Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization in northeastern Africa that, with its mummies, pyramids, hieroglyphs and pharaohs, has inspired and fascinated an entire world since ancient times.
Ancient Egypt was one of the first places to use a written language and had a centralized state power. The kingdom lay along the banks of the Nile River, naturally bounded by the Mediterranean in the north and the Nubian desert mountains in the south. Ancient Egyptian history encompasses a time period of nearly three thousand years, from the establishment of the kingdom about 2900 BCE. and until the Roman conquest in the year 30 BCE. Despite major changes during this enormous period, it is nevertheless agreed that Ancient Egypt constitutes one culture in continuous development.
Ancient Egypt in European cultural history
The Western view of Ancient Egypt has traditionally been ambivalent: On the one hand, the Bible accounts of Moses give a very negative picture of this civilization. On the other hand, the ancient writers had great respect for the Egyptian science and knowledge tradition. This two-part view of Egypt was continued in the European Renaissance.
Since Napoleon’s conquest of the country in 1799, ancient Egypt has held a firm place in Western popular culture. Napoleon’s expedition also laid the foundation for the interpretation of the hieroglyphs and thus the establishment of a scientific study of Ancient Egypt, now known as Egyptology. The discovery of Tutankhamon’s tomb in 1922 and the subsequent myth of the Pharaoh’s curse have built on the popularity of Ancient Egypt.
The name “Egypt”
The name “Egypt” comes from the Greek Aigyptos through Latin. The ancient Egyptians called their land Kemet, “the black land,” which pointed to the black and fertile soil of the Nile Valley in contrast to the reddish desert sand, called Deshret, which surrounded the valley on all sides. Another name, which also reflected on the dependence on the Nile, was Idabwy, “The Two Shores.” A third name, Tawy, “The two countries”, reflects on a historical division of the country: Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north.
Ancient Egypt provides a unique opportunity to study the evolution of a culture over three thousand years, from beginning to end. This huge time span is divided into dynasties and eras. Through three golden ages – the old, the middle and the new empire – Egypt emerges as its most advanced civilization of its time. Each era is remembered for its peculiar advances and achievements:
- The ancient kingdom (around 2543–2120 BCE) is the time when the great pyramidswere built. The pyramid of King Kheops is particularly well known. The researchers are still discussing how the Egyptians may have built this giant structure with the aids of the time.
- The Middle Kingdom (circa 1980–1760 BCE) is particularly known for the advances in literature and government administration. At this time, the hieroglyphicwriting language found its classic form.
- The new empire (circa 1550–1069 BCE) was the empire era, when the Egyptian Pharaohslaid down an empire that extended from Nubia in the south to Anatolia in the north. The empire brought enormous wealth to Egypt, which we can see from the tomb of the child king Tutankhamon.
Between these golden ages we find so-called transitional periods, characterized by failing crops, bloody civil wars and economic stagnation, but also artistic and cultural development.
State and governance
Ancient Egypt was ruled by kings called the Pharaohs. Unlike in Mesopotamia, where the kingdom was organized as several loosely affiliated city states, Egypt was united under one king already around 2900 BCE. The state was at all times a sacred kingdom, where the king, or pharaoh, was regarded as the son of the sun god and in principle had absolute power. In reality, much of the power was delegated to priests and officials. The position of the Pharaoh in relation to gods and people varied greatly throughout history, depending on how successful state power was in the eyes of the people.
The kingdom was divided into two states: Upper and Lower Egypt, which in turn was divided into a dozen districts called nomads. Each nome had a capital with a governor and a local administration. Taxes were paid in grain or other kind, which in the new kingdom was often administered by the great land-owning temples.
The Egyptians believed in many gods that could be worshiped through statues in the temples. The gods had different tasks and different forms of manufacture and attributes that allow us to recognize them in images. Here are some examples:
- Ra, was the sun god, the creator and keeper of the world, was portrayed as a man with a false head.
- Hathor, the great mother goddess, was often portrayed as a cow.
- Osiris, the king of the underworld, was portrayed as a mummified king on his throne.
- Anubis, the god of embalming and guardian of the tombs, was often portrayed as a jackal-headed man.
Yet, for the first time in history, one also sees a development in the direction of monotheism : the belief in one God. From ancient Egypt, too, the oldest evidence of personal piety has been found – a close bond between the individual and his god characterized more by love than by fear.
A striking feature of the ancient Egyptian religion is the tremendous efforts made in connection with death and burial. Through a ritual that lasted for 70 days, the dead were mummified. Mummification would mean that the body was cleansed of internal organs, dried and treated with preservatives and then lashed in linen bandages and placed in a coffin. Large tombs were built for officials and kings. The pyramids are an example of this. The Egyptians believed that life went on after death, in the underworld.
While archaeologists in the past were most concerned with elite culture, the last few decades have begun to catch the eye of the lower strata of the population. Today, scientists are most concerned with how life in Ancient Egypt behaved to ordinary people. Through excavations of settlements and villages, especially Deir el-Medina, we have obtained valuable information about the agricultural community, gender roles, household economics and the relationship between official and private religious practice.
The Egyptians often lived in relatively large households, where family members of several generations and possible servants lived under the same roof. The Egyptians married, in the sense that husband and wife lived together, but we do not know any wedding ceremony. It has been a common belief that marriage between brother and sister was practiced among the royals, but this turns out to be far less prevalent than previously thought.
Compared to many other kingdoms in ancient and ancient times, the position of women in ancient Egypt was relatively strong. The story is also characterized by strong female characters such as Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra 7. Some of them did not content themselves with being queens, but took the king’s male title and crowned themselves as female pharaohs.
Language and literature
Ancient Egypt was one of the first places in the world to use a written language: the hieroglyphs. The ancient Egyptian language died out in the 7th century AD, but can be reconstructed through the study of ancient texts. The hieroglyphs were interpreted by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion in the early 1800s. Since then, Egyptologists have read and translated thousands of texts, which are among the most important sources of our knowledge of this ancient civilization.
In addition to administrative documents related to commerce, justice system and state administration, there are also a great deal of religious and literary texts. Best known are the ancient pyramid texts (about 2543–2120 BCE), the history of the Middle Kingdom Sinuhe (about 1980–1760 BCE), and the Egyptian death book from the New Kingdom (about 1550–1069 BCE).
Art and architecture
Ancient Egyptian art is very distinctive and easy to recognize. The Egyptians did not use perspective in their two-dimensional visual art, but displayed every part of a motif from their most distinctive side. The human body, for example, is made with a head, abdomen, and legs seen in profile, while the chest and shoulders are seen from the front. This technique is called aspective art.
The Egyptians were skilled stone workers at all times and proud of their architectural masterpieces. The architect Imhotep, who was supposed to have been responsible for the construction of the staircase pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser, was divinized after his death.
Ancient Egypt and the outside world
Despite a relatively isolating geography, the ancient Egyptian culture was at all times exposed to outside influence. In the beginning it was especially the Mesopotamian kingdoms that exerted influence. Later, the Egyptians came into contact with a number of younger civilizations throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East and also in sub – Saharan Africa. Of course, these relationships helped shape the ancient Egyptian worldview, but it was not until the influence of Greece from the 6th century BCE. that such cultural exchange brought about radical changes in the cultural and religious expression.