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DateLine Sunday, 19 August 2007





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Looking back

Ancient Egypt:

A mighty empire

Those of you who read the article on Sumer and Babylon we featured under this series recently may have been fascinated with the lifestyles people led, and the achievements they made during those ancient civilisations. Today, we enlighten you on yet another great civilisation which was built around the world's longest river, the Nile.

Mystery still surrounds the origins, religion and monumental achievements of this great empire, especially the pyramids of ancient Egypt. The world's renowned archaeologists continue to unravel the mysteries of this ancient land from time to time, with each new archaeological find they make.

It is from the various inscriptions, artefacts, mummies and documents discovered during numerous excavation projects, that today we are aware of the greatness of the Egyptian Empire and the valuable things they introduced to the world, many of which are still used in more developed forms in the modern world.

Birth of civilisation

It was on the banks of the mighty River Nile, which flows north from the heart of the land into the

Temple of Abu Simbel

 Mediterranean Sea that the seeds of civilization were first sown.

The flood plain was a magnet for life because, the mud deposited by the river during the flood (silt) created the ideal conditions for agriculture and the development of civilisation based on it.

The flood plain was called 'black land' and the rest of the land (mostly desert area) was known as the 'red land'. Around 5000 BC, nomadic groups moved into these areas and formed the first urban settlement. As they concentrated mostly in the North and South of the land, Egypt came to be known as a 'double land' or 'the two lands', Upper and Lower Egypt.

In around 3100 BC, the Upper and Lower Egypt were united by the legendary King Menes also known as King Narmer. A new administrative city where the Nile branches out into the delta was established. It was called white walls or Mennefer (the Greeks called it Memphis). It remained the capital of Egypt for 3,500 years.

The Egyptian Empire grew over the years under different pharaohs and dynasties from 3000 BC onwards. The reign of the pharaohs were grouped into dynastic divisions which in turn was grouped into several periods, starting with the Early period (3000-2575 BC) and ending with the Greco-Roman Period (332 BC-AD 395). The Roman Empire annexed Egypt - as a state in 31BC.

The Spynx and Pyramid of Giza.

This long-standing civilisation in northeast Africa developed over three and a half millennia around the fertile land of the Nile, which was called 'the gift of the Nile' by a Greek traveller.

All levels of the population co-operated for the stability and fame of Egypt. The government and religion were inseparable. The country was headed by pharaohs who in the early years considered themselves to be gods. However, this attitude changed later and the pharaohs were thought of as divine representatives on Earth. Next to the pharaohs were powerful officials who were known as viziers.

The land was divided into 42 districts for administrative purposes. These districts were known as nomes or sepats in ancient Egypt. Governors were appointed for each district. Taxes were imposed on people and those who failed to pay them were punished.

Taxes in the form of grain, crops and animals were imposed because there was no known currency until the 1st millennium BC.

The pharaohs who ruled the Empire owned everything in the land including the people. The Empire grew and

Map of ancient Egypt

 flourished under the reign of different pharaohs who governed the land from time to time.

However, not all the pharaohs who ruled Egypt were Egyptians and neither were they all men. Do you know that there were many women pharaohs? Queen Maatkare Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra are three rulers who are famous even today. The most important among them was Queen Hatshepsut who ruled for a long period, from 1473 to about 1458 BC. She is believed to have been a strong ruler who often dressed as a man, wearing even a false beard.

A mummy found sometime back was identified as that of Queen Hatshepsut's by archaeologists. They claim that a molar tooth found nearly a century ago had fitted in perfectly to the dental cavity of the mummy which lay unidentified all this time.

There had been seven Egyptian Queens known as Cleopatra, but the most famous of them all was Cleopatra VII. Queen Nefertiti was the wife of King Akhenaton and they were sun worshippers. They worshipped Aten the Sun God and forbade the people to worship any other god.

Religion and burial sites

part of a hieroglyphics

The pharaohs who were considered to be divine representatives were very powerful and were treated with great reverence (respect mingled with veneration) by the people.

As the Egyptians believed in life after death (and the pharaohs were divine representatives), they were buried in imposing tombs built by highly skilled engineers and architects.

All Egyptian pharaohs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms (3,500 to 5,000 years ago) were buried under pyramids.

The pharaohs of the New Kingdom were not buried in pyramids. They were buried in tombs in the valley on the west bank of the Nile, at Themes. The Egyptians were of the view that this was the Valley of Death as the Sun set from this area.

The east bank, where the sun rose from was called the land of the living and Egyptians built their homes on

Exquisite sculptures

 the east bank.By 1400 BC, the Egyptian Empire had developed considerably. The Empire stretched from Syria to Africa.The Egyptians were very religious.

In fact, religion played a key role in almost all activities, including administration. However, religion was very much embodied in Egyptian mythology. The Egyptians had a pantheon (a collection) of gods, represented by even animals. The Sun was the most important and powerful deity. Each district had their own special deity.

Agriculture and food

Ancient Egypt's civilisation developed based on agriculture. The Empire grew along the River Nile because it was excellent farming land. The Egyptians were highly skilled in developing irrigation systems to grow crops in the fertile soil deposited during the floods.

Egypt was a land with hardly any rain, but by building tanks and canals to store the water from the Nile when it flooded every July, the Egyptian farmers were able to irrigate (water) their fields even in the dry


season. They also invented devices to irrigate their land.

The land was worked by peasants owned by the pharaohs. If they didn't produce the quantities expected, they were punished.

Grain was one of the most important crops and it was used to pay taxes, and was also exchanged for other goods. The farmers kept a portion of the crop for their own benefit.Apart from grains, they cultivated vegetables such as garlic, onions, leeks, beans, peas, cabbage, and lettuce and fruits such as figs, grapes, melons, pomegranates and dates. They also domesticated animals and raised pigs, sheep and goat for food.

Grapes were processed into wine and was consumed mostly by the rich, but beer was the favourite drink of the common man.

Bread was the main food for the poor Egyptians. Wheat and barley were ground and mixed with water to make the dough for bread. They also added flavourings such as garlic and honey to the dough and then baked it in clay pots, which they had made out of the clay deposited by the mighty Nile.

In fact, clay pots were very important because they were not only used for cooking, but also to store water, oil, flour and beer. Baskets and other types of containers were also made out of reed.


How pyramids were built

As we have mentioned earlier, pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs, or kings as they were also known. In fact, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built for King Khufu (c.2575BC) using over two million stone blocks.

In general, it took at least 4,000 craftsmen and thousands of labourers to build a pyramid. The labourers were mostly farmers who worked as builders to pay off their taxes.

A Pharaoh

The lands were cleared, the foundations laid and the stones were dragged, without any aid (wheels, horses or tools) by the labourers who worked under highly skilled architects and engineers.

The inside of the pyramid was built from soft stone found locally. However, the limestone which covered the outside was brought from quarries which were sometimes as far away as 800 kilometres.

Transportation was highly developed and the Egyptians had built ships, even large boats, out of wood, complete with sails and oars. Limestone for pyramids were transported in large barges. Huge blocks of stone, sometimes weighing up to 50 tonnes, were loaded into them and shipped to the building site during the flood season.

Once these huge stones were dragged into the construction site, stone masons used an assortment of tools such as chisels and hammers and plumb lines to cut these hard blocks of limestone into huge blocks that fitted together perfectly.

The pyramids are not just a collection of these huge limestone blocks, that were built in that shape to house the bodies of the dead Pharaohs. They were built according to an elaborate architectural design, with even a temple inside.

Altogether about 90 such pyramids were built, with the last one constructed in 1570 BC. As it was easy for robbers to get into these pyramids, the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom were buried in special tombs carved in the cliffs in the Hidden Valley at Thebes and this area came to be known as the Valley of Kings.

However, most of these tombs were also robbed, but the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered untouched by archaeologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922.

It lay hidden for over 3,000 years, and is considered as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries. The discovery of Queen Hatshepsut's mummy is also considered an important find.


Some key dates in the development of the civilisation.
5000 BC - People began farming in Nile Valley in Egypt
3200BC - Egyptian hieroglyphs fully developed.
3000 BC - Lower and Upper Egypt united under a single Pharaoh

3000 BC - Earliest known paper, papyrus were used
2700-2200 BC - Old Kingdom in Egypt; first step pyramids built.
2600 BC - Sphinx, the largest single stone statue, and Great Pyramids were built.
1550-1050 BC - New Kingdom in Egypt, Valley of Kings used for Pharaohs' tombs.
1500-1166 BC - Egypt at peak of power.
C.1000 BC - Kingdom of Kush in Africa began.
C. 750-682 BC - Kingdom of Kush defeated Egypt, Nubian rule over Egypt.
671-664 BC - Assyrians ruled Egypt.
525-404 BC - Persians ruled Egypt.
333-323 BC - Alexander the Great conquered Phoenicia, Egypt, Persia and parts of India.
30 BC - Egypt taken over by the Romans.

Fact file

Egyptians may have the longest, continuous history of any people, spanning over 7,000 years.

They were ruled by many over the years. They gained independence in 1922 and was declared a Republic in 1953.

The New Kingdom which lasted roughly from 1550 to 1070 BC is the period that marked the rise of Egypt as an international power.

Ramesses II conducted many military campaigns and signed what may be the world's first peace treaty. He constructed the renowned archaeological complex - Abu Simbel.

Ramesses III was the last of the great Pharaohs of the New Kingdom.

The three periods that are considered most important are; the Old Kingdom (3-6th dynasties, 27th -22nd centuries BC about 2700-2200 BCE) capital Memphis the Middle Kingdom (11th-14th dynasties, 20th-17th centuries BC - about 2050-1800 BCE) the New Kingdom (18th-20th dynasties, 16th-11 centuries BC - Graeco Roman period 332 BC - AD 639)

The Narmer Pallet, perhaps the world's earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was found in 1890 and is dated C.3150 BC.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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