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A Brief History of the Egyptian Civilization
The Egyptian Civilization
The narrow strip of land on either side of the river Nile is green and fertile while the western part of North Africa is a desert. The area has hardly any rainfall, so except along the Nile, cultivation is difficult. It would be entirely a desert but for the Nile; it is no wonder that Egypt is called the “gift of the Nile.”
The Nile has two tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile has its source in the mountains of Abyssinia while the White Nile flows from lakes in the equatorial region. The most important feature of the Nile is its floods. The coming of the flood each year has been so remarkably regular that it can be predicted accurately. It occurs in autumn between 15 August and early September. The deluge comes when the grounds are parched, and when it subsides, it leaves a new layer of enriching mud. From ancient times, this annual deposit of silt has served as an excellent fertilizer. These natural advantages made Egypt one of the great centres of civilization.
Early Egyptian History
Historians divide the history of Egypt into three periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom is also called the Age of the Pyramids. During this period, Memphis, situated near modern Cairo, was the capital. The civilization of Egypt, with its advances in art, religion, and sciences, developed during the Old Kingdom (3000-2000 B.C.) and the Middle Kingdom (2000-1750 B.C). But in the 18th century B.C., Egypt was overrun by invaders called the Hyksos, who came from the east. They were nomadic people and their culture was far less advanced than the Egyptian's. Their war chariots and new bronze weapons, however, proved superior to the Egyptian arms, and they conquered country. Their rule was short; soon the Egyptian kings regained their land, and The New Kingdom was founded. Now began a new chapter in the history of Egypt. The Egyptian army was transformed and new tactics of warfare and the horse-drawn chariot were adopted. This enabled the Egyptian kings to conquer many lands. These kings also continued to develop the arts and the sciences.
Egyptian Social Classes—Pharoah to Slave
The Egyptian king was called the Pharaoh. He had absolute powers. The land belonged to him and his word was law. He was also looked upon as a god and his statues were put in temples. His deeds and victories were inscribed on temple walls. Next to the Pharaoh came priests, officials, artists, and craftsmen. Below these people were the farmers who lived outside of the cities, and then came the slaves who were generally prisoners of war and owned by the king.
Occupations, Arts, and Crafts in Ancient Egypt
Agriculture was the most important occupation of the people. The rivers fertilized the land every year and the people worked together to build canals, which made it possible to grow crops year round. Thus, they could cultivate a wide area. They appear to have used oxen to draw the plow as early as 3000 B.C. and sickles with flinted flakes mounted on stout sticks. Farmers grew wheat, barley, and millet as their chief crops. They also produced dates, figs, apples, peaches, and mulberries. Like the people of other civilizations, Egyptians also domesticated animals. Goats, dogs, asses, pigs, and geese were common. The horse was brought to Egypt by the Hyksos and used to draw war chariots. Flax was grown in plenty of Egypt. The Egyptian people wore linen garments. During the period of middle kingdom, potter’s wheel came into use. They gradually started using metal on a large scale. Skilled craftsmen made beautiful stone vases, and the carpenters of Egypt made elegant furniture inlaid with ivory and precious stones, which was well preserved in the royal tombs.
Trade and Commerce along and beyond the Nile
The lavish life of the Egyptians required luxury products such as incense, oil, silver, timber for buildings, and items imported from foreign countries. The king controlled both internal and foreign trade. Pack asses enabled the transport of goods over land while the Nile served as a waterway. The Egyptians also had sea-going ships used both in war and for peaceful purposes.
The Egyptians believed that there was a power behind every phenomenon of nature, but the sun was their most important god, worshiped under different names as the creator of all things. Other Egyptian gods were the kings of other worlds, the god of the flood, and the moon god. There were also local gods sometimes represented by symbols such as the hawk, crocodile, jackal, and crow. Priests do not appear to have played an important role in the Egyptian civilization. The Egyptians firmly believed in life after death. When a man is alive, they thought has a body and soul. While other people believed that after death, the body perishes and the soul lives, the Egyptians believed that both the body and the soul live though in a different way. So they took great care in preserving the bodies of the dead. The body was embalmed in spices, then wrapped in strips of fine linen. Bodies preserved in such fashion are called mummies. The mummy was put in a wooden box, decorated with paintings, enclosed in a stone coffin, and buried in a tomb. All the things the dead person was fond of and used when alive were also preserved inside the tomb. In case of the kings and queens, the coffins were costly while those of ordinary people were simple. Things such as clothes, foods, drinks, costly furniture and jewellery were kept in the tombs. The pyramids were the tombs of the great kings.
Egyptian Architecture and Sculpture
The pyramids were the most remarkable buildings in the ancient Egypt. Remaining as achievements of those years are 30 large pyramids and a number of small ones. The most imposing of all is the Great Pyramid of Giza near Cairo. It was built about 2650 B.C. by the Pharaoh Cheops (Khufu) of the Old Kingdom. Since these pyramids were the tombs of the pharaohs, they contained the mummies of the monarchs and also all kinds of precious things they used. The pyramid wall contained a large number of paintings. They give us a wealth of information about the lives of the people, for they depict wars and battles, hunting sense and sacrificial processions, and numerous other aspects of everyday life.
Another peculiar specimen of the Egyptian architecture is the sphinx. The sphinx is a mythological animal with the body of a lion and the head of man. Each sphinx was carved out of single solid stone. Egyptians temples are also remarkable buildings.
Egyptian writing is known as the hieroglyphic script which means ‘sacred writing.’ It consisted of 24 signs, each of which stood for a single consonant. Vowels were not written. Later, the Egyptians started using symbols for ideas, and the total number of signs rode to about 500. The importance of writing was soon recognized, and thus writing became a specialized art. The writers, who constituted an important section of society, wrote with reed pens on the leaves of the plant called ‘papyrus’ from which we got the word ‘paper’.
Mathematics and Sciences in Ancient Egypt
The Egyptians made significant advances in many fields of knowledge. They developed a decimal system of numeration. Numbers from 1-9 were represented by one sign repeated to give a desire number. For 10 and its multiples, there were different signs. There were separate symbols for 1, 10, 100, and so on. Addition and subtraction were easy in this system. The mathematics which the Egyptians developed was quite sufficient for their practical needs, but it was not very systematic. They could calculate the area of a triangle or a rectangle. The measurement of land, the amazing achievements in the art of building and the calendar are evidence of their mathematical skills.
The crowning achievement of Egyptians was solar calendar. Almost all early people formulated their calendars on the basis of lunar months. But this system was not enough for agricultural people who require an accurate knowledge of seasons and rains and floods for their agricultural operations. After years of observations, the Egyptians found out that the average length of the period between two floods was 365 days. They also observed that a very bright star, Sirius, was the last to appear on the horizon when the flood reached Cairo, and that this happened after every 365 days. These two independent operations led the Egyptians to conclude that a year has 365 days. The year was then divided into 12 months, each of 30 days. The extra five days were set apart for the celebration of religious festivals.
The Egyptians’ practice of preserving the body of the dead by embalming bodies was a stimulus to scientific practice. It added to the knowledge of the structure of the human body and the skill in surgery. Chiefly, priests practised medicine and surgery.
By about 1000 B.C., the great days of Egypt were over. The Pharaoh had to fight for his very existence against the invaders from the areas to the south of Egypt in Africa or the new powers across the Mediterranean Sea, from Crete and Cyprus. In quick succession Egypt was conquered and became part of the empires of Assyrians, Iranians, and Romans.