Ancient Egypt

"Walk Like an Egyptian"


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While the people of the Fertile Crescent were farming and fighting, a strange, beautiful civilization grew from the rich soil along the Nile River. These were the Egyptians, whose unique customs and impressive architecture have always attracted our special attention. Take, for example, the role of the cat in ancient Egypt.

Egyptians were the first people to domesticate the cat around 2000 BC. From then on, cats were considered types of gods on earth. Egyptian hunters took cats on their hunts instead of dogs. According to one source, the Egyptian army once surrendered a battle because their enemy released cats onto the battlefield and the Egyptians didn't want to hurt them. Have you ever seen a mummy, a dead person wrapped in cloth so their body would be preserved? Well, the Egyptians even mummified their cats. In one temple, scientists found more than 300,000 dead cats wrapped up in cloth. The ancient Egyptians were truly a one-of-a-kind people.

Perhaps no other nation owes more to a river than Egypt. The Nile made life in this dry desert possible. In fact, the entire country is somex called "the gift of the Nile." The Nile River Valley is practically rainless - without the river there would be no water; without water, there would be no life. The river starts far south of Egypt in the highlands of Africa where rains fall and snows melt. It flows north for 4,000 miles all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, bringing life with it. Because the river flows north, the "Upper Nile" is actually to the south, while the "Lower Nile" is to the north.

Each year the Nile floods in a very predictable way. Farmers figured this out early, and were able to use the river to irrigate their crops. The river was also used for travel, and most of Egyptian life took place along it. It was so important to the early civilization that all of ancient Egypt's cities were built at its side. Actually, the vast majority of the population of modern Egypt still lives right along the banks of the Nile today.

To water their crops, the Egyptians dug canals on both sides of the river to move the water where they wanted it. They also built basins to capture floodwaters when the river was high. Egyptian farmers were responsible for moving the water around by carrying it in big jars to fields farther away from the river. In the 16 th century BC, the shadouf was introduced. This was a beam that sat on a post - on one end was a water scoop, on the other a weight. The farmer could dip the scoop into the river or canal, swing the arm out over a field, and let the water drain where he wanted it. Shadoufs made moving water a lot easier.

Silt was the rich, fertile soil that the Nile left behind after it flooded. It allowed early Egyptians to grow crops on the land, instead of having to roam around with their animals. The farming of the land led to the development of villages, towns, cities, and eventually one of the greatest civilizations the ancient world had ever seen. All because of some extra-special dirt.

The Egyptians were some of the first people to ever write anything down. They used a system of symbols to communicate as early as 3300 BC. There were as many as 2,000 symbols; each one represented an idea, object, or even a sound. These hieroglyphics were somex very artistic, and were usually carved into stone. Some scribes made paper from the papyrus reeds they found on the banks of the Nile. They laid the reeds down and pounded them into paper, which was lighter and easier to transport than rocks. This new writing paper took the name of the reeds and was called papyrus.

For thousands of years after the end of the ancient Egyptian civilization, people appreciated how pretty hieroglyphics were, but couldn't read them. All the information in the hieroglyphics was lost. This all changed in 1799, in a town called Rosetta, in Egypt, when archaeologists found the Rosetta stone. This smooth dark stone is almost four feet tall, and it has three different languages written on it. Because the same passage is written in Greek, demotic (another ancient language) and hieroglyphics, historians have been able to figure out the meaning of many hieroglyphic symbols. The stone effectively translated the language of ancient Egypt into words that historians could understand.

Egyptians believed very strongly in an afterlife. We know from their "Book of the Dead" that after death, a person's soul travels to the hall of the dead. There, the dead person's heart is said to be weighed against a "feather of truth." If the heart weighed less than the feather, then it was considered a good heart. The person's soul was taken to Osiris, god of the afterlife. If the heart was heavy, though, it was said that a person was evil. That heart would be eaten by a demon that was part crocodile, part lion and part hippopotamus.

The pharaohs (or kings) of ancient Egypt had it pretty good. They were considered gods on earth and could basically do whatever they wanted. Like lots of people, they were anxious about what happened to them after they died. They wanted to bring their favorite things with them, and they believed that in order for their soul to exist in an afterlife, their bodies must be preserved. Thus mummification was invented.

You've seen the movies about mummies walking around all wrapped up in rags? The Egyptians really did wrap their dead to make sure that the body didn't decay. They removed the internal organs and placed them in specially decorated urns called canopic jars, dried the body with special salts and oils, and wrapped it with linens. And they did a good job of it: Some mummies were still whole when archaeologists opened their tombs 2,000 years later.

Osiris was the god of death, life and fertility in ancient Egyptian religion, now known as Egyptian mythology.

You know the old real estate saying "location, location, location?" The Egyptians had it. Besides the Nile, which gave them life-giving water, the people had the Mediterranean Sea to the north with its fish and cool breezes. The Nile and the Mediterranean did something else, too: They protected the kingdom of Egypt from invasion. The Nile waterfalls of Upper Egypt were hard to sail down, so the south was covered, and the Mediterranean made the approach of armies to the north very predictable. The deserts to the east and west were too hot to move troops through quickly. So the Egyptians were able to go about their business in relative peace, something not many other cultures could do.

The cultures of Upper and Lower Egypt differed slightly; they had their own dialects, patron goddesses and crowns. King Menes united them in 3100 BC.

In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs were king. These were the guys for whom the pyramids were built. You've probably seen the giant masks they were buried with. How could you not have a big head when everyone thought you were a god on earth? The first pharaoh historians know about was Menes, who ruled around 3100 BC and is known for uniting all of the Egyptians communities. He built his capital at Memphis - the one on the Nile, not the one in Tennessee. (He also founded a gator-sounding city called Crocodopolis.) And he set things up so that his family would be in power for a long time to come: He started a dynasty.

King Tut is probably the only Egyptian whose name is known to almost everyone in America. As pharaohs go, Tutankhamen (c. 1370-1352 BC) wasn't much of one. He took the throne when he was still a boy of nine, and he died at the age of 18. He owes his legacy to British Egyptologist Howard Carter, who dug up his tomb in 1922. It was full of amazing gold and artifacts because it hadn't been looted the way so many Egyptian tombs had. Inside was a wealth of treasures and a lot of information about ancient Egyptian life. One of the men who opened King Tut's tomb with Carter died shortly thereafter, giving birth to the "curse of the mummy" that's been made into many movies since.

If you want to talk about great pharaohs, Ramses (II) is the name to remember. There were a lot of Ramses but only one Ramses the Great (c. 1279-1212 BC). He came to power not long after Tutankhamen and began to rebuild the Egyptian empire that had been lost under some of his predecessors. His reign was noted for the sheer number of buildings he had constructed - more than any other pharaoh. Ramses' most famous structure was at Abu Simbel in the south of the country. It featured four massive statues of… guess who? Ramses himself, as tall as a skyscraper. He was so revered by his successors that 10 other pharaohs took his name. It was under Ramses II that Egypt enjoyed the apex of its power. He had quite the harem and was said to have fathered more than 100 children. His mummy, like King Tut's, was found well preserved.

There were not very many female pharaohs; of them, Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC) was the longest ruling of all. She was the favorite child of her father, Pharaoh Thutmose I. When her two brothers died, she was the next in line, though there had never been a queen pharaoh before her. She was popular and beautiful, and her father had been a beloved pharaoh, so the people listened when she took the throne. Even so, she faced many difficulties being a woman in a traditionally male role. Women at the time, however, enjoyed more rights in Egypt than they did elsewhere. They could buy property and were considered equal to men before the law. Hatshepsut was a savvy political operator; she knew that the people would respond better to her if she looked the part of a pharaoh. So she dressed as kings had before her, and even wore a ceremonial beard. Hatshepsut was able to get quite a lot done during her 15-year reign - she built more temples and statuary than any other Egyptian queen.

We all know the Egyptians were fond of pyramids. But they also had a society that became known as the social pyramid. It was built on a class structure, which can be thought of as a pyramid in shape. Your place in this hierarchy depended on your place in society. At the top, of course, was the pharaoh. Underneath him was his vizier, or head of priests. Below the vizier were the high priests and the nobles. Below them was a sort of middle class of government officials, priests, doctors and engineers. Next were the writers and artisans. And finally, spread across the base, were the farmers and the slaves. Much of this stratification was based upon birth, but some people did move up the pyramid via their skills and occupation.

Most people think of the pyramids when they think of Egypt. The biggest pyramid of all belonged to King Khufu (2585-2560 BC), whom the Greeks called Cheops. Khufu ordered the Great Pyramid of Giza built. He apparently wanted to make a statement with his last resting place. It covered 13 acres and rose almost 500 feet up into the air - about as tall as a 50-story building. More than 2 million limestone blocks were used to construct this monument; each of them weighed more than a large pickup truck! The sides of the gigantic tomb were so tightly constructed that not even the thin blade of a knife could be slid between the blocks. Of course, he didn't break a sweat during the process, but had thousands of workers do it for him. By most accounts he was a tyrant obsessed with the construction of his great pyramid. He seized property to pay for it and even sold his own daughter into prostitution.

As you can imagine from the sheer size of them, building the pyramids was a monumental effort. These gigantic gravestones were marvels of early architecture and engineering. In the city of Cairo alone there were 67 of them. Ancient Egyptians didn't have huge trucks, cranes, and earthmovers, of course. They had to do all of the work with manpower alone. Many people assume that slaves did all the heavy lifting, but that wasn't always the case - historians now believe the Great Pyramid of Giza was built using freemen. Modern scholars think it took about 20,000 people 20 years to complete Khufu's tomb. And he was supposedly not very nice and in a hurry to get it done.

To build the pyramids, workers in quarries cut chunks of limestone, alabaster, granite, and basalt rock. These were squared off and taken to the pyramid's site. There, ramps were run up to each level to allow workers to haul blocks ever upward, often with the help of oxen. Scholars today believe that it was the ramps that enabled rocks weighing more than 10 tons in some case, to be lifted up (others have theorized that Egyptians used pulleys or levers).

The pyramids were built not as apartments for the living, but as amazingly large tombs for the dead. But not all pharaohs were wrapped up and put in pyramids.

The great Valley of the Kings is the burial ground of many pharaohs from the New Kingdom. For more than 500 years, from the 16 th to the 11 th centuries BC, the kings of Egypt built their tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Known as the home of both King Tut's and Ramses' mummies, these tombs were built into rocky cliffs.

Amenhotep IV was a powerful player. He made a big name for himself and caused lots of controversy in Egypt by declaring that there was only one god, Aton. He declared all the other gods false. In doing this, he robbed the powerful class of priests of much of their authority.

Amenhotep declared himself the sole voice of the sun-disc god Aton, and he changed his own name to show it. Akhenaton means "spirit of Aton." Though he imposed the worship of a sole god on the people, there was a big boom in the arts during his rule.

After he died future pharaohs went back to polytheism, which made all the priests happy - they got their old jobs back.

The ancient Egyptians, like most other antique cultures, believed in a host of gods and goddesses. They were very religious, and used gods to explain many natural phenomena, from the creation of the Earth to the movement of the sun. People everywhere thought that they had to win the favor of the gods to have a prosperous life. And there were many to please. A half dozen of them represented the sun alone - rising, setting, traveling. The Egyptians had gods of crocodiles, cows, cats, frogs. They had gods of measurement, gods who watched over the inner organs of the dead, and gods of mummification. The most important gods were Ra, god of the sun, who was considered the creator; Osiris, lord of the afterlife; Isis, goddess of magic; Amon, Theban King of all gods. Imagine trying to say your prayers at night!

The sound you hear at the end of the song comes from King Tut's trumpet. While unearthing King Tut's tomb in 1922, archaeologists found a lot of cool stuff that belonged to King Tut: the first-ever sofa bed, 30 boomerangs used for hunting, and two beautiful trumpets. One trumpet was silver, the other was copper. Both were decorated with beautiful carvings.

In 1939, someone decided they wanted to try playing it. BBC radio was there to record the beautiful ancient sound. The trumpet, which hadn't been played in more than 3,000 years, let out a few graceful notes. Then it shattered. Oops.

"Egypt has more wonders in it than any other country in the world, and provides more works that defy description than any other place." - Herodotus

Why was the Nile River so important to the development of civilization in Egypt?

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