II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > B. Kingdoms of Western Asia and Africa, to 323 B.C.E. > 3. Egypt, c. 3500–332 B.C.E. > b. Economy, Technology, Society, and Culture
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
CONTENTS · SUBJECT INDEX · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
 
 
b. Economy, Technology, Society, and Culture
 
Egypt receives virtually no rainfall, and agriculture depended on the annual flood of the Nile, which deposited fertile mud on the fields and provided water for irrigation. This ensured a large and fairly constant surplus of crops, though famines were not unknown. The main staple was barley, which provided both bread and beer. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables were raised, and flax was grown to produce linen, while cattle and sheep furnished meat. Mines in the Sinai provided copper, those in Nubia gold, and marble was quarried in the Eastern Desert. The Nile provided easy communication, both with the Mediterranean and along the length of the country; the Wadi Hammamat connected the country with the Red Sea. As a result, Egypt was an entrepôt for trade to and from East Africa, Arabia, the eastern Mediterranean, and western Asia.  1
Public architecture was in stone from an early period, but most houses were built of mud-brick. The earliest examples of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, recently discovered, date to 3300–3200 B.C.E. Starting in the Middle Kingdom, a cursive form of writing was developed called hieratic. In the late period an even more cursive writing came into use, called demotic, or “popular” writing. Much of Egyptian writing survives carved or painted on the walls of tombs, but the dry climate has also preserved texts on papyrus. In addition to administrative documents and letters, considerable Egyptian literature has survived: quasi historical tales (such as the Tale of Sinuhe), mythological and religious works, books of prophecy and wisdom literature, mathematical and scientific texts, even pornography. Historical texts include both monumental inscriptions and king lists, such as the Palermo Stone and the Turin Canon. In addition, a continuous, though not always accurate, king list is provided by Manetho, who wrote a history of Egypt in Greek around 250 B.C.E. It was Manetho who divided the kings into “dynasties.”  2
Egyptian government was highly centralized and society strictly hierarchical: proper order in the kingdom, expressed by the term ma`at, was thought to ensure national well-being. The Egyptian king was considered the link between the gods and his people. The king was identified with the god Horus (and had a Horus name in addition to his personal name), but when he died became the god Osiris, lord of the underworld. By the 5th Dynasty, the king was also considered the son of Ra, the sun god. The title “pharaoh” only came to refer to the Egyptian king in the New Kingdom. Although the institution of the monarchy was divine, popular literature often portrayed the king in an irreverent way. The king technically owned all the land in Egypt, and the palace administered the economy as well as political affairs. The vizier, a sort of prime minister, headed a vast bureaucracy which administered the country down to the village level. Upper and Lower Egypt each had their own governors, and the land was further subdivided into nomes or districts: 20 in Lower Egypt and 22 in Upper Egypt. Wealth and power were generally hereditary, though commoners could rise in the scribal bureaucracy and the army. Egyptian women had a very high degree of independence compared to other ancient societies: they could own property, make contracts, and divorce their husbands by a simple act of repudiation.  3
Religion was also centrally organized and headed by an “Overseer of all the Prophets of the Gods,” a post sometimes held by the vizier and sometimes by the High Priest of Amun. The temples controlled large tracts of land and were important economic centers. Each region had its own patron deity, but eventually the Egyptians placed local gods in a hierarchy and developed a common religion. Religion was closely tied to politics: when Memphis was the capital, its god Ptah was paramount; the rising importance of Heliopolis gave Ra his importance; and finally, the ascendancy of Thebes is reflected in the New Kingdom emphasis on Amun. Egyptian gods commonly had mixed human and animal form: the ibis-headed god Thoth, falcon-headed god Horus, and jackal-headed god Anubis are examples. Under Amenophis IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten, the sun disk Aten was worshipped as the only god, but this solar monotheism was abandoned soon after Akhenaten's death. The worship of Isis, originally the deified throne, but later a mother-goddess, became popular only in the Late Dynastic Period.  4
 
 
 
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

CONTENTS · SUBJECT INDEX · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUS NEXT