[Partly revised 1/21/09, 1/17/12, and 1/14/14]

ANCIENT EGYPT

You have all heard the phrase "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  That's certainly true, but if you are beginning that 1000 mile journey, you better make sure that that first step is in the right direction. 

In this class, we are going on a journey that will take us, not only through thousands of miles, but through thousands of years as well, and it's helpful at the outset to know where we are headed.

For convenience sake, historians divide history into three major periods:
Note that these periods overlap--there are no sharp breaks between these different periods, though there are some broad general differences.  The ancient period of history, for instance, is dominated by polytheistic societies, while the medieval period sees the rise of monotheistic civilizations.

Note also that history has for us a beginning: roughly 3000 BC.  There were people on earth before that time, and the anthropologists and archaelogists can tell us some things about them and their societies.  However, until the emergence of writing (roughly 5000 years ago), we can't investigate the kinds of questions historians really care about.  We don't know people's religious beliefs or their laws.  Most of all, we can't know anything about individuals, their choices and the consequences of those choices. 

The 1st third of this course will be devoted to ancient history.  We will be discussion the following:
This will  take us up to the first MT exam.  During the 2nd third of the course we will still concentrate on the ancient period, this time focusing on Europe.  We will talk about....
This will take us up to the 2nd MT exam.  After the midterm,  we will move on to the following for the last 3rd of the course:
Note that the final exam is not "cummulative."  It will deal with the material in the last third of the course, e.g., everything from the Byzantine Empire through the Reformation.

Introduction to Egypt


One of the first great human civilizations grew up in Egypt.  The Egyptians created for themselves a society that lasted for more than two thousand years. Obviously, a society  that lasts that long must be doing something right.  What was it?


Henry Bamford Parkes suggested that, in order to survive, a civilization needed to provide three things to its members, physical security, ethical guidance, and emotional fulfillment, and it seems to me that, for the most part, Ancient Egyptian civilization did an excellent job providing these three things.

[Physical Security involves those things necessary to physical survival, e.g. food, water, shelter, protection from enemies, etc.  Ethical Guidance involves rules to live by including rules for family life, rules for extended social relationships, and rules for our business/economic relationships.  Emotional Fulfillment involves convincing people that their society is a good one, that it is better than the alternatives, that it is worth making sacrifices for.]

Physical Security in the Old Kingdom period [3000-2200 BC]

When it came to providing physical security, Egypt had some natural geographical advantages:

1.  The Nile river.  As one Greek historian observed, Egypt was the "gift of the Nile," a recognition that, without the Nile, there would have been no Egypt.  Egypt is a land with little rainfall, and, without the Nile, there would have been no water for irrigation.  But Egypt is also the gift of the Nile in another sense.  Every year, the Nile river floods, and, when the flood waters recede, they leave behind a rich black soil, called by the Egyptians  KEMET, the Black Land.  This is the name the Egyptians gave their country (our name "Egypt" is derived ultimately from this word Kemet as well--as is the name Ham, one of the sons of Noah).  Because the Egyptians had this rich top soil deposited year after year, the Egyptians didn't have to worry about crop rotation or letting land lie fallow.  The could plant the same land year after year--and sometimes more than once a year!  The Nile also served as a natural highway for the Egyptians, making transportation relatively easy and inexpensive.  This enabled the Egyptians to take advantage of another geographical advantage, the fact that they had most of the raw material for creating a fairly advanced civilization within reach (e.g, building stone, clay, copper).

2.  Warm climate.  Egypt's warm climate simplified women's work.  They did not have to spend as much time weaving and making clothes for their families since relatively simple linen garments were enough protection from the elements.  Likewise men didn't have to spend as much time building elaborate shelters.
 
3.   Egypt is a land "fortified by nature" (as another Greek historian observed).  Since Egypt is protected on three sides by deserts and by the Nile cataracts in the south, not as much effort was needed to defend the country from outside invasion.

This last advantage helps only when the Egyptians are *not* fighting among themselves, and, at first, the Egyptians were not united. The  Egyptians lived in 42 independent NOMES, independent city-states along the Nile, each ruled by a nomarch, a sort of king.  Finally, though, one strong man called Menes (or Narmer) united all of Egypt, becoming the first PER-0 (PHARAOH).  Menes and his successors united Egypt by convincing the people that there were not mere humans, but gods, and that they should receive the loyalty due to gods.

[I over-simplify in lecture.  Prior to the time of Menes, the nomes of upper Egypt and lower Egypt had come together into two separate kingdoms.  Menes achievement is to bring together both upper and lower Egypt.]

Menes and his successors did not entirely destroy the government framework of the old nomes.  Instead, they preserved the nomes as administrative districts and used the nomarchs as their administrators.  Here was a good basis for an effective beaureaucracy. 

Also helping administer the kingdom, the Egyptian priests.  The priests were particularly helpful because of their mastery of HIEROGLYPHICS.  The development of writing facilitated all sorts of other advances, advances in mathematics, medicine, etc. Also, the devleopment of an effective means of organization meant more land could be brought under cultivation.  And the fact that the Egyptians no longer had to worry much about warfare meant they were free to advance in other areas, e.g., metallurgy, making pottery, and other crafts.

Ethical guidance in Old Kingdom Egypt

Since the pharaoh was regarded as a living god, he could obviously serves as a source of ethical guidance.  Whatever he said was law, the right thing to do.  But pharaoh can't be everywhere, and the Egyptians needed more general principles of ethical guidance.  Fortunately for us, we know what standards the encouraged because of hieroglypic texts like the Maxims of Ptah Hotep.

[I read selections  from the Maxims of Ptah Hotep in class.  There's a lot more in this online translation of the Maxims of Ptah Hotep.  The translation is different from the one I read in class.  I am not sure which is more accurate.]

Particualry wise advice from Ptah Hotep:
If you are wise, look after your house; love your wife without alloy. Fill her stomach, clothe her back; these are the cares to be bestowed on her person. Caress her, fulfil her desires during the time of her existence; it is a kindness which does honor to its possessor. Be not brutal; tact will influence her better than violence; her . . . behold to what she aspires, at what she aims, what she regards. It is that which fixes her in your house; if you repel her, it is an abyss. Open your arms for her, respond to her arms; call her, display to her your love.
[Egypt Lecture I usually ends here]

Emotional Fulfillment in Old Kingdom Egypt

In addition to providing physical security and ethical guidance, OK Egypt provided much in the way of emotional fulfillment, the sense that their society was a good one.  Pharaoh himself was a source of emotional fulfillment.  After all, if you're lead by a god, obviously your society is on the right track, yes?  We like to look up to our leaders, and, the more highly we think of our leaders, the more highly we tend to think of our whole society.  [But note carefully the consequences of taking this too far: see Unas below.]
 
Another imporatant source of emotional fulfillment for the Egyptians was their religion.  The Egyptians were a polytheistic people, worshipping gods associated with the forces of nature, e.g.. Re (Ra), the Sun God.  The Egyptians believed that their gods were benificent, kindly forces that favored.them. 


Education was another source of emotional fulfillment.  Apparently, Egyptian schools had a place for able young men regardless of class.  This is an important social saftey valve.  Talented people who feel they have no room to advance can create real problems for a society.  If you let these people prove their ability through hard work in shcool and give them the chance to join the governing class as priests or officials, they will work with the system rather than against it.  Further, these kind of individuals insure fresh ideas and fresh blood in the administrative ranks--certainly a healthy thing.

Maybe the most important source of emotional fulfillment in Egypt was the strong family life.  There were few if any divorces--a good thing.  Egyptian art and literature depict husbands and wives side by side, working together for a common purpose--and this is true regardless of class. We see the husband-wife team everywhere from peasant couples to the  pharaoh with his wife.

For most individuals, their ability to form a stable marriage is the most important single factor in determining whether or not their life will a happy one.  Likewise children feel much more secure when their parents' marriages are stable.  Also, when husbands and wives stay together, they are much better able to pass their  values on to the next generation.

A final source of emotional fulfillment was the Egyptian sense of history.  Note that Ptah Hotep looked back to ancestral tradition.  People like a feeling of being part of something that has lasted for a long time.  If it's good enough for our fathers and mothers, well it's good enough for us.  

Weaknesses in the Old Kingdom setup

It is common in history to want to turn our rulers into supermen, and many civilizations go so far as to deify their rulers. But, when this happpens, the leader has a very difficult position description to match up to!  How many of us could handle being a god?  It's not so easy, and, when we turn human beings into gods, we are setting them up for some real potential problems.  We see just how bad these problems can get with a pharaoh like UNAS (c. 2375-2345 BC). 

The inscriptions on Unas' pyramid reflect his struggles trying to live up to being a god.  There are constant reference to his control over life and death:
They proclaim him a god "with an indestructible spirit," and declare over and over again that whoever Unas wishes one to die will die and whoever he wishes to live will live.

Unas seems to have killed people arbitrarily, to have practiced ritual cannibalism, and to have taken whatever woman he wanted whenver he wanted--all to prove that he was a god.  Not so good for ethical guidance or emotional fulfillment.
Unas is the last Pharaoh of his Dynasty (the fifth), so it seems there may have been some way for the Egyptians to deal with a pharaoh who went totally off the deep end, but we have no idea how they might have gone about this.

But even a Pharaoh with none of Unas' problems is eventually going to get tripped up by the god business. Real gods don't die: men pretending to be gods do.

Now how do you preserve the illusion that pharaoh is a god when he dies like everyone else?


It's easy enough to see *how* the Egyptians approached the problem, but the reason why this  seemed a good solution I can't really figure out.  What the Egyptians *did* was to resort to elaborate funeral rituals that enabled them (somehow) to pretend that their god wasn't really dead.

zoser pyramidThe Egyptians started with "mastaba" tombs, "Castles of Eternity," where pharaoh's were laid to rest along with plenty of good things they might want or need for an enjoyable after life.  And what one might want most?  Well, how about a body?  The Egyptians developed advanced techniques of mumification--supposing, I guess, that the preserved body might eventually prove useful.

During the reign of the Pharaoh Zoser [maybe Djoser in Chodorow]  (c. 2700 BC), one of his priests (Imhotep) came up with a new tomb idea, the step-pyramid.  The Egyptians called these tombs "ladders of ascent," and the idea was that the buried pharaoh ascended the ladder of ascent to his place with the rest of the gods.

Soon, the pyramid style changed, The steps were filled in, and we get the great pyramids that, for most of you, are the thing you most connect with ancient Egypt.  They are certainly very impressive, but was the building of such tombs really a good way to devote the wealth of Egypt? 

The financing and maintenance of these tombs became an increasing burden as more and more of them were constructed.  To gain the resources they needed for their projects, the pharaoh's delegated more and more authroity to the nomarchs, and, eventually, centrallized government broke down.  This leads to a period called the "first illness."

First Illness - 2,200 B.C. - 2,000 B.C.

During this two hundred year period, Egypt went through a rough time. There was no single pharaoh.  One text asks, "Was Pepi pharaoh?  Was Teti pharaoh?  They were all pharaoh, and none of them was pharaoh."   Nevertheless, despite the struggles, Egyptians civilization recovers--and ends up more successful than before.

Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1750)

Around 2000 BC, the nomarchs of Thebes became powerful enough that they could make good their claim to be pharaohs for *all* of Egypt.  This leads to a new period of prosperity, the Middle Kingdom period.  During this period, Egypt has all the good things originally developed during the Old Kingdom period.  In addition, there are two major advances.

1.  Government change

During the Middle Kingdom period, pharaoh's put less emphasis on elaborate tombs and instead concentrated on creating and maintaining a good government.  The values of this period are well reflected in a story called....
The Plea of the Eloquent Peasant  [See The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant]

This story reflects the idea that the job of a good official is in part to protect the weaker members of society from people who would exploit them. Here's what it has to say about a good ruler:
For you are the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the brother of the desolate, the garment of the motherless. Let me place your name in this land higher than all good laws: you guide without avarice, you great one free from meanness, who destroys deceit, who creates truthfulness.
Good standards for leaders at any time.

2.  Religious change

Another MK improvement was in the area of religion accompanied by a new emphasis on the god Osiris.

According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris was once a king on this earth, a good and wise king.  Unfortunately, Set [or Seth], Osiris’s brother, was jealous of his pharaoh brother.  He kills Osiris, and then chops up Osiris’s body and scatters the pieces all around.  But Osiris had the most wonderful thing any man could have: a good wife.  Isis (Osiris's wife) collects his body parts and with the water of life, restores Osiris. She and Horus (their son) defeat Set, and Horace becomes the ruler.  But what of Osiris?  He rules too...but in a new kingdom where there is no more death, and where everthing is wonderful.  And, most wonderful of all, there is a place in this kingdom for you...if you lead the right kind of life.

Egyptians of this period believed that, at the end of your life, you would stand before the jakal-headed god Anubis.  Your soul would be weighed against the feather of Ma'at (truth).  If you had lived a good life...well, it's the kingdom of Osiris for you.  If not...well, it's Egyptian tradition (not the Bible) that give us our detailed vivid images of torment in the afterlife.

A good source of ethical guidance here: you are assured of reward for good conduct and punishment for bad conduct.  Also, the idea that wrong is ultimately punished and good rewarded is a great source of emotional fulfillment.  Justice is done, and all's right with the world.  And it's worth making a sacrifice or two for what's right.  Reward is certain to come eventually.

End of the Middle Kingdom

execrationNow the Egyptians were doing so much right during this Middle Kingdom period, one might have expected this phase of Egyptian civilization to last even longer than the Old Kingdom phase.  But around 1750, the Egyptians faced on outside threat they couldn't deal with effectively.  A new group of people, the Hyksos, invaded Egypt.  The Hyksos soldiers had body armor and composite bows, formidable weapons.

Meanwhile, the Egyptians had a weapon of their own: the clay image.  Egyptians of this period tried to deal with problems by writing the name of whatever problem they faced on a clay figure, then smashing that figure with a curse.  Now suppose two armies are about to meet face to face: one equipped with body armor and compound bows, the other with clay figures ready to smash.   Any guess as to what side is going to win?

Well, at least it's emotionally fuflilling to smash a clay figure I guess.

In any case, the Hysksos invasion marks the beginning of what the Egyptians called....

The Second Illness

The second illness lasted from around 1750-1570 BC.   We don't know much about this period, except that the Hyksos dominated at this time.  The Hyksos rulers claimed the title "Pharaoh" for themselves, and we know the names of the pharaohs from this period...but not much more.  Later Egyptians hated the Hyksos so much that they deliberately detroyed the records of this period.  That's especially unfortunate for us because this is a period we'd like to know more about: it's likely that the Israelites (Jacob and his sons) came into Egypt at this time.   If we knew more, it might shed some light on Biblical stories.  The story of Joseph buying up Egyptian land for pharaoh, for instance, might make sense if we're thinking of one of the Hyksos pharaoh's struggling to gain control of  a land whose people are resisting their control The  "second illness" comes to an end with the rise of....

New Kingdom Egypt (1570 B.C. - 1000 B.C.)

New Kingdom Egypt begins with a man named Ahmose (c. 1570 - 1545 BC).  Ahmose imitates Hyksos military techniques, and turns the tables on them, driving the Hyksos out.  He becomes the first pharaoh of the New Kingdom period.

The Egyptians of the New Kingdom had at their disposal all the good things developed during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods.  In addition, the New Kingdom pharaohs add a powerful army.   The Egyptians want to make sure that they are never, ever conquered by foreigners again.  They want the best defense possible, and , since the best defense if a good offense, they go on the offensive.  Particulary this is true with fighting pharaoh's like...

Thutmose I (1525 B.C. - 1495 B.C.)
 
Thutmose expands Egyptian control up through Palestine and down to Sudan.   This means tremendous wealth flooding into Egypt.  It also means expanded opportunities for trade and even more wealth.  Egypt at its height?  Well, sort of.  But there are problems.  The Egyptian military wants an aggressive foreign policy at all times, and, if the person on the throne doesn't favor such a policy, there's trouble.  Hatchepsut (wife of Thutmose II who takes over after his death) was an exceptionally able leader, sponsoring extensive trade and other wise policies.  But the army wanted a more aggressive leader and so engineered a coup against her, replacing Hatchepsut with her step-son Thutmose III.  Note the potential problem with such instability.

But there was a far bigger problem.  As the Egyptians conquered other societies,  they acquired large numbers of slaves, slaves they treated very cruelly.  They feared slave revolt, and treated them more cruelly.  Note what the Bible says about the treatment of the Israelites after they had been reduced to the status of slaves.

This leads to a real breakdown in ethical guidance.  Whenever a society treats one group of people badly, they always end up treating other people badly as well

But what about Anubis?  Did the Egyptians forget about their date with him?  Not at all.  They still believed that they would be judged by the jackal-headed god when they got to the entrance of the kingdom of Osiris.  But they believed they could get past close scrutiny--if only they had recited for them (or buried with them) the collection of mortuary texts we call the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Priests sold copies of this book as if was an insurance policy to gain entrance into the Kingdom of Osiris.  And as this happened, Egyptians now felt they had the choice of leading a good life or buying the book to be guaranteed entry into the Kingdom of Osiris--and, taking the easy way out, many decided to just by the book.  Now the old standards were still there theoretically, but no one really thinks they have to follow them. Once you've got the book, you've got all sorts of official recognition of one's goodness regardless of actual conduct.  ("I have not: done any harm, robbed the poor, caused pain, made anyone suffer, cheated in the fields, I am pure, I am pure, I am pure, etc.") . Further, many Egyptians begin (rightly) to view the priests as people who are simply in for the money--and, ofen enough, as crooks.

And if the priests are crooks and the priests reflect the gods, well, maybe the gods are crooks too.  Certainly many Egyptian texts from this period seem to suggest as much. The story of Osiris changes during the New Kingdom period, and the depiction of the gods and their conflicts is pretty disgusting to say the least.

The decay in religion as a source of ethical guidance made the Pharaoh's job more difficult.   They started making exceptionally  harsh laws--a clear sign they felt they were losing control. 

Now Egypt was so wealthy and so powerful, the final collapse was not going to come for quite some time.  Nevertheless, by the time of Isaiah (c. 750 BC) Egypt was a shadow of its former self, a broken reed Isaiah calls it. 

In 654 BC, The Assyrians conquer Egypt.  In 525 BC, the Persians conquer Egypt. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquers Egypt, and in 31 BC, the Romans annex Egypt.

Neverthess, through all these setbacks, the Egyptians continued to get one thing right.  Even in some of the darkest days of Egyptian history, the Egyptians produced some beautiful love poems, and there remained in this society a strong sense that there was one man or woman would should give ones hear to with complete devotion.  As long as that foundation remains, the emphasis on a  solid love relationship between man and wife, a society can survive quite a lot.  Without it....

Well, we will see.