Of all the ancient river valley civilizations, the Nile Valley civilization in Africa is probably the best known because most people have seen pictures of its ancient landmarks, such as the pyramids and Great Sphinx. For many, these huge constructions symbolize both the ancient culture that produced them and the modern nation of Egypt, although the two societies are quite different.
The Origins of Civilization in the Nile Valley
The Nile Valley civilization did not develop in a vacuum. Like other civilizations, it was the result of the coming together of ideas and influences from other parts of the world. Archaeological finds have suggested that a number of ancient cultures influenced the development of Nile Valley civilization. Early hunter-gatherers appear to have moved into the Nile Valley in groups by at least 12,000 B.C. Over time, these groups formed settlements and turned to farming. Furthermore, studies of ancient seeds have shown that plants cultivated in the Nile Valley, such as cotton, were grown earlier elsewhere in Africa. Civilizations to the north of Egypt may also have influenced its development. Archaeological finds in ancient Palestine suggest that an older culture there contributed to Nile Valley civilization. Most scholars believe, however, that it was mainly the Nile Valley people themselves who created and developed their magnificent culture.
The Physical Setting
The boundaries of modern Egypt are quite different from those of ancient Egypt. Today desert predominates in the region, with only an occasional green oasis, a place where there is water, breaking the barren landscape. Some 12,000 years ago, however, much of the area was covered by swampland that probably teemed with the animals we associate with central Africa-the hippopotamus and the crocodile, for example. Even so, for the last 5,000 years one physical feature has dominated the area: the Nile River. The main sources of this river, the longest in the world, are the White Nile, which begins near Lake Victoria in eastern Africa, and the Blue Nile, the source of which is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. From the source of the White Nile to where the river enters the Mediterranean Sea through the Nile Delta is about 4,160 miles. Along its length lie six great cataracts (rapids), where the river is forced into narrow channels cut through rock. The Nile Valley people built their civilization in the 750 mile stretch between the sea and the first cataract. “The gift of the Nile.”
Many centuries after the early period of Nile Valley history, an ancient Greek historian named Herodotus wrote of his travels in northeastern Africa. He said that all Egypt was “the gift of the Nile.” His writings accurately described a remarkable feature of Nile Valley geography-the annual flood. Until the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the1960s, each year from June to October, rain falling on the Ethiopian plateau near the source of the Nile caused the river to flood the flatland of the Nile Valley As the waters receded, they left behind a layer of silt, or fertile soil, carried as sediment in the river’s waters. From earliest times, Egyptian farmers planned their work around the flood. They knew when it would come every year.
They harvested their crops (such as wheat and barley) before the flood began; then they waited for the water to soak the hard, dry earth before draining off and leaving its new, fertile soil. Little or no rain falls in Egypt directly, and the moisture produced by the flood was sufficient for only one planting. Early in their history, however, the Egyptians learned to use water from the Nile for irrigation. Farmers dug networks of short canals to carry water to their fields. The water from the canals helped farmers grow two or even three crops a year, thus making it possible to feed a large population. Other natural advantages. Even in ancient times the Nile Valley had other natural resources besides its fertile soil. Its sunny, frost-free climate, for example, nurtured many kinds of crops. An interesting and important feature of the climate was, and still is, the prevailing wind that blows from the Mediterranean Sea upstream into the Nile Valley.
A boat on the Nile can either go upstream with the wind by using a sail or be rowed with oars downstream against the wind, aided by the river current. This fact allowed the ancient Egyptians to make the Nile River as far as the first cataract a pathway of travel and trade that linked all parts of the valley. It also helped the ancient Egyptians unite the region. The Nile Valley also contains deposits of granite, sandstone, and limestone. The Egyptians used these minerals for building. They had no lumber because there were few forests in the region. Finally, the ancient Egyptians enjoyed one other natural advantage-the valley’s location. The deserts and seas that surrounded the Nile Valley provided a natural protection against invaders. Only the Isthmus of Suez broke the natural barriers. The isthmus forms a land bridge between Asia and Africa and thus provided a route for trade, for the exchange of ideas, and even for invading armies.
Early Steps Toward Civilization
People have lived in the valley of the Nile River since earliest times. A Neolithic culture probably developed in the valley about 6000 B.C. By about 3800 B.C. the people of the Nile Valley had begun to take important steps along the road to civilization. They mined copper, perhaps to make tools and jewelry. They discovered how to make bronze, the strong alloy of copper and tin. Evidence indicates that they also learned how to glaze pottery. Nile Valley writing. By about 3000 B.C. Nile Valley people were using a form of writing referred to as hieroglyphics. The word comes from two Greek words: hieros, meaning “sacred,” and gluphein, meaning “to carve.” Hieroglyphic writing used more than 600 hieroglyphic signs, pictures, or symbols to indicate words or sounds. The Egyptians used 24 signs that each stood for only one sound-all consonants. Other signs represented two consonants. They had no signs for vowels.
At first Egyptians carved hieroglyphics in stone and other hard materials, but this was a long and difficult process. Searching for a better material on which to write, they discovered how to make use of the papyrus plant that grew in the marshes near the Nile. They first cut the stem of the plant into long, thin slices. Then they moistened the strips, arranged them in layers on top of each other, and pressed them together to form a mat with a smooth surface. The Egyptians called this product papyrus (plural papyri), from which we derive our word paper. Egyptians wrote on papyrus with ink made from soot, water, and vegetable gum-a sticky juice from certain trees and plants.
The Egyptians diluted the gum with water before mixing it with soot. They used a sharpened reed as a pen. Solving the hieroglyphic puzzle. Modern scholars learned to read the language of the ancient Egyptians through a clever bit of detective work. In A.D. 1798 a French army, commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Egypt. The next year a French officer discovered a stone that had inscriptions written in Greek, hieroglyphics, and a later Egyptian writing called demotic. The Rosetta Stone, named for the Rosetta branch of the Nile Delta (where the officer stumbled upon the stone), provided the means to understanding the language of the ancient Egyptians.
Almost 23 years after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, a French language expert, Jean François Champollion, solved the mystery. The Greek text, which scholars could read, stated that all three inscriptions said the same thing and also described honors granted by the priesthood to the ruler Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. Champollion was able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols in the inscription and went on to establish the principles by which all other hieroglyphics could be read. Because scholars could now understand hieroglyphics, they could read eyewitness accounts of Egypt’s history.
The Egyptian Kingdom
Over the centuries strong leaders united early Egyptian settlements to form two kingdoms-Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. (A king or queen heads a kingdom, one of the earliest forms of government. Another word for kingdom is monarchy.) Upper Egypt lay farther south from the Mediterranean Sea, along the upper Nile River. Lower Egypt lay to the north, in the delta of the Nile River. Then, sometime after 3200 B.C., a ruler known as Menes, a king of Upper Egypt, united all Egypt into one kingdom. Menes and his successors crushed rebellions, gained new territory, regulated irrigation, and encouraged trade, bringing increased prosperity. Much of the power of these rulers came from their roles as religious as well as political leaders.
The people regarded them as gods. In later years Egyptian rulers took the title pharaoh, which means “great house,” after the place where they lived. The pharaohs led the government and served as judges, high priests, and generals of the armies. Although the pharaohs had absolute, or unlimited, power, their duties included protecting and caring for their people. Menes founded a dynasty, or family of rulers in which the right to rule passes on within the family, usually from father to son or daughter. This hereditary rule ends only when the family is driven from power or when there is no family member left to ruler. In more than 2,500 years, beginning with time of Menes and continuing to almost 300 B.C about 30 Egyptian dynasties rose and fell. Historians divide this span of time into three kingdoms: the old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The periods between the kingdoms are referred to as the intermediate periods.
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom existed from about 2650 to 2180 B.C. Many important developments in science and the arts took place during this time. For example, Egyptians of the Old Kingdom built the largest pyramids, which still stand as symbols of the glory of Egyptian civilization. During this time, the upper class in Egyptian society consisted of the pharaoh, the royal family, and the priests and officials who helped govern the country.
The lower class was most of the population-mainly peasants, or farmers. They owed the pharaoh certain services, such as duty in the army or work on the irrigation system or on the pyramids and public buildings. As time passed, officials in the upper class gradually became a hereditary group of nobles. Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs grew weaker and the nobles grew stronger. For well over 100 years after the end of this period, civil wars divided the country as rivals claimed the throne.
The Middle Kingdom
In about 2040 B.C. a new line of pharaohs reunited Egypt for a while, beginning a period known as the Middle Kingdom. Once again, however, the rise of a hereditary class of nobles and priests weakened the power of the pharaoh. Rivalries, conflicts, and the division of power caused the Middle Kingdom to fall into disorder around 1780 B.C. Then, about 1650 B.C., much of Egypt fell under the rule of an Asiatic people-the Hyksos –whose horse-drawn chariots overwhelmed the Egyptians. The Hyksos. The story of the Hyksos’ rule in Egypt provides an excellent example of differing interpretations of history.
Historians investigate past events and interpret these events according to the evidence they find. Often, different historians disagree as to exactly what happened. According to Egyptian records written hundreds of years later, the brutal and warlike Hyksos savagely invaded Lower Egypt. In about the 200s B.C. an Egyptian priest, Manetho, wrote that Egypt had been invaded by people from the east. Manetho described how these people had used force to conquer the rulers of Egypt and destroy cities and temples. He wrote that they treated the natives of Egypt cruelly, slaughtering some and enslaving women and children.
Based on this and other ancient Egyptian sources, some scholars believe that the Hyksos invaded and conquered Egypt. Other scholars, however, point out that little evidence confirms the destruction of Egyptian temples during this period. They discount Egyptian stories of the Hyksos’ brutality as excuses for why the Hyksos were able to conquer Egypt. After all, how could a land ruled by a god fall under foreign rule unless those foreigners had mighty armies? These scholars believe that nomadic Hyksos migrated into the Nile Delta around 1800 B.C. In the confusion following the collapse of the Middle Kingdom, the Hyksos emerged as the most powerful people in the region and ruled most of Lower Egypt for more than 100 years.
The New Kingdom
Although historians disagree about how the Hyksos came to rule Egypt, most agree that they remained outsiders in Egypt. Eventually leaders in Upper Egypt forged an army, rebelled against the Hyksos, and drove them from the country. A line of strong pharaohs who lived in the city of Thebes far up the Nile ruled a reunited Egypt. The period in which they ruled-from about 1570 B.C. to about 1100 B.C.- is called the New Kingdom. For a time, the pharaohs once more had absolute power. They kept strict control over the government, and adopting the horse-drawn chariots of the Hyksos, they created a strong army. With the aid of this army, the pharaohs extended their territory to include land along the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and south into Nubia.
In doing so, they created an empire, a form of government in which an individual or a single people rules over many other peoples and their territories. Like many other peoples, however, the Egyptians found it easier to conquer territory than to rule and keep it. Usually, they allowed the local prince of a conquered region to act as governor. To be sure of his loyalty and obedience, they took his sons and brothers back to Egypt as hostages to be trained at the palace of Thebes. Only the strongest pharaohs, however, could hold the empire together. Whenever the government of Egypt showed signs of weakness, some part of the empire would revolt and try to break away. Although historians disagree about how the Hyksos came to rule Egypt, most agree that they remained outsiders in Egypt. Eventually leaders in Upper Egypt forged an army, rebelled against the Hyksos, and drove them from the country.
A line of strong pharaohs who lived in the city of Thebes far up the Nile ruled a reunited Egypt. The period in which they ruled-from about 1570 B.C. to about 1100 B.C.- is called the New Kingdom. For a time, the pharaohs once more had absolute power. They kept strict control over the government, and adopting the horse-drawn chariots of the Hyksos, they created a strong army. With the aid of this army, the pharaohs extended their territory to include land along the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and south into Nubia. In doing so, they created an empire, a form of government in which an individual or a single people rules over many other peoples and their territories. Like many other peoples, however, the Egyptians found it easier to conquer territory than to rule and keep it. Usually, they allowed the local prince of a conquered region to act as governor.
To be sure of his loyalty and obedience, they took his sons and brothers back to Egypt as hostages to be trained at the palace of Thebes. Only the strongest pharaohs, however, could hold the empire together. Whenever the government of Egypt showed signs of weakness, some part of the empire would revolt and try to break away. Hatshepsut rules Egypt. One of the first woman rulers about whom we have written records, Hatshepsut, reigned as pharaoh from c. 1503 B.C. to 1482 B.C. Although Egyptian queens often gained fame as the wives of kings, few ever became pharaohs. Hatshepsut proved to be an able ruler. In addition to maintaining the security of Egypt, she had temples to the gods constructed, as well as other public buildings.
Hatshepsut first ruled with her husband, Thutmose II, who was also her half brother. This marriage illustrates a unique custom of Egyptian rulers. As a god, the pharaoh could not marry an ordinary human being. Instead, the pharaoh usually married a sister or brother, or half sister or half brother. After Thutmose II died, his son, Thutmose III, wanted to become ruler, but Hatshepsut continued to rule alone. Angry at Hatshepsut for refusing to allow him power, Thutmose III tried to have her name removed from all public monuments after she died. Amenhotep and religious innovation. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV ruled from about 1380 B.C. to 1362 B.C. Neither a great conqueror nor a good ruler, Amenhotep is nevertheless important because he attempted to bring about a social and religious revolution.
Before Amenhotep became pharaoh, Egyptians believed in the existence of many gods. We call such a belief polytheism, from the Greek words polys, meaning “many,” and theos, meaning “god.” The greatest of the Egyptian gods was Amon-Re. Amenhotep tried to change Egyptian religion. He believed in only one god-the sun, symbolized by a sun disk called the Aton-and he believed that the pharaoh was that god’s earthly son. We call this belief in only one god monotheism, from the Greek monos, meaning “one,” plus theos. To honor Aton, Amenhotep changed his own name to Akhenaton, which means “he who is pleasing to Aton.” The priests of Amon-Re had become so powerful that they constantly interfered in public affairs.
To break up their power, Akhenaton moved his capital from Thebes, the site of the great temple of AmonRe, to a new city, Akhetaton, a site known today as Tell el-‘Amarna. At Akhetaton, Akhenaton devoted his time to religion and neglected the ruling of the empire. Akhenaton’s actions infuriated the priests of Amon-Re. The wealth that formerly had come to them at their great temple of Thebes now went to the temple of the new god in the new capital. Their easy way of life suddenly ended. Appointments to high positions, which formerly had been theirs, now went to followers of Aton.
Akhenaton soon learned that he could not change all of his people’s religious beliefs by command. A bitter struggle between pharaoh and priests disrupted Egypt during the later years of his reign. During the reign of a successor of Akhenaton-the boy king Tutankhamen-the priests of Amon-Re regained their power. The capital was moved to Memphis, and the old polytheistic religion was reestablished. The religious and cultural upheaval begun by Akhenaton was now ended. After the death of Akhenaton, few strong pharaohs ruled Egypt. Ramses II, however, was a powerful leader who ruled from about 1279 to 1213 B.C. He waged war for years against the Hittites, who were invading the Egyptian territory of Syria. Ramses managed to hold Egypt and the empire intact and ordered the construction of many temples and monuments. He is sometimes called Ramses the Great.
Most of Ramses II’s successors could not maintain the empire or prevent corruption in the government. Slowly Egypt slipped into decline. Egyptian records from this period suggest there was widespread upheaval in the Eastern Mediterranean. A series of invasions weakened Egypt, and finally foreign empires, including the Nubians, the Assyrians, and the Persians, ravaged Egypt. Egypt was no longer a major imperial power. Even during these times, however, dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs continued to reign. It was not until the 300s B.C. that rule in Egypt by Egyptians finally came to an end.
Egyptian Life and Culture
Although dynasties rose and fell, the remarkably stable Nile Valley culture extended over many centuries. This stability resulted in part from favorable conditions, particularly the regular Nile floods and the region’s protected geographic location.
Farming and Trade
Farmland in Egypt was divided into large estates. Peasants did most of the farming, using crude hoes or wooden plows. The peasants, however, could keep only part of the crop. The rest went to the pharaoh as rents and taxes. Wheat and barley were the chief grain crops. Flax was grown and then spun and woven into linen. Farmers also raised cotton, important to Egypt in ancient times just as it is today, for weaving into cloth. Ancient Egypt usually produced more food than its people required. The Egyptians traded the surplus with other peoples for products that Egypt needed. Trade was carried on by land and sea. Egyptians were among the first people to build seagoing ships. Their ships sailed the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Red Seas. On land, merchants riding donkeys and camels joined caravans-groups of people traveling together for safety over long distances-into western Asia and deep into Africa.
For the most part, rigid divisions separated Egyptian social classes. Although people in the lower class sometimes could improve their status, they almost never entered the ranks of the upper class. Women, however, enjoyed many legal rights and ranked as the equals of their husbands in social and business affairs. An Egyptian woman could own property in her own right and could leave it to her daughter. In many ways, Egyptian women at that time had more freedom and more power than women in other cultures in the region.
Architecture and the Arts
When most people think of Egypt, they often first call to mind the huge stone figure of the Sphinx and the majestic pyramids, which still stand after nearly 5,000 years. The huge limestone beast crouching in the sand near the present-day city of Giza is called the Great Sphinx. The statue has the 240-foot body of a lion, stands 66 feet tall, and has a human face measuring almost 14 feet across. Scholars believe that the Great Sphinx is about 4,500 years old, and think that it may represent the ancient Egyptian sun god.
The Egyptians built the pyramids as tombs for the pharaohs. Most of the 80 or so pyramids that still stand are clustered in groups along the west bank of the Nile. The best-known ones tower above the sands at Giza. Among them is the Great Pyramid, built about 2600 B.C. This gigantic structure covers about 13 acres at its base and is almost 460 feet high. It consists of over 2 million blocks of stone, each of which weighs 500 pounds. The building of such gigantic structures obviously required great skill. Egyptian architects and engineers ranked among the best in the ancient world.
Scholars believe they built ramps, or sloping walkways, along which thousands of slaves pushed or pulled enormous stones into place. They also used levers to move heavy objects. The Egyptians perfected other art forms as well. In addition to large-scale works, sculptors made small, lifelike statues of rulers and animals. Egyptians decorated many of their buildings with paintings showing scenes of everyday life-artisans at work, farmers harvesting grain, and people enjoying banquets. Egyptians developed a distinctive way of drawing the human figure. They showed the head and feet in profile and the shoulders facing forward. Despite this angular, somewhat stiff interpretation, surviving paintings provide us with colorful examples of the Egyptian way of life.
Science, Mathematics, and Medicine
Early in their history, the Egyptians invented a lunar calendar-that is, one based on the moon’s movements. As discussed in Chapter 1, such a calendar caused difficulties because it did not fill the entire year. Some time later, however, an observant Egyptian noticed that a very bright star began to appear above the horizon just before the floods came. The time between one rising of this star (which we now call Sirius, the Dog Star) and the next is 365 days, almost exactly a full year. The ancient Egyptians then based their year on this cycle, dividing it into 12 months of 30 days each.
This system left them with five extra days, which they used for holidays and feasting. To keep track of the years, Egyptians adopted the practice of counting the years of the pharaohs’ reigns. For example, they might refer to the first, second, or twentieth year of the reign of a certain pharaoh. The Egyptians developed a number system based on 10, similar to the decimal system we use today, and they used fractions as well as whole numbers. They also used geometry to calculate how to restore the boundaries of fields after floods, and also to build the pyramids. The Egyptians also made important discoveries in medicine. They knew a great deal about the human body and used this knowledge to treat illnesses and in preserving bodies. Several Egyptian papyri that have survived classify diseases according to symptoms and recommend treatments. Although the treatments include some “magic spells,” many specify the use of herbs and medicine.
Education and Religion
The Egyptians could not have gathered and passed on their knowledge without a system of education. Religious instruction formed an important part of Egyptian education, and schools were usually in or attached to temples. Most education, however, focused on training an elite group of people to read and write so that they could work for the government. These people were scribes, or clerks. Religion was an extremely important part of Egyptian life. Egyptians believed in many gods. In early days each village and district had its own local god or gods. In time, people throughout the country accepted and worshiped some of these gods.
The most important god was Amon, or Amon-Re, the creator, sky, and sun. Another very important god was Osiris. He was the god of the Nile River, who periodically died and was resurrected, very much the way the river regularly flooded and receded. Osiris also judged people after death. Osiris’s wife and sister, Isis, was the moon goddess, the Great Mother, and a symbol of fertility. As you have read, the priests of Amon-Re fought Akhenaton’s attempt to replace Amon-Re and the other gods with the worship of a sole sun god, Aton. Each god was associated with animal symbols that people considered sacred. Sacred animals included the cat, the bull, the crocodile, and the scarab (beetle).
The afterlife. At first, Egyptians believed that only the pharaohs had an afterlife, or life after death. Later, Egyptians believed that everyone, including animals, went on living after death. They believed that the human body had to be preserved to make existence after death possible. To do this, they developed a process called mummification, which involved removing the organs and treating the body with chemicals so that it would remain preserved for centuries. Workers placed the mummy in a tomb stocked with clothing, food, jewelry, tools, weapons, and even servants in the form of sculptured or painted figures. The number and richness of the articles in the tomb depended on the importance of the dead person.
The Egyptians considered these articles necessary for the person’s existence after death. In later periods, they also placed in the tomb papyrus scrolls known as the Book of the Dead-a collection of hymns, prayers, and spells that formed a kind of guide to the afterlife. In the afterlife, it was thought, a person’s soul was judged on the basis of the kind of life the person had lived. The soul testified as to whether the person had lied, murdered, or been excessively proud. After the soul had testified, the god Osiris weighed its statement on a great scale against a sacred feather, the symbol of truth. If the scales balanced, the soul had spoken the truth. It could then enter into a place of eternal happiness. But if the scale did not balance, the soul was thrown to a horrible monster called the Eater of the Dead. Thus, the Egyptians’ religion emphasized the importance of having a good character and living a morally pure life, qualities that led to rewards in the afterlife. Egyptian tombs.
Because of the precious articles buried inside Egyptian graves, robbers frequently plundered them. Looters opened the pyramids built during the Old Kingdom and stole their contents. During the New Kingdom, the Egyptians cut elaborate secret tombs into cliff walls in the Valley of the Kings, but thieves robbed most of these tombs also. In A.D. 1922, however, archaeologists discovered the previously unopened burial chamber of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. This tomb, cut into rock, dated from around 1300 B.C. and contained gold, objects decorated with jewels, furniture, and household items. Although Tutankhamen had a short and relatively unimportant reign, the objects in his tomb have taught us much about life in ancient Egypt.