Category Archives: Lesson 2b Ancient Egypt

Lesson 2(b): Ancient civilizations of the “Middle East”: Egypt

Egyptian Civilization on the Nile


Egyptian geography and topography played important roles in the early history of the country. The regularity of the Nile floods and the relative isolation of the
Egyptians created a sense of security and abundance.

Thanks to the Nile, an area several miles wide on both banks of the river was capable of producing abundant harvests. The ‘‘miracle’’ of the Nile was its annual flooding.  Unlike the floods of Mesopotamia’s rivers, the flooding of the Nile was gradual and usually predictable, and the river itself was seen as life-enhancing, not life-threatening. The surpluses of food that Egyptian farmers grew in the fertile Nile valley made Egypt prosperous.

Gerzeh sailboatlate4thmillleniumThe Nile served as a unifying factor in ancient times, it was the fastest way to travel through the land, making both transportation easier within Egypt. Its function as a kind a ‘highway of internal communication’ also aided unification (Paine, 9)

The environment lent a sense of cohesion. The limited amount of cultivable land, coupled with the Nile’s excellence as a transport and communication artery, meant that Egypt was more amenable centralized control than many of the other, more fractious kingdoms of the ancient world.

Egyptian geography was very different from that of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian kingdoms often bordered each other or we accessible by land, river and sea. That meant there was a lot of transportation of goods, people, and ideas, but also conflict (the first known international war was fought in Mesopotamia).

Egypt, in contrast, was bordered by natural barriers including the deserts to the west and east; the cataracts (rapids) on the southern part of the Nile (which made defense relatively easy); and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. In combination with fortifications at strategic locations these barriers protected it from invasion and gave it a sense of security that Mesopotamian kingdoms lacked.

Along Egypt’s barriers went a sense of insularity and superiority. Egypt’s physical isolation combined with xenophobic ideology. Together, these two factors meant that interaction with foreigners rarely went beyond subjugation (invasion, conquest, domination).

The birth, expansion, and longevity of pharaonic Egypt depended on harnessing the Nile as , while the seas were a filter through which its people absorbed foreign goods and influences, a buffer against invasion, and a thoroughfare for projecting political and military power

A very brief history of the Egyptian dynasties


Around 3100 B.C.E., during the Early Dynastic Period, the first Egyptian king called Menes (Mee-neez), united Upper and Lower Egypt into a single kingdom. By the time of the later Bronze age, kings became known as “pharaohs” (originally meaning ‘‘great house’’ or ‘‘palace’’).

Egyptian kings were supposed to rule according to set principles. The chief principle was called Ma’at (muh-aht), a spiritual precept that conveyed the idea of truth and justice, especially right order and harmony. To ancient Egyptians, this fundamental order and harmony had existed throughout the universe since the beginning of time. Pharaohs were the divine instruments who maintained it and were themselves subject to it.

Egyptian rule required complex government and the management of internal threats. Early autocrats had been able to control personally the small cities they ruled over, but success and expansion and the complexity of the developing societies required to them to rely on family members, officials (a bureaucratic strata)  and soldiers to oversee this expanded state. This elite helped him/her rule, but also presented a threat: like all Bronze Age rulers, Egyptians were far more likely to be killed by relatives or courtiers than by foreign enemies.

One part of the management of such risks was the development a complex court structure (a first among civilizations) allowing the ruler to control his nobles by a mix of rewards, threats and manipulations.

Another part was self aggrandizement. Egyptian kings and Pharoes presented themselves as the incarnation of sacred power. His mandate did not merely cover the day-to-day running of the Egyptian state. He guaranteed and safeguarded the …Ma’at. To his subjects he was omnipotent.

Egyptian rulers took image management to a completely new level;

they appeared before their subjects dressed in full royal regalia of kilt, bull’s tail hanging from the waist, ceremonial beard, flail and crook, and on the royal head they wore the great double crown of Egypt, with an ivory cobra rearing up on the forehead, ready to destroy any who opposed them with its venomous spittle.


They also had their officials appear to demonstrate their subservience during ceremonies. At one ceremony, officials were instructed to get behind the oars of the royal barge moored on the lake and row their monarch across it. The public spectacle of a group of men from the highest echelons of society engaged in such a menial undertaking … reinforced the authority of the pharaoh to all who were present.(Miles, 27)

The Old Kingdom encompassed the fourth through eighth dynasties of Egyptian kings, lasting from around 2575 to 2125 B.C.E. Its capital was located at Memphis, south of the delta. It was an age of prosperity and splendor, including the building of the greatest and largest pyramids in Egypt’s history.

Pyramids of Gaza These were called step pyramids,
 intended to join heaven and earth. An inscription
on one pyramid explains: “A staircase to heaven is
laid for [the king] so that he may mount up to heaven
thereby.” Unlike the ziggurats, which were made of
dried clay bricks, these pyramids were built of cut
stone—a remarkable building innovation.
The Middle Kingdom was characterized by the pharaohs showing concern for the people. In the Old Kingdom, the pharaoh had been viewed as an  inaccessible godking. Now he was portrayed as the shepherd of his people with the responsibility to build public works and provide for the public welfare.

Egyptian kings typically sought to achieve supremacy over non-Egyptian lands. Each year the king would set out with his armies to extend his realm in some way. During the Middle Kingdom’s period of expansion. Lower Nubia was conquered, fortresses were built to protect the new southern frontier, and military expeditions into Canaan and Syria.


Egyptian rulers imperial ambition sprung from the belief that all non-Egyptians were fundamentally inhuman and needed to be subjugated. In Pharaonic Egypt we see for the first time the construction of an imperialist rhetoric that sustained itself on the idea that others who were not part of their self-proclaimed community were both alien and inferior. (Miles, 30).

Most Egyptian royal palaces were decorated with bloodthirsty scenes depicting the monarch killing or taking captive various foes. Bound captives were painted on the pavement of the royal court at Amarna so that whenever the pharaoh walked anywhere, he was literally trampling on his enemies. The centrepiece of the great victory celebrations at the royal temples was the ceremonial execution of large numbers of prisoners of war (Miles, 29).

During the period of the New Kingdom, Egypt became the most powerful state in the ancient Near East. Thutmose (thoot-MOH-suh) I (c. 1493–1481 B.C.E.) expanded Egypt’s border to the south by conquering the African kingdom of Nubia. Thutmose III (c. 1479– 1425 B.C.E.) led military campaigns into Canaan and Phoenicia where the Egyptians occupied the lands but permitted local native princes to rule.

The new Egyptian imperial state reached its height during the reign of Amenhotep III (c. 1390–1353 B.C.E.) who, by the end of his reign, faced a growing military challenge from the Hittites.

Egypt Hittite empires 13-14BC

The nineteenth dynasty restored Egyptian power. Under Ramesses (RAM-uh-seez) II (c. 1279–1213 B.C.E.), the Egyptians went on the offensive, and after an inconclusive struggle with the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh, regained control of Canaan and restored Egypt as an imperial power.

This period gives us some good examples of how the Pharaohs symbolized their power: Let’s listen to the historians as they discuss they imagery of Egyptian rulers.

(How Do We Look, Civilizations, episode 2. 23-27 Video to be played in class).

After the death of Ramesses II, struggles for the throne weakened the government, and new invasions in the twelfth century by the ‘‘Sea Peoples,’’ as the Egyptians called them, destroyed Egyptian power in Canaan and drove the Egyptians back within their old frontiers. The days of Egyptian empire were ended, and the New Kingdom itself expired with the twentieth dynasty in 1069 B.C.E.

For the next thousand years, despite periodic revivals of strength, Egypt was dominated by Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, and finally Macedonians and the first century B.C.E., Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Legacies of ancient Egypt

Historian Will Durant:

The effect or remembrance of what Egypt accomplished at the very dawn of history has influence in every nation and every age. ‘It is even possible’, as Faure has said, ‘that Egypt, through the solidarity, the unity, and the disciplined variety of its artistic products, through the enormous duration and the sustained power of its effort, offers the spectacle of the greatest civilization that has yet appeared on the earth.’ We shall do well to equal it. (217)

The peoples of Southwest Asia and Egypt laid the foundations of Western civilization. They developed cities and struggled with the problems of organized states as they moved from individual communities to larger territorial units and eventually to empires. They invented writing to keep records and created literature. They constructed monumental buildings to please their gods, give witness to their power, and preserve their culture. They developed new political, military, social, and religious structures to deal with the basic problems of human existence and organization. Spielvogel, 30.

Egyptian culture was famous for great cultural advances in every area of human knowledge, from the arts to science to technology and religion.

Egyptian writing

Sometime around 3000 B.C.E., Egyptians developed a system of writing. Egyptian writing was not cuneiform, nor was it used primarily for accounting purposes.
While Egyptian administrators surely had asmuch need for clear records as the Sumerians, they primarily used writing to forward religious and magical power. Every sign in their writing system represented a real or mythical object and was designed to express that object’s power. The ancient Greeks saw these images on temples and named Egyptian script hieroglyph, meaning “sacred writing.”

Hieroglyphs were too cumbersome for everyday use, so scribes learned two other simplifi ed scripts—called Hieratic and Demotic—to keep records or write literature. Whereas many of the hieroglyphs were carved into stone, everyday records were more often written on papyrus, a kind of paper made from the Nile’s abundant papyrus reeds. This versatile, sturdy reed could be reused—much like recycled paper today—and in the dry desert air was very durable. Often in Egypt’s history, the lucrative export of papyrus increased the royal treasury. Sherman, Salisbury.

Many historians believe that the quality, scale and ambition of Egyptian art, including its great monuments, set it apart from the rest of the ancient world and influenced many ancient civilizations, among them Greece and Rome.

The ancient Egyptian belief in life as an eternal journey, created and maintained by divine magic, inspired later cultures and religious beliefs. Much of the iconography and the beliefs of Egyptian religion found their way into the new religion of Christianity and many of their symbols are recognizable today with largely the same meaning.

There is evidence of very early and ongoing trade between Egypt and Mesopotamia.


The growth and  survival of civilization have often depended on the trading of goods, ideas and people

Magan boat reproduction 2005. These Mesopotamian vessels were used for trading across the oceans.

Egypt’s physical isolation and xenophobic ideology meant that interaction with foreigners rarely went beyond subjugation. More practically, Egyptian boats were specifically designed for the Nile with wide flat bottoms that made them unsuitable for sea travel.

The very chauvinism that was such a pillar of Egyptian imperial success was the root cause of the limits that were placed on the export of its political and social culture.

Pharaonic Egypt, despite its incredible achievements, had little of the long-range impact that the cities of Mesopotamia had. The overwhelming uniqueness and dominance of the Nile caused Egypt to develop its own way, socially, politically and culturally … the blueprints for civilization that were developed here largely remained here. It was Mesopotamian rather than Egyptian art, architecture, alphabet, literature and religion that provided the bedrock of civilization in the Mediterranean world. (Miles, 32)

The Middle East after the first Civilizations

The peoples of the Middle East, including Mesopotamia and Egypt laid the foundations of Western civilization. They developed cities and struggled with the problems of organized states as they moved from individual communities to larger territorial units and eventually to empires. They invented writing to keep records and created literature. They constructed monumental buildings to please their gods, give witness to their power, and preserve their culture. Their new new political, military, social (including gender relation), legal and religious ideas and structures to deal with the basic problems of human existence and organization all eventually influenced what became Western civilization.

By 1500 B.C.E., much of the creative impulse of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations was beginning to wane. Spielvogel.

The destruction that engulfed the Bronze Age Near East at the hands of the “Sea People” and other invaders by around 1200BCE  was followed by a centuries-long dark age, the end of which is signaled by the rise of the Phoenician city-states of the Levant in the ninth century BCE and of Greek city-states shortly thereafter. The pace of maritime activity on the Mediterranean then quickly surpassed that of the most prosperous centuries of the previous millennium (Paine).

Ancient Europe

Some Western enthusiasts (historians) have claimed Western Europe as one of the seats of early ‘civilization’, on the basis of its high level of achievement in stone-working, and role as a supplier of metals to the ancient Middle East.

Yet, in the history of the world, prehistoric Europe has little importance.

To the great civilizations that rose and fell in the river valleys of the Middle East, Europe was largely an irrelevance. It sometimes received the impress of the outside world but contributed only marginally and fitfully to the process of historic change. To the ancient world, the northern lands where the barbarians came from before they appeared in Thrace were irrelevant (and most of them probably came from further east anyway). The north-western hinterland was only important because it occasionally provided commodities (metals) wanted in Asia and the Aegean.

Even the idea of ‘Europe’ didn’t exist. At the time of the ancient civilizations, men were not able to conceive that there existed a geographical, let alone a cultural, unity corresponding to the later idea of Europe.

When talking about prehistoric (ancient) Europe, we actually need to distinguish between two Europes.

One is that of the Mediterranean coasts and their peoples. Its rough boundary is the line which delimits the cultivation of the olive.


North and west of this line lay the realm of barbarians, including what we now call France, Germany, England, Denmark and Sweden and Poland. In this area literacy was never achieved in antiquity, but was imposed much later by conquerors.

North Western Europe long resisted cultural influences from the south and east – or at least did not offer a favourable reception to them. In 1000 BC – to take an arbitrary date – or even at the beginning of the Christian era, Europe has little of its own to offer the world except its minerals,

In ancient times North Western Europe had nothing like the great cultural achievements of the Middle East, India or China, and its greatest cultural achievements were decorative and mechanical (in metallurgy). Though far more advanced than their contemporaries in America, or in Africa south of the Nile valley, they never reached the stage of urbanization.  Europe’s age was still to come.

South of the olive line, literate, urban civilization came fairly early during the Iron Age, and apparently after direct contact with more advanced areas.

Looking at ancient times, and the great Middle Eastern civilizations gives some perspective on the place of Western civilization.

  • One thing we might note is that it came much later than the other great civilizations, in fact emerging with the renaissance during the 14th century.
  • Another important thing. The Greek and Roman civilizations that Western hagiography celebrates as the root of Western Civilization developed though their interaction with the great civilizations of the East.

lucky latitudes


  • Roberts, J.M., Westad, O.A., Penguin World History
  • Spielvogel, J. Western Civilization
  • Wiesner-Hanks, et al., A History of World Societies,