  the peculiar rhythyms of the Nile. Since there is almost no rain in Egypt, the  northern Nile that runs through Egypt depends entirely on two rivers in the south,  the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile at  Khartoum, rises in Ethiopia and has a seasonal flow. The Ethiopian summer  monsoon creates flooding all along the river's course, all the way to the  Mediterranean. In Egypt, the river starts to rise in July, and the real floods begin in  August. From late August to mid-September most of the valley floor is covered  with water, everything except the high spots where villages and cities sit, and the  built-up roadbeds between them. Actually, I should have spoken in the past tense.  Since the 19th century, dams have evened out the Nile's flow, and the one aspect  of ancient Egypt that you cannot see today is the annual flood. 

 When the flood took place, it served as natural irrigation and more. Unlike the  human-induced irrigation of Mesopotamia or other areas, it regularly renewed the  soil by depositing new silt on the fields. Again, unlike artificial irrigation, it  washed salt out of the soil, thus preventing the deadly buildup common elsewhere.  (This is why the current system may eventually doom Egypt to sterility.)  Further, the flood is well placed in the agricultural year.  With hard work and  organization,  the Nile floods made possible extraordinary productivity. Farmers  could bring in two whole crops. They could also create dikes and canals to  maximize the area watered and fertilized by the river.  During the fourth millenium B.C., between 4000 and 3000, this situation allowed  the growth of social stratification and eventually monarchy. Aristocracies brought  the farmers under their control and lived off the surplus they created. They  justified their existence by organizing irrigation and work-schedules to make the  surplus as big as possible. (Some scholars say that all the organization was done on the local level and that the rulers were entirely parasitical.)  The consolidation of Egypt was a slow process. 

However, the river below the first  cataract, is a strong centralizing force. In the years just before 3000 B.C., Egypt  had only two monarchies, one for Upper Egypt, the other for Lower. There was a  period of rivalry, which may be reflected in the myth of Osiris. Osiris, later the  god of the dead, or one of them, was originally the god of the Delta, of Lower  Egypt. In the myth he was killed by Seth, the god of Upper Egypt. The death of  Osiris is a key episode in mythology; the conquest of Lower Egypt by Upper  Egypt, which took place around 2900 B.C., was equally key in history. Henceforth  one man would wear the white, conical crown of Upper Egypt and the red, open  crown of the Delta. Indeed, for ancient Egyptians, it was the beginning of history,  and everything that happened before the unification was obscure. And because it  was obscure to them, it is obscure to us, too.  I should pause to say something about our sources for Egyptian history. 

The most  important records we have are lists of kings, which give us a chronological  framework. The master list is a very late document, compiled in Greek by an  Egyptian priest named Manetho who lived sometime after 323 B.C. Manetho  divided the rulers of Egypt into 31 dynasties of royal families, and noted the  length of each king's reign and the length of each dynasty's power.  Modern Egyptologists have found some much earlier dynastic lists, and they do  correspond to Manetho's in many of their features. In particular, they all say that  the first king of the Two Kingdoms was Menes (to give the Greek version of his  name). 

They all assume that nothing interesting happened before Menes. They all  identify Egyptian history with the history of her kings. To a great extent, we are  locked into this scheme whether we like it or not. As in Mesopotamia, kingship,  once well established, sold itself as a divine institution and obliterated the memory  of what had gone before.  (It's interesting to note, however, that very recent work has discovered earlier  kings and dynasties unknown to ancient Egyptian record-keepers.   You now find  discussions of "Dynasty 0" and even "Dynasty 00.")  Only in Egypt, the obliteration was even more complete. Egypt, in fact, is an ideal  country for monarchical rule. There is:  one major means of communication; one dominant ecological and economic factor which affects the whole land much  the same way;  room for an elite to control and intensify the efforts of the agricultural  population (through irrigation); no place for dissidents to run to, to regroup and return, because nothing can grow  outside the valley.  So just as in Mesopotamia, a few people were able to build up an administrative, bureaucratic monarchy, and enjoy the fruits of imperial rule, except that  centralization was more complete in Egypt than in Iraq.

 Although contact and  trade with the outside existed from early times,  it remains true that access to  Egypt was quite limited, and that meant security for Egyptian kings. There were  always immigrants and raiders, but they were small in number compared to the  immense Egyptian population, which may have reached 5 million people in  dynastic times.  Those five million were not very militarily minded, but their kings were the  masters of such great resources that they were able to hold their own most of the  time. The image of Egypt as seen by the  of the ancient Hebrews as told (recorded  in the Biblical book of Exodus) is relevant here. Egypt is visualized as land of  great wealth and power, wealth that the Hebrews wished to share, power that they  were very wary of, and knew they could not overcome except with supernatural  help. It was proof of their God's power that he delivered them from slavery in  Egypt.  

This picture helps explain why Egypt suffered no dramatic conquests until around  1700 B.C., when a chariot-riding group known as the Hyksos established their  own dynasty in Lower Egypt.  Because the Egyptian establishment controlled the country so completely, and had  little fear of outsiders, its court culture stayed the same through many hundreds of  years. The court culture included all, or almost all, manifestations of literacy,  including all literature. The word scribe, to modern ears, does not suggest an  exalted station in life. In Egypt, however, it was different. To be a scribe was to be  excused from the hard physical labor that all Egyptians prayed to avoid.  A sample composition for Egyptian students of the late second millenium  encouraged them to stick with their schooling:    You set your mind on working in the fields and neglect texts. Do you not consider  how things are with the farmer, when the harvest is taxed? Grubs have taken half  the corn, the hippopotamus has eaten from what is left. There are mice in the field  and the locust swarm has come. Cattle munch and birds steal. What remains to  reach the threshing floor, the thieves make off with. Now the scribe lands on the  bank and wants to register the harvest. His attendants carry sticks, the Nubian  police wield truncheons. 

They say: "Hand over the corn!" The farmer answers:  "There is none here." He is stretched out and beaten. He is bound and thrown into  the water...His wife is bound in his presence. His neighbors abandon them and  take to flight. But the scribe oranizes the work of everyone. For him there are no  taxes, for he pays his dues by writing.  Thus when we read anything from Egypt, we are listening to the voice of the  establishment. This is usually obvious: Most of the writing that is left, unlike in  Mesopotamia, is not record-keeping, but the praise of the king who owned all Egypt, who ensured the return of the annual flood, who made everything work, if  one is to believe the inscriptions, by his own personal efforts, who was almost one  of the gods himself. In the land of the Nile, the language and ideology of power,  the language of divinity and life unending, was as predictable and almost as  eternal as the river Nile.  

This imposing tradition impressed Egypt's neighbors as much as it does people  today. Well before the Christian era, Egypt had made itself a name as a land of  mystic wisdom. Its gods had a special prestige.  Consider, for instance, this story told by Herodotus, about the pioneering Greek  geographer Hecataeus:    When Hecataeus was in Thebes in Egypt, the priests of Zeus [perhaps this was  Osiris?], after listening to the attempt he made to trace his family back to a god in  the sixteenth generation, did to him precisely what they did to me -- though unlike  Hecataeus, I kept clear of personal geneaologies. They took me into the great hall  of the temple, and showed me the wooden statues [of the high priests] there, which  they counted; and the number was [341], for each high priest has a statue of  himself erected there before he dies...they assured me that each had been the son  of the one who preceded him. When Hecataeus traced his genealogy and  connected himself with a god sixteen generations back, the priests refused to  believe him...{Book 2, 141, rearranged}.  The antiquity of Egypt and its sacred institutions was a humbling experience not  only to Hecataeus, but all Greeks, and many other younger peoples as well.