ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS             home | history

Egypt and the Pharaohs

Egypt arose alongside the Nile, a river that ran north through rainless desert. Estimates are that people began settling alongside the Nile around 3700 BCE. And around the year 3500 they began building Nile River dikes and sluices and growing food in greater abundance than elsewhere in Africa, and they raised cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

They increased in population. Communities clashed with each other until two halves of Egypt (northern and southern) unified — around the year 3000 BCE. With this unification, Egypt passed into an era of security, served not only by political unity under one king but also by something lacking in Mesopotamia: natural barriers against wandering peoples. There was the Mediterranean Sea in the north, vast deserts to the east and west, and a great mountain range to the south.

Peace benefited Egypt's economy. Tradesmen went north by sea along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean to the Mountains of Lebanon, from where they imported timber. Tradesmen traveled south along the Red Sea to the coast just east of the Ethiopian Highlands, south to the coast of eastern-most Africa, and to the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. They found ivory, rare animals, sweets and the incense that they were to burn in their temples. They traveled south along the Nile into Nubia, and there they acquired more incense and ivory, ebony, animal skins, and boomerangs. And, on at least one occasion, they found a pygmy from the Congo basin, whose appearance entertained the court of Egypt's pharaoh.

From Mesopotamia, the Egyptians acquired writing, the use of bronze, shipbuilding techniques and artistic motifs.

Authoritarian Rule

The pharaohs functioned as makers of law, as chiefs of justice and as supreme priests. And they passed their power and property to their sons. A distance had developed between the kings and common people. The pharaoh's priests prohibited common people from using rituals that were believed suitable only for the pharaoh. And commoners were not recognized as having an afterlife like the pharaoh and his associates.

Claiming that they ruled Egypt on behalf of the gods, Egypt's kings began claiming that they had been born by the gods, that they were the son or the incarnation of the sun god Re, and that they were immaculately conceived. The pharaohs believed that as members of the family of the gods they had to keep their bloodline untainted, and they believed that to protect the purity of their blood they should marry their sons to their daughters.

Local authorities who had been appointed by ministers at the pharaoh's court were allowed to bequeath their positions to their sons. Their descendants became hereditary nobles, and they believed that their positions were part of the god-given order. The new hereditary nobles wanted after their death to be united with the god Osiris, as was the pharaoh. And if the opportunity presented itself, some nobles ruled their domains without interference from their king.

Egypt's pyramids were the burial place of kings, and people who had little fear of the gods robbed the king's tombs of its treasures, and after this was discovered the burial chambers of kings were put into great pyramids, which allowed more space to hide the king's tomb.

One pyramid was the labor of as many as ten thousand workers on the scene at any one time: craftsmen, engineers and common laborers working twenty years to complete one of the great pyramids. Smaller pyramids were built for the king's officials and overseers. (In the US, a political leader might go to jail for spending government money on a project that benefited himself or his family.)

The Egyptians believed that in death the spirit of the king would begin its climb from the peak of the pyramid to a unity with the sun god, Re, and that from then on the pharaoh's spirit would accompany Re on his daily journey across the sky, to disappear in the evening down into the underworld and rise again the next day.

Succession Problems

A dynastic ruler's death might be accompanied by fights within the ruler's extended family over who was to inherit the dead man's power (fights that didn't occur if successors were chosen by electorates). Feuds within the families of pharaohs led the demise of many Egyptian dynasties. With the collapse of the 8th Dynasty, around 2130 BCE, nobles took control over what had been units of the king's army stationed in their area. For two centuries no pharaoh ruled over the whole of Egypt. The rains that fed the Nile didn't appear. There was famine and rebellion. And taking advantage of the anarchy, people from Nubia (called Cush by the Egyptians) came north and settled in Egypt, as did mercenaries from elsewhere., and common people suffered under the control of local nobles.

New dynasties of pharaohs arose: the Twelfth, from around the year 1900 BCE. There were reforms. Nobles were allowed to retain some of their powers, and they were given a place in the afterlife. Commoners were also recognized as having an afterlife, and it was believed that when entering this their sins would be put onto a scale of justice. Commoners saw their sins as weighing little as most of them expected an eternal afterlife of paradise in pleasant labor, maintaining their earthly status amid kindly gods.

The 12th Dynasty lasted 250 years, and the 13th fell in 1650 with an invasion by a people from the mid-East who spoke a Semitic language. They had lightweight chariots and horses, introducing the Egyptians to the wheel and to new weapons of war. The Egyptians called them Hyksos (hyk khwsht), which identified them only as foreigners.

Imperialism to Ramses II's enslavements

More than a century after the Hyksos invaded Egypt, protracted struggles between the Egyptians and Hyksos resulted in a new pharaoh, the founder of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose (1539-14). He united Egypt and drove the Hyksos back beyond the Red Sea. The third king of the 18th Dynasty, Thutmose I (1493-82) pursued the Hyksos northward through and into Syria, the Egyptians using a light-weight chariot they had perfected and supporting themselves by booty as they went. The Egyptians believed they were on a holy crusade and that they were protected by their gods.

Egypt's advance on its northern front in Syria was halted by the Hurrians. In the mid-1400s, Egypt allied itself with the enemy of the Hurrians, the Hittites. The Pharaoh Thutmose III (r. 1479-1425) negotiated peace with the Hurrians.

In the mid-1300s, Egypt withdrew from Syria and Canaan. Another dynasty (the 19th) was founded by Ramses I (r. 1292-90). His son, Seti I, revived Egyptian imperialism, sending his army into Canaan, re-establishing Egypt's administration there. His son and successor, Ramses II, clashed with the Hittites until the 21st year of his reign when he and the Hittites signed a treaty that they called an "everlasting peace," with Egypt supposed to control lands as far north as Lebanon and the Hittites to control lands north of there.

With a Hittite bride, Ramses II returned to Egypt, and considered divine and incapable of failure he explained his exploits as a great victory. To create symbols of his glory he put slaves to work on buildings and monuments across Egypt. Art work from this period depicts a tall and threatening Ramses holding a Semite, an Asian and a black man by their hair – three slaves feeling the sternness of Ramses' rule. It would be described as a time of Hebrew enslavement — a people in centuries to come to be identified as Jews.

CONTINUE READING: The Land of Canaan, to King David

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.