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Ancient Egypt: The Old and Middle Kingdoms

Among the harsh deserts of northeast Africa, it was only the River Nile which made the development of an advanced civilization possible. In the late sixth millennium BC, farming was introduced from Palestine. The unique advantages of the Nile made a dramatic increase of the population possible. In the fourth millennium villages increased in size, until the first walled towns appeared in southern Egypt, around 3300 BC. Some historians and archaeologists believe that these developments should be regarded as mainly local achievements, but others aver that it was the impact of influences from Sumer which caused the sudden flowering of civilization in the Nile valley. There is indeed evidence of Mesopotamian influence in the formative phase of Egyptian civilization. It also seems unlikely that the two earliest civilizations of the Middle East arose by chance, almost simultaneously, without influencing each other. Whether there was any connection or not, the Egyptian Civilization quickly developed in a very different manner to the Sumerian one.

Ancient Egyptian history is basically the story of three lengthy periods of flourishing civilization, divided by shorter, intermediate periods of decline and dissolution. The Old Kingdom lasted for 850 years, from 3100-2250BC) and was the most impressive era of Egyptian history. Most of the time the country was ruled by a strong, unified monarchy, engaged only rarely in foreign wars of conquest, being apparently content with what it had. Its capital was Memphis, near present day Cairo. The use of the waters of the Nile for agricultural purposes throughout the land, necessitated an efficient administration and a strong, central authority. It is therefore not surprising that the pharaohs were soon regarded as divine.

A detailed list of kings has come down from Hellenistic times, which conveniently groups these kings as dynasties. Six of them are allotted to the Old Kingdom. The central position of the king n Egyptian life is shown by the enormous effort invested in building his tomb. The fact of death was seemingly denied and great care was taken to equip him properly for his existence in the afterlife. Around 2650 BC, the Third Dynasty started to build stepped pyramids for the pharaoh’s last resting place, but these pyramids only reached their full development under the Fourth Dynasty kings Khufu around 2540 BC and Khafre. Khufu’s pyramid is 147 metres high and consists of over 2 million blocks each weighing 2.5 tonnes. It still is to this day, one the largest buildings ever erected.

Egyptian Art was perhaps even more impressive. It was highly refined even at its inception early in the third millennium. The statuary is striking and lifelike, retaining a timeless appeal throughout its 5000 year history. It shows, for instance, pharaohs and their families marching towards the beholder, full of self-assurance, in spite of their scant apparel. The scene depicts squatting scribes alertly awaiting dictation, erect officials in dignified pose, and conscientious women at work.

Initially, Egypt was a nearly classless society, with no real aristocracy. The sons of simple farmers could, and occasionally did, ascend the ladder to very high office in an administrative career. But in time, a class of professional bureaucrats appeared, with sons following their fathers in government and administrative roles. It is interesting that there appear to have been no private merchants, with all mercantile activity being done on the king’s behalf by officials. The accumulation of massive private wealth was difficult due to the laws of inheritance, which obliged a father to divide his property equally among his sons. Nevertheless, by the end of the Old Kingdom, a new class of landowners was becoming increasingly powerful. At this time, real slavery was unknown, though free farmers were sometimes forced to become serfs.

Religion in ancient Egypt was a regional affair: Atum-Re was worshipped in Heliopolis; Ptah in the capital Memphis; Osiris and Isis in the Nile delta; Anubis, with his iconic dog-head, in assiut. Only Horus, the falcon headed one, was worshiped over a wide area. There was also a strong belief in life after death in a world presided over by Osiris, and it is for this belief that the Egyptian mummification burial techniques were practiced. Much of what is known about Egyptian religion is gathered from inscriptions in the small pyramids of the VI Dynasty. Hieroglyphic writing is quite unlike Sumerian cuneiform. Although it was written on papyrus rather than on clay tablets, it was only much later that phonetic-syllabics developed.

The conservative adherence to old habits and customs became even more typical of Egypt as her civilization grew older. At the close of the VIth Dynasty, too much government land had passed into private hands, seriously undermining the income of the state. Central power declines and pharaohs reigned for shorter periods, with local governments becoming over-powerful. A relatively short period of decline ensued. Prosperity and strong government were restored by the time of the Middle Kingdom (the XI-XII Dynasties, 2130 -1786 BC)). Its dominant characteristic was continuity. Changes in religion, in art, and in administration were minimal, but the social structure became more hierarchical. Literature flourished during this period, bringing us such tales as “Thousand and One Nights”. Science was also developing, and we have surviving mathematical writings from the time.

Foreign policy became more aggressive. Egyptian expeditions to Nubia and the Land of Canaan had, however, commenced already, during the VI Dynasty. They were continued and intensified during this time. Undoubtedly the darkest period in Ancient Egyptian history, was the second intermediary period of decline and chaos, after the Middle Kingdom came to an end. It lasted from 1786 to 1590 BC. For a while during the later stage of this period, Egypt was dominated by the Semitic Hyksos.

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