The old Egypt : Summarized history - INTHEPROF

9.20.2019

The old Egypt : Summarized history



In ancient Egypt, myths and history go together like sugar and arsenic powder, or was it arsenic powder and sugar? Oh oh Crap! What I mean is they can be hard to distinguish and if you do get them confused you're probably going to have a bad time. 



Egyptian history can get really complicated and uncertain since it's become so heavily mythologized due to [A] thousands of years of less than stellar records; [B] the tendency for the desert to kind of swallow important pieces of archaeological evidence, as it does; and [C] a tendency for ancient Pharaohs to both erase the legacies of their predecessors and deliberately mythologize themselves. 


As a result, we have a very strong sense of the aesthetic of ancient Egypt without having much to go on - on the actual historical front. Well, there's a lot more to ancient Egypt than just these myths, so let's dig in and try to separate the facts from the fables. 

Now interestingly, one of the myths about Egypt we should dispel first is that it's "too mysterious". One of the most common instances of this particular myth is the idea that we have no idea what ancient Egyptians really looked like and there is some truth to this. 

You see Egyptian art had very little realism in it. First off, they use this thing called "hieratic scaling" which meant the more important something was, the bigger it was represented. 

They also put a lot of work into making every character represented complete, in a way. 
See, there was this idea that the paintings or representations of you, determine how you'd look and function in the afterlife. 
As a result, you got that weird pseudo profile art style that showed the face and profile but the eye from the front, always made a point to show all ten fingers on anyone, show the torso from the front, but the legs from the side, you know, all that good stuff. 

It was meant to show the body in full so the person wouldn't be missing anything important when they died. 

Then why were their faces in profile? Because profiles are pretty, damn it! Anyway, the third thing in Egyptian art was that the colors used weren't representative or realistic in any way because in Egypt, the colors had meanings; black meant good things like order, life, and fertility since black was the color of the Nile silt that made the banks of the river so fertile; green meant fertility too but specifically it was representative of plant growth and agriculture. In fact, this is why Osiris is green, of all colors to paint him. 

Not just because he's dead but because he's a god of agriculture, growth, and change. Beyond that, blue meant the sky; Gold meant the sun; and red meant the desert, which was also representative of Chaos. 

The inherent meaning in these colors is why we have such a technicolor array of people represented in Egyptian artwork but before the inevitable cries of "well see we don't really know what the Egyptians looked like so it's totally cool that we make them all White in any given Hollywood production because you don't know that they weren't", I'd like to inform you that we actually *do* know that a significant portion of the Egyptian population was Nubian which meant that they look like this. 

Christian Bale does not look like this. Nubian society had contact with Egypt as early as 6000 BC That's more than three thousand years before the upper and lower kingdoms unified into what we considered the old kingdom. 

3,000 years mind you, is one metric western history and by 1800 BC in the Middle Kingdom, Nubia had officially been conquered by Egypt and to a large degree, culturally subsumed. It wasn't until 300 BC that Egypt got Greek-ed and White-ified, so while we don't know what the 'original' Ancient Egyptian population looked like before there was an Ancient Egypt, we can make a number of educated guesses as to what the population probably looked like after 3,000 years of regular contact and cultural fusion with these fine folks Suck it, Hollywood! So now the broad context is out of the way let's dispel some more specific myths right off the bat first up Egyptians were not as obsessed with death as they're commonly portrayed, in fact there's plenty of evidence to the contrary We think that they were always on about death because the most lavish and detailed archeological finds we have are all the things that got buried underground in huge easily preserved stone structures we have no idea how much other stuff that had nothing to do with death either got yanked by an enterprising thief, worn away by the literal sands of time or otherwise destroyed. 

On that note: pyramids. I touched on this briefly earlier. See, before Egypt, there was kind of two "Egypt"s: Upper and Lower Kingdoms. 

This stopped being a thing around 3100 BC when King Narmer conquered the Lower Kingdom, fused the two crowns together into one super crown and made Egypt a thing in one fell swoop. 

After that Egypt's timeline is roughly split between three periods: the Old, Middle, and New Kingdom each of which ended with a brief intermediary period of internal schisming and chaos which we'll get into all of that later. 

The pyramids were overwhelmingly made in the earliest period: some four and a half thousand years ago. 

The Middle Kingdom rolled in around 2000 BC and it wasn't until the New Kingdom happened in 1500 that some of Egypt's most famous figures like King Tut and Rameses showed up. 

This means that Egypt's most iconic rulers lived a full thousand years away from Egypt's most famous structures and Cleopatra, arguably the most famous Egyptian, lived another full millennium after even that. 

Damn. But while we're on the subject of the pyramids it's important to know that they probably weren't built by slaves as far as we could tell. This claim comes to us by way of Herodotus But for all he did, he isn't the most trustworthy source by any stretch. 

The dude is self-admitted to telling the absolute craziest stories he comes across. 
This claim is probably false because, among other things we found a chamber full of the buried builders inside the pyramid and, contrary to the popular belief, servants and slaves weren't typically allowed the honor of being buried with their Pharaoh. Instead, he was interned with statues of servants called shabtis which would serve him in the afterlife without all the mess of you know burying people alive too. 
Effectively, we're saying that slaves would not have been buried in the pyramid, leading credence to the idea that they likely weren't slaves.
Also, chemical analysis reveal that these builders ate beef which was a delicacy in Egypt which leads us to believe that they were well respected and highly skilled builders rather than simple slaves. And don't get me wrong the peasant class was absolutely conscripted into building monuments pretty regularly, but the pyramids were something else. 

And while we're on the slavery point let's confront the elephant in the room to say that there's pretty much no evidence that the ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and decent evidence that they weren't. if two million Jewish slaves, a sizeable chunk of the population mind you, just walked away, the Egyptian economy would have been devastated for centuries, but the second millennium had a thriving economy which we wouldn't expect to see in the aftermath of Exodus. 

There's also no biological evidence of a sizable Jewish population in Egypt, nor any archaeological evidence of an actual migration out of Egypt. 
Also, the Egyptian court at this point was pretty decent at keeping records, so you'd expect that we'd see something, anything, from anyone about this sudden and shocking development. But, there's no record of it anywhere and as a result, the general consensus is that Exodus, while a great story that serves many clever literary and theological purposes wonderfully, Probably isn't directly grounded in historical fact But then again, what is these days? Egypt was also a very structured society. 
See, the Nile flooded regularly. So regularly that it was what defined their seasons and by extension defined their agricultural life. 
The first season, Akhet, was the flood season which made the ground fertile, next came Peret where they planted, and Shemu where they harvested. 
That degree of regularity was found nowhere else in Africa, and the rigidity of the structure seems to have propagated into their society as well. 
There was something of a caste system and while it wasn't totally rigid, if you were born a peasant, your only hope of elevating yourself to the level of craftsmen or bureaucrat was either learn an art, or learn to write. 

Neither one was easy and even then there was no hope of becoming a priest if you weren't born one, let alone Pharaoh. 
Weirdly enough, despite the caste system, there was a surprising amount of equal opportunity between men and women. In fact, a famed Athenian physician named Agnodice traveled to Egypt specifically to learn medicine, where it was totally allowed. 

But when she returned to Athens she had to dress like a man in order to practice because Athens had made being a female doctor punishable by death. 

Why? Well, let's just say they had a pro-life stance as long as that life didn't belong to a woman who disagreed with them on that subject. 
Because Athens was misogynist as hell. But getting back to Egypt. In anthropology, there is the fun kind of myths, which is more Red's department, And then there are those myths that obstruct fact: the ones that you have to wade through and hope to God that in a couple decades or centuries people just stop believing in. 

Egypt is terribly prone to be mythologized on account of not having very much of what we'd call "history" in its earlier half. 

Egypt, ever eager to imitate the calm predictability of its Nile River, lived a remarkably calm, quiet life of isolation in its first 2,000 years, barring the one time they conquered Nubia. It wasn't until the new kingdom between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C.E that they actually do anything in the way of expansion or outside interaction. 

We do know a bit about what some pharaohs were like, but that's mostly the later ones, you see because Pharaohs in the early and some of the middle periods generally really enjoyed purging things related to their predecessors upon their becoming Pharaoh. Couple that with the fact that any lasting evidence about these Pharaohs all got thrown underground and most of it got subsequently stolen, and we're really not left with a lot to go on. 

There are a solid 2,000 years where we can really do little more than point to the pyramids and Egyptian mythology And people are naturally going to want to fill in those blanks, and I mean who wouldn't? Much like our understanding of why on Earth The Mummy is getting a reboot, there's a lot that's unknown What we do know, we know from geography, specifically: water. Egypt exists because of the Nile. 

Without the Nile, there was no Egypt. 
The Nile was a calm river that flooded regularly and was wonderfully easy to manage. It allowed for what's called basin irrigation, which was cheap and not labor-intensive for individual farmers who worked the land. 
That said, organizing the large-scale construction of an agricultural system along the Nile doesn't happen overnight, and it's the reason Egypt ever had kings. 

The so-called Despotic state theory says that any society dependent on a widespread system of agriculture requires coordination to make it possible, and coordination can only come from the central power, namely, the Pharaoh. Since there was one body of water and everyone basically lived no more than a mile away from it at most, Egypt was supremely easy for one government to monitor and regulate In fact Egypt had a structural advantage to centralization that most other African kingdoms lacked, which is that the borders were geographically defined. 

Other African kingdoms located south of the Sahara Grew Outward through livable terrain and basically stopped when it became impractical to communicate with the outer border. 
The presence of the king had to be felt in order for a kingdom to remain a kingdom, so once the king was a distant voice with some 30-day lag in news or orders, he stopped feeling like a king and the people who lived out there stopped treating him like one. 
Egypt just didn't have that problem because the livable area was small and manageable already. 
You knew the government was present because their ships patrolled up and down the Nile all damn day. As a result, Egypt was a single centralized society. 

This is completely distinct from Egypt's contemporary Mesopotamia which was structured as a collective of City-States dotted around the fertile crescent. 

Mesopotamia, literally "between two rivers" in the Greek, was an area sandwiched between two, main Rivers (which I... just said) with a series of small channels running between them. This setup made it impossible for one society to effectively control the others and as a result, a series of small independent City-States sprang up. These polis-style civilizations, like Mesopotamia, later ancient Greece, and medieval Northern Italy to name a few, all follow this pattern of a network of Independent City-States springing up around interconnected waterways, specializing in certain crafts, and trading with each other like mad Point is, Egypt isn't that and despite our general lack of historical intrigue from the old and middle stages of the Kingdom, we know a lot about its economic and developmental history. 

For the sake of completeness, Egypt's rough chronology goes as follows: the old kingdom from 2700 to 2200 B.C.E was the building stage when Egypt sorted out its agricultural system and had a go at making giant stone polyhedrons. Near the end of the period there was a severe famine, which resulted in the government being unceremoniously toppled (like a cat tipping over a canopic jar and spilling guts everywhere). 

The century and a half period of political strife that ensued was the first intermediary period. 

Yet, oddly there was a concurrent boom in writing and art. After some light civil warring in the absence of any convincing government, Theban society stepped up, kicked ass, and became the new rulers of Egypt in the Middle Kingdom. In the Middle Kingdom, from 2100 to 1700 B.C.E., modest land expansion and a more secure supply of resources helped promote an economic and especially cultural flourishing. 

Literature started cropping up, for one, and also sculptures in relief became an increasingly common and visually appealing way to depict characters in detail. 
The period drew to a close upon an invasion by the Hyksos, a people of mixed heritage from probably West Asia, who usurped the pharaoh and ruled the kingdom for over a century. 
More civil warring ensued and once the Hyksos were expelled, the Egyptians, understandably shaken from being invaded for pretty much the first time ever and definitely not wanting to let that happen again, resolved to push out in every direction and also went way east across the Sinai peninsula and into the Lavant. 

This marks the onset of the New Kingdom which lasted from about 1550 to 1150 B.C.E., In the beginning, the New Kingdom was a party as trade routes were re-established, serious diplomatic relationships became a thing for the first time, and more and more land was being conquered Most of the pharaohs you're familiar with are from this period, as the historical records get better as time goes on. 

One such pharaoh was Hatshepsut, and she was awesome. Not only was she the one to thank for setting up all those sweet trade routes, but she was also a prolific builder, almost ordering more construction projects than any other pharaoh. 
The things she made were so impressive her successors regularly took credit for them. That's how you know it's good. 

This was a bit of a recurring theme in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs trying to wipe out all memory of earlier rulers for the sake of glorifying their own image. 
Talk about a Mary Sue, am I right? During the new Kingdom, the pharaohs made a concerted effort to elevate the prestige of a local god, Amun, to a national level. 
Syncretizing him with a Sun god to become Amun-Ra, crafting the image of the all-powerful Sun god that we instinctively picture today. 
This was cool because Amun-Ra is great, but one asshole decided he wanted to ruin the fun for everyone and his name was Akhenaten. 

He not only engaged in the typical jackassery of wiping away the legacy of past pharaohs, but he also warmed wipe out all other gods except his buddy the Sun God, Aten, often pretty much only because Akhenaten didn't like the temple of Amun, and how powerful they were getting. 
His son Tutankhaten thanks to being urging of those very same Amun priests indulged in some healthy teenage rebellion and changed his name to Tutankhamun as well as restoring the old gods to their original status after that Egypt just collectively decided that this whole Akhenaten episode never happened. Aside from that King Tut didn't really do much of anything before dying of something rather the reason he's so famous nowadays Is that he's the one whose tomb wasn't robbed. 

British Archaeologists found it entirely intact some [3,000] years later or at least entirely intact before they got their hands all over it and started breaking precious artifacts yeah Yeah Boo. 
Anyway, almost all other tombs have been wiped clean by robbers centuries ago And the fact that his wasn't is a big enough deal to warrant his fame Another famous Pharaoh is Ramses II who is right next to Hatshepsut on the list of most successful pharaohs ever below of course Yami-Yugi Ramses waged multiple military campaigns and built a splendid assortment of temples and monuments However as Egypt grew in magnificence more and more foreign people wanted a piece of the proverbial pie So Egypt started to fall prey to numerous invasions both small and large While daily life for the average Joe Egyptian remained mostly unchanged Egypt's power gradually declined and multiple different foreign powers conquered Egypt during the four hundred year period, most notably the Assyrians. 

After the Assyrians the Achaemenid Persians stepped in and three hundred years after that Egypt came under the control of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian cohort Macedonians made a point not to try and Hellenize Egypt instead, fully promoting Egyptian culture as a way to keep the people on their side and having the Greeks rule with continued use of Egyptian offices and titles like Pharaoh. 

This last section of Egyptian history is covered rather well by Shakespeare who's covered rather well by Red So give a look over there if you want to know this in more detail But the short of it is that Cleopatra. the last pharaoh of Egypt. was an all-around cool and especially cunning character. 

Among other things she was described by most contemporary accounts as an incredibly intelligent witty and charming conversation partner which later got [burglarized?] into to her being a beautiful seductress who twisted the minds of men with her boobs to explain how she got all these powerful men to ally with her and also bang maybe. 

Despite most contemporary imagery showing her to be a pretty normal-looking lady. There are straight-up scholarly Archaeological debates about whether this powerful and ruthless queen was a 6 or a 10 because clearly, we have priorities Can't we just appreciate one of the most powerful women in the ancient world for something besides her looks? She comes on with Julius Caesar the night he casually burned down the library of Alexandria in order to cement an alliance with him and then after he bit it in the senate she moved on to his adopted son Octavian's enemy Mark Antony Octavian chased Mark Antony and Cleopatra to Egypt where they ran off and later killed themselves after each coming to terms with their defeat at the hands of Octavian. 

Egypt, now pharaohless, became a province of Rome for several centuries where upon it was conquered by the Islamic Caliphate in 7th century, the Ottomans in the 16th century, the British in the late 19th century, all the way up to 1953 when for the first time in close to 3,000 years Egypt was once again ruled by native ethnic Egyptians How insane is this to wrap our heads around? An empire that lived for almost 3,000 years, all before western history as we know it even existed, only to spend almost all of that subsequent western history under some form of foreign rule Damn. 

The pyramids are older to the Romans than the Romans are to us. Cleopatra lived closer to spaceflight than she did to the building of the pyramids. That's all the time I have for today because I need to go and bandage my poor brain 

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