Human Legacy Course/The Kingdom of Egypt

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Human Legacy Course I
The Kingdom of Egypt
LECTURER: Mr. Blair

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Hello and welcome to Week 3, Nile Civilizations. In today's lecture, we will be taking a look at the Kingdom of Egypt. As always, we're going to start out with our first question:

What was the Nile's Gift? Sometime in the 400s BC, a Greek historian named Herodotus traveled to Egypt. Like many people in Greece, he had heard of Egypt but knew very little of life there. What he saw on his journey both impressed and amazed him.

Of all the sights Herodotus witnessed in Egypt, none left more of an impression on him than the Nile itself. For a Greek who was took rain for granted, it was unthinkable that a society could depend on a river for all of its water. He was astounded at stories of the annual floods that brought water to the fields. These floods, he thought, made the work of Egyptian farmers incredibly easy. In contrast, the Egyptians to whom Herodotus spoke listened in disbelief to his descriptions of rain. They did not seem to trust the idea of water that did not come from a river.

Herodotus also could not believe the variety of animals that dwelled in or near the Nile, from fish and birds to crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Without the Nile, Herodotus concluded, Egypt could not exist: “For any one who sees Egypt, without having heard a word about it before, must perceive, if he has only common powers of observation, that the Egypt to which the Greeks go in their ships is an acquired country, the gift of the river.”

Geography & Early Egypt[edit | edit source]

As Herodotus noted, the Nile is the most important physical feature in Egypt. The river, the longest in the world, flows more than 4,000 miles through north Africa. For much of this length, the river flows through the Sahara, the world’s largest desert. Without the Nile’s waters, no one could live there.

The Geography of Egypt[edit | edit source]

Like the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Nile flooded every year. Unlike floods on the Mesopotamian rivers, however, the Nile’s floods were predictable. These floods occurred every year when spring rains fed the river’s sources south of Egypt. The floodwaters that poured over the river’s banks covered the surrounding land with a rich black silt. Because of these floods, a narrow band of fertile soil stretched all along the Nile. It was in this band that Egyptian civilization developed.

The richest and most fertile soils in all Egypt were found in the Nile Delta. A delta is an area at the mouth of a river, often triangle-shaped, made up of silt deposits. Because the Nile is so long and carries so much silt, its delta is one of the largest in the world.

The dark color of the Nile river silt gave rise to the Egyptians’ name for their country—the Black Land. In contrast, they called the surrounding desert the Red Land. Although the desert was mostly unlivable wasteland, its presence was something of a comfort to the Egyptians. The Sahara was so difficult to cross that it discouraged peoples from invading.

The Nile itself also helped prevent invasions. South of Egypt, the Nile flowed through a series of cataracts, rocky stretches marked by swift currents and rapids. Because of these dangerous currents and falls, boats could not sail through the Nile’s cataracts. As a result, people from the areas south of Egypt could not use the Nile as an easy invasion route.

Two Kingdoms[edit | edit source]

The first farming villages along the Nile appeared as early as 5000 BC. Over time, these villages consolidated into two kingdoms. The people of these kingdoms spoke different dialects, or versions of the same language, and had different customs.

The northern kingdom, Lower Egypt, was located downriver at the lower end of the Nile. It occupied most of the Nile Delta, where the climate was milder than it was in the south. The people of Lower Egypt worshipped a cobra goddess, and as a result that snake was a symbol of their kingdom.

South of Lower Egypt was Upper Egypt, which lay along the river’s upper stretches. It stretched from south of the delta to about the first cataract. Upper Egyptians prayed to a vulture goddess, so a vulture was their symbol.

Unification[edit | edit source]

The two kingdoms of Egypt were first unified around 3100 BC. Historians are not sure exactly how the unification came about, but ancient Egyptian legends say that a ruler named Menes from Upper Egypt conquered the north. Menes is also said to have founded the city of Memphis, the capital of unified Egypt.

As the ruler of both kingdoms, Menes adopted the symbols of both Upper and Lower Egypt, the cobra and the vulture. He also wore a crown that combined the traditional red and white crowns of the two kingdoms. Later Egyptian rulers likewise used both sets of symbols to show their power over all Egypt.

Menes founded Egypt’s first dynasty, or series of rulers from the same family. Through its long history, Egypt was ruled by a string of dynasties. Historians use these dynasties as a tool for organizing their studies of Egyptian history. For example, they may refer to rulers of the Seventh dynasty or events that occurred during the Twenty-second dynasty. In total, 31 dynasties held power in Egypt.

The Old Kingdom[edit | edit source]

The rise of the Third dynasty in about 2650 BC marked the beginning of a long period of stable rule in Egypt. This period, known as the Old Kingdom, lasted about 500 years. Egyptians of the Old Kingdom created many of the institutions for which the civilization is best known.

The Pyramids[edit | edit source]

The most famous symbols of ancient Egypt are the pyramids. Most of these huge structures were built during the Old Kingdom. The largest and most famous of the Old Kingdom pyramids are located near the town of Giza.

The pyramids were built as tombs for Egypt’s rulers. Inside or below each pyramid was a hollow chamber in which a dead king was buried. To protect the bodies of their kings and the treasures that were buried with them, the Egyptians sometimes placed deadly traps within a pyramid.

Pyramid design changed greatly over time. The earliest pyramids did not have smooth sides. Instead, their sides looked like a series of steps. The smooth-sided pyramids with which we are familiar were built later.

However they changed, building pyramids took a great deal of planning and skill—and time. In fact, pyramids took so long to construct that kings usually ordered their pyramids begun soon after they took the throne. Workers built the pyramids from the inside out, carefully placing limestone blocks cut from nearby quarries. These blocks had to be dragged overland to the building site on rollers. Historians are not certain how workers hauled the heavy stone blocks up the sides of the pyramid, but some think that workers dragged the blocks up specially built ramps with ropes.

Despite what many people believe, the pyramids were not built by slaves. Most of the workers were peasants who were required to work for the government for one month out of the year. While they worked on a pyramid, the peasants received food and clothing and were sheltered in nearby villages.

Not all of the workers on a pyramid were peasants, though. Professional craftspeople were also hired to work on the tombs. Among them were the architects who actually designed the pyramid and surrounding buildings and the artists hired to decorate the interior of the finished tomb.

The Pharaohs[edit | edit source]

Egypt’s government also took shape during the Old Kingdom. At the head of the government was the king, who eventually became known as the pharaoh. The term pharaoh literally means “great house.” Pharaohs had absolute power in Egypt. They owned all the land in the country, and their word was law. In addition, pharaohs acted as judges and as the leaders of Egypt’s army.

One reason for the pharaoh’s great power was the belief that he was a god. The ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was really a god in human form. As such, people thought that the pharaoh was responsible for Egypt’s prosperity. He and his priests had to perform elaborate rituals every day to ensure that the sun would rise, the Nile would flood, and crops would grow. For his role in keeping Egypt safe and secure, people honored the pharaoh.

Because the pharaoh was thought to be a god, religion and government were closely intertwined in the Old Kingdom. Egypt was a theocracy, a state ruled by religious figures.

Egyptian Bureaucracy[edit | edit source]

Powerful as the pharaoh was, he could not rule Egypt alone. The kingdom was simply too big and too complex for one person to govern. To aid him in ruling, the pharaoh was surrounded by a well-established bureaucracy, a highly structured organization managed by officials. In Egypt, many of these officials were the pharaoh’s relatives.

Officially, members of the Egyptian bureaucracy had no power of their own. They simply acted upon the wishes of the pharaoh. In fact, however, many government officials were quite powerful. The most powerful official in Egypt was the vizier, sometimes chosen for his ability but usually a relative of the pharaoh. He was responsible for advising the pharaoh, carrying out his orders, and trying court cases. The position of the vizier was hereditary. When a vizier died, his son took over his duties.

Serving below the vizier were hundreds of lesser officials. Their duties—and by extension, their influence—varied widely. Some officials served as governors of small territories within Egypt. Others were irrigation supervisors or crop inspectors. Census takers kept track of the kingdom’s population, while tax collectors gathered the grain and goods that supplied the kingdom. All together, these officials kept Egypt running smoothly and efficiently.

The Middle Kingdom[edit | edit source]

Although the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom had tremendous authority, they eventually lost power. Powerful local nobles began to assert their own authority as rivals of the pharaoh. As a result, Egypt’s internal order and stability gradually disappeared.

The government of the Old Kingdom collapsed around 2100 BC. For almost 200 years, economic problems, invasions, and civil wars racked Egypt. Famine and widespread disease added to the chaos. Finally, in about 2055 BC, a new dynasty rose to power and began the Middle Kingdom.

The strong leadership of this dynasty brought stability to Egypt. Along with this stability came economic prosperity. From their capital at Thebes, Middle Kingdom pharaohs encouraged sailors and merchants to import goods from surrounding lands. Historians have found evidence that Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom traded with the Nubians, who lived south of Egypt, the Phoenicians, the Minoans of Greece, and other peoples.

Trade routes into Egypt were not always safe, and bandits and hostile tribes sometimes attacked merchants. To protect their people, pharaohs sent armies to secure these routes. As part of this protection, the Egyptians built fortresses all along the Nile. They also took over Nubia as far south as the second cataract.

Despite these improved defenses, the Middle Kingdom fell to invaders around 1650 BC. Raiders from Syria whom the Egyptians called the Hyksos invaded the Nile Delta and conquered Lower Egypt. The Hyksos had military technologies unknown in Egypt, including the horse-drawn chariot, armor, and a strong bow. Armed with these technologies, the Hyksos easily defeated the Egyptians.

The New Kingdom[edit | edit source]

The Hyksos ruled Egypt for almost 100 years. They were not harsh rulers, but the Egyptians resented being ruled by foreigners. Eventually, they rose up and drove the Hyksos out of their kingdom. The army that defeated the Hyksos was led by nobles from Thebes, who declared themselves the new rulers of Egypt. Their reign marked the beginning of the New Kingdom.

Securing Egypt[edit | edit source]

Years of Hyksos rule had taught the Egyptians a hard lesson: they could not depend solely on geographic barriers to protect them. The desert and the sea would no longer keep invaders out of Egypt. As a result, pharaohs had to find a new way to secure Egypt’s borders and keep the kingdom safe.

New Kingdom pharaohs decided that the best way to protect Egypt from further invasions was to build a powerful military. To this end, they created the Egypt’s first permanent army. In addition to traditional foot soldiers, the Egyptian army included archers and charioteers equipped with weapons adopted from the Hyksos.

To prevent a foreign people from taking over Egypt again, pharaohs decided to create an empire of their own. If Egypt ruled lands beyond the Nile Valley, they thought, then these lands would serve as a buffer between their kingdom and others. As part of their empire building, the pharaohs headed south into Nubia, which they had lost during the period of Hyksos rule. In Nubia, they conquered the kingdom of Kush and forced its rulers to pay tribute to Egypt.

Even as their armies were invading Nubia, the pharaohs led campaigns east into Asia. They attacked and took over almost the entire Sinai Peninsula and parts of Phoenicia and Syria. The Egyptians formed an empire that reached from southern Nubia all the way to the Euphrates.

The Reign of Hatshepsut[edit | edit source]

While Egypt’s territory was expanding, pharaohs were also increasing trade. Goods poured into Egypt from as far away as Greece, Babylonia, and Africa south of Kush. One of the pharaohs best known for encouraging trade was Hatshepsut, one of the few women to rule Egypt. She took power around 1500 BC when her husband, the pharaoh, died. Officially, Hatshepsut was only the regent, ruling in the name of her young son. Before long, however, she proclaimed herself to be Egypt’s pharaoh, the only woman ever to do so.

Hatshepsut wanted to be treated like any other pharaoh, so she acted the part. She dressed like a man, even wearing the false beard that male pharaohs wore. She referred to herself as the son—not the daughter—of the sun god and had statues made in which she appeared to be a man.

The reign of Hatshepsut is best known for a huge trading expedition she sent to Punt, a kingdom on the Red Sea. This expedition returned to Egypt with such products as gold, apes and other wild animals, and myrrh, a valuable perfume. Hatshepsut had images of this magnificent journey carved on the walls of the temple in which she was buried.

When Hatshepsut died, her nephew took over as pharaoh. One of his first acts as ruler was to destroy nearly everything his aunt had created. He destroyed statues, removed her name from monuments, and tried to remove all record of her reign. Historians still do not know why he did this.

Monotheism In Egypt[edit | edit source]

Around 1353 BC a new pharaoh took power in Egypt. His name was Amenhotep IV, but he is more commonly known by another name: Akhenaten, which means beloved of Aten. Egyptians had been worshipping many gods for centuries, but Akhenaten changed that. He worshipped only one god, Aten the sun god, and thought everyone should do the same.

As part of the changes he introduced in Egypt, Akhenaten banned the worship of any gods but Aten. He stripped power from the priests of other gods and ordered the gods’ images destroyed. Out of respect for his god, he built a new capital called Akhetaten. He built a temple there to Aten and is thought to have written beautiful hymns to the god.

The worship of Aten did not survive Akhenaten’s death. The very next pharaoh, Tutankhamon, or Tut, restored the worship of Egypt’s traditional gods and moved the kingdom’s capital back to Thebes.

Ramses the Great[edit | edit source]

For most of the New Kingdom, the Egyptians continued to expand their empire, fighting campaigns in Nubia and Syria. By about 1250 BC, however, a new foe had appeared to threaten the empire. The Hittites from Mesopotamia invaded Egyptian-held Syria and began to take territory.

Pharaoh Ramses II, also called Ramses the Great, led his army out to confront the Hittites. Accounts of the battle vary widely. According to Hittite records, the Egyptians lost the battle. Egyptian records, however, claimed a great victory for Ramses. However the battle turned out, the two armies agreed to a truce. As a sign of the peace, Ramses married a Hittite princess. With this marriage, the conflict with the Hittites ended.

Ramses ruled Egypt for more than 60 years. His reign was marked by extravagant splendor. With his great wealth, Ramses built more temples and monuments than any other pharaoh, including two huge temples at Abu Simbel in Nubia and another at Karnak in Egypt. Due to his political achievements and artistic legacy, no other pharaoh is as remembered or admired as Ramses.

Egypt's Decline[edit | edit source]

The reign of Ramses II marked the last period of Egypt’s greatness. His successors faced many challenges to their authority. Most of these challenges came in the form of invasions by foreign powers.

The first of the major invasions of Egypt was by a group that the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples. Today, no one is sure who the Sea Peoples were, where they came from, or even if they were a single people. All we know is that their invasions were devastating to empires in the area. Their invasions helped bring an end to the Hittite Empire and weakened Egypt’s control of Syria.

As the empire declined, priests and nobles struggled for power, and Egypt broke into small states. This breakup made the kingdom an easy target for foreign invasions. Over the next 700 years, many foreign rulers controlled Egypt. The Libyans from west of Egypt conquered Egypt and established themselves as a ruling dynasty, as did the Kushites from Nubia. Later, the Assyrians from Mesopotamia swept in and took over Egypt. In the late-500s BC, the Persians added Egypt to their huge empire.

After about 120 years of Persian rule, the Egyptians managed to drive the Persians out and once more rule Egypt themselves. Before long, however, the Persians returned. In 343 BC, they took over again and deposed the last Egyptian-born pharaoh. Never again would an Egyptian rule in ancient Egypt.

The second Persian conquest of Egypt did not last long, though. In 332 BC, a Greek army under Alexander the Great marched in and took over. The Greeks would rule Egypt for about 300 years before it fell to another power, perhaps the greatest power of the ancient world—Rome.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

That is the end of this lecture. Here is your assignment:

  • Question #1: What were the delta and the cataracts? How did these features affect life in Egypt?
  • Question #2: Why was the Nile so important to Egypt?
  • Question #3: Why do you think many historians consider the unification of Egypt under Menes the beginning of Egyptian civilization?
  • Question #4: What was the purpose of Old Kingdom pyramids?
  • Question #5: How did the perception of pharaohs as gods add to their power?
  • Question #6: How could a bureaucracy increase the speed and efficiency with which a government operates?
  • Question #7: What led to the end of the Middle Kingdom?
  • Question #8: Why were pharaohs able to increase trade during the Middle Kingdom?
  • Question #9: For what deeds are Hatshepsut and Akhenaten best known?
  • Question #10: Why did some New Kingdom pharaohs want to build an empire?
  • Question #11: Do you think Ramses II deserves to be known as Ramses the Great? Why or why not?

Thank you very much for listening to this audio lecture and goodbye.