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The Legacy of Egypt

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Not far from the Mesopotamian region is an area - Ancient Egypt - where the longest-lived ancient civilization flourished. The Egyptian civilization thrived for thousands of years in the valley of the Nile River in northeastern Africa. The Nile River was a life source for the ancient Egyptians, and just like the civilizations in Mesopotamia, the river provided the right kind of environment necessary for the civilization to develop. The Nile River provided irrigation that resulted to highly fertile lands. It also served as the main transportation route for traders.

The ancient Egyptians became famous for its great might and wealth, and made advances in agriculture and the applied sciences. Because of these, the Greek historian Herodotus termed Ancient Egypt as the "Gift of the Nile."

Ancient Egyptian Sculpture

-BEGINNINGS OF EGYPTIAN CIVILIZATION

There many have been a number of communities in the Nile River valley as early as 8000 B.C. to 50000 B.C.. As the population grew, ancient Egypt was divided between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, with various tribes and communities occupying both areas. In about 3100 B.C., Menes, a leader of Upper Egypt, conquered Lower Egypt and unified the two areas, hence becoming ancient Egypt's first king. Menes' rule is the start of what some historians say as Dynasty 0 (a period from 3100 to 2920 B.C.), when the structure of the Egyptian state was formed. Dynasty I and II, from 2920 to around 2686 B.C., is when the Egyptians developed ploughs and hieroglyphic writing.

-THE OLD KINGDOM

The Old Kingdom started with Dynasty III in 2686 B.C., when the Egyptians built a strong central government. The next 500 years saw the construction of Egypt's great pyramids. Imhotep, a great Egyptian architect, built the first Egyptian step pyramid at Sakkara in around 2630 BC for Zoser, second king of the Dynasty III.

Dynasty IV (26th to 25th century B.C.) saw the construction of more pyramids, beginning with the pyramids of Giza. In around 2550 B.C., they built the largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the shape of which was already a true pyramid. Dynasty V (25th to 24th century B.C.) was founded by priests of the sun god Ra, who built sun temples and obelisks. The Palermo Stone, a stone slab where the records of the Dynasty I kings were contained, was built during this period. However, it is also during this period up to the end of Dynasty VI (24th to 22nd century B.C.) when the central authority began to weaken, as priests and high government officials fought for power.

The next 5 dynasties have weak rulers, which resulted to a period of civil war and foreign infiltration, a period commonly called the First Intermediate Period.

Pyramid of Giza

-THE MIDDLE KINGDOM

Amenemhet, a vizer of the king of the previous dynasty, seized the throne in about 1991 B.C., and established Dynasty XII, from which the restoration of Egypt's wealth and power shall began. The capital was moved near the oasis of Fayum, where the kings built pyramids and turned a portion of Fayum into the "Garden of Egypt." Amenemhet's successors continued restoring Egypt's power. Nubia was added as a part of Egypt.

During the Middle Kingdom, architecture, literature, and the arts fourished. Jewellery reached its peak, evidenced by the artistic treasures found in graves in this period. Sculptures with more accentuated features were the order of the day. Literature came up in the form of prophecies and tales. The Middle Kingdom ended in 1786 B.C. and the kings of the next several dynasties were weak, resulting to another dark age of infighting and chaos, often called the Second Intermediate Period.

In about 1670, the Hyksos, a nomadic group from the Near East (Southwest Asia), seized control of Egypt. The Hyksos ruled for about a hundred years, bringing with them their bronze metal tools and horse-drawn chariots. Various kings of the next Egyptian dynasties tried to fight against the Hyksos, but were defeated. However, Kamose, the last king of Dynasty XVII, finally defeated the Hyksos.

-THE NEW KINGDOM

The period of the New Kingdom began in 1554 B.C., when Ahmose, Kamose's brother and successor, drove the Hyksos forces out of Egypt. Ahmose became the founder of Dynasty XVIII, with Thebes as capital. The successors of Kamose, Amenhotep and then Thutmose I, expanded Egyptian territory beyond the River Euphrates, conquering Syria and other nearby territories.

Hapsheput and Thutmose III

Hapsheput, the daughter of Thutmose I, eventually became queen of ancient Egypt. She ruled as a regent for her nephew Thutmose III. Hapsheput was a very good and able leader, and her reign became a prosperous time for the land. She is considered as the first woman ruler in the world. After she died, Thutmose III became king.

Thutmose III was angry with the way Hapsheput controlled power when she was alive. To exact revenge, he defaced the monuments and inscriptions built in Hapsheput's honor. Thutmose III was also more concerned with warfare. In 1400 B.C. he led armies in battle and brought Syria and Palestine under Egyptian control, making Egypt the world's first empire.

Akhenaton and the Doctrine of Aton

After Thutmose III came several more pharaohs. One of these is Amenhotep IV who reigned from 1353 to 1335 B.C. Amenhotep's reign is one that made Egyptian culture change course, as he was a leader more interested in religion than in politics.

Amenhotep IV declared that the gods of Egypt were not real, and that there was only one Great Spirit, which he called Aton, the creator of all things and represented by the blinding light of the sun. He had his name changed to Akhenaton, meaning "pleasing to the sun." With the assistance of his wife, Nefertili, he made public offerings to Aton and transferred the Egyptian capital to an area in the desert, calling it Akhetaton.

Because he is the pharaoh, there was nothing the Egyptian people and the priests could do but to obey. But there was unrest with his decision and many Egyptians remained loyal to the cult of Ammon-Ra, their original religion. In due time, he spent most of his time practicing his religion in the capital he established, neglecting the empire resulting to its decline. By the time of his death, Egypt was already in ruins.

Akhenaton was credited for bringing the belief in one god or monotheism to Egypt, but many say that he was just influenced by his parents who adopted the doctrine of Aton from Heliopolis. He may have also used the religion of Aton to counter the influence of the powerful priests of Ammon, who were the guardians of the prevailing religion.

-THE FALL OF EGYPT

The pharaohs after Akhenaton were not able to restore the old might and power of Egypt. Tutankhamen, who succeeded him, blotted out the religion of Aton and revived the worship of Ammon-Ra and the other gods of Egypt. Tutankhamen was an unknown pharaoh except for his tomb at Thebes. Other succeeding leaders were Rameses II (reigned 1290 - 1224 B.C.), who was a great builder of temples and buildings; Merneptah, who was possibly the pharaoh mentioned in the Exodus of the Israelites in the Bible; and Rameses III, who was the last great king of Dynasty XX and the New Kingdom. After the Dynasty XX, Egypt began to decline, and the next 700 years saw the coming and going of 10 foreign dynasties.

In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered Egypt, and later, it was controlled by Ptolemy Soler, a Greek general. The last queen of Egypt was Cleopatra (69 to 30 B.C.) who was famous for her beauty and charisma. She committed suicide right after the Roman forces defeated hers in the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C. After this, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire, thus completing the annihilation of the once mighty Egyptian empire.

-ASPECTS OF ANCIENT EGYPTIAN CULTURE

Egyptian culture is one of the most unique not only in ancient history but also in most written history. Its traditions and cultural systems are very rich, indeed, and at its apex, became one of the most developed civilizations in the ancient world.

Society and Way of Life. Most of the ancient Egyptians lived in the Nile River Valley, and the population may have been from 1 million to 4 million at various times. Egyptians have dark skin and dark hair and are usually dressed in white linen garments. Men and women both use cosmetics and jewelry. The family is important - the father heads the family and provides for their needs while the mother tends to domestics chores. Children are expected to support their parents in their old age. Although the pharaohs sometimes had more than one wife, most of the Egyptians generally had one spouse. Women had as many rights as men.

Four classes make up the society. These are the 1) Upper Class, consisting of the royal family, public officials, priests, military officers and officers; the 2) Middle Class, which generally includes merchants and craftsworkers, the 3) Lower Class, made up mostly of unskilled laborers; and the 4) Slave Class, a separate class by itself, consisting of slaves captured in battle. These are not strict classes: a slave may become a middle-class person under certain circumstances, and Upper Class people may become part of Lower Class for some reason, like committing a crime.

Egyptian Economy. The economy of ancient Egypt is mainly based on agriculture, and for this the people look forward to the Nile River flooding of its banks from July to September of each year. A large, fertile portion is left behind by the flood, which is then used by farmers in planting their crops. To further increase their agricultural output, the Egyptians have built canals and dams for irrigation. They plant wheat and barley, from which come bread ad beer, their staple food and drink. They also plant grapes, palm-dates, vegetables, and various other fruits.

Although most Egyptians were farmers, there were also manufacturers, miners, and traders. They produced linen, pots, bricks, weapons, ropes, baskets, and mats, and traded these with the products of other countries and empires, with traders travelling through the Nile using boats. There was no money used yet, and the barter system was the one used. They also mined limstone and granite for use in their buildings and pyramids.

Language and Education. The people of Egypt spoke a partly Semitic language and wrote using hieroglyphics, a system of picture symbols that represent ideas and sounds. Hieroglyphics, which means "sacred carving," consists of more than 700 picture symbols used by the Egyptians beginning 3000 B.C. Modern people had no idea what the hieroglyphics were saying until the 19th century, when the Rosetta stone was discovered, which contained various scripts that were key to deciphering other Egyptian writings. They wrote on papyrus - a paper-like material made from reed, and used ink made from the combination of water and soot.

Only few Egyptians went to schools, and most of them belonged to the Upper Class of society. The schools were generally used to train scribes, who would later make written records for the government and other institutions. Although their main concentration was learning how to write, they also mastered other fields such as literature, geography, and the sciences. A different type of school was provided to would-be doctors. There were many libraries in Egypt containing scrolls on the various fields of knowledge.

Religion and Various Beliefs. The Egyptians believe in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Their highest god is Ra, also called Ammon-Ra, the sun-god to whom they pray for a good harvest. Other gods include Isis, their principal mother-goddess; Osiris, the brother-husband of Isis, who is god of the dead; Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, who is god of the sky; and various other gods and goddesses controlling a particular aspect of life. The Egyptians pray to their gods at home, as their temples were mostly built to serve as commemorative structures for dead pharaohs or as dwellings of a certain god. There was a time, however, when the belief in Aton, the one and only god, was imposed on the people. Millenia of tradition, however, won't be easily diminished, and the people came back worshipping their hosts of gods.

The people believe in an afterlife, which they imagine to be similar to earth, but with better conditions. Because of this, they prepare much for death and burial so that the dead may be prepared for the next life. As part of this preparation, dead bodies undergo mummification, a process whereby the cadaver is embalmed, dried, and covered with long strips of cloth to prevent it from decaying.

Tombs are then filled up with various things like clothing, food, jewels, a collection of texts and prayers (called the Book of the Dead),and amulets and charms. They believe that these things can be used by the dead in the afterlife.

Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Arts. The people of Egypt are masters of the arts. Their pyramids, obelisks, and limestone temples are a testament to their extraordinary architecture. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, stands about 140 meters high, and is considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Egyptian architects shape the pyramids in connection with their belief that a dead pharaoh ascends to heaven to meet the sun-god.

Egyptian paintings and sculpture were mostly produced for tombs and temples, and show scenes of daily life, festivities, or victories in battle. The large stone sphinxes were created to serve as guards of tombs. Small sculptures of animals and other cats also abound.

The people play and listen to music on harps, lutes, and other musical instruments, while literature consists of imaginary stories and essays of ways of life called "instructions." Some of the more known works of ancient Egypt include the "Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor" and "The Tale of Two Brothers."

The Sciences. The Egyptians have an advanced knowledge in astronomy and geography, and even the finer points of arithmetic and geometry. They could measure distances and weights, and even the area of a trapezoidal pyramid. Otherwise, they could not have built those unusually large structures. They also have advanced knowhow in medicine, especially with pharmaceutical remedies and surgery.

Government. The kings of Egypt, later called pharaohs, are absolute rulers of the land. They are regarded as god and their will cannot be broken. On the one hand, the pharaoh is the absolute political leader, commanding all of ancient Egypt's army and naval forces. On the other hand, he is also the highest spiritual leader, who can impose new traditions and customs among the people. The position of the pharaoh is inherited, and he is usually the eldest son of the king's chief wife.

Under the pharaoh are viziers and military commanders who help the king govern ancient Egypt, and priests, who help him on the religious side. Egypt is divided into 42 provinces called nomes, which are also handled each by a particular monarch.

-EGYPT'S CONTRIBUTION AND LEGACIES

We can see from the above description of their way of life that ancient Egypt gave the world a very rich cultural heritage. The concept of the afterlife, one of Egypt's basic religious belief, is part of most religions. Hieroglyphics may very well represent humankind's first attempt to write. Their advanced mathematical and scientific knowledge is the envy of many civilizations during their time. They gave the world the pyramids -which still stand as a testament to the once great ancient Egypt.


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