World History 1 39 - 3.3.1 The Origins of Ancient Egypt

Aside from the Nile, Egypt and the areas around it are today part of the expansive and very arid Sahara. But around 10,000 BCE, as the Neolithic Revolution was getting underway in parts of southwestern Asia, much of North Africa including Egypt was lush, wet, and dotted with lakes. The region was highly hospitable to the many Paleolithic peoples living there and surviving on its abundant resources.

However, beginning around 6000 BCE the grasslands and lakes began to give way to sand as the once green environment was transformed into the Sahara we recognize today. As the environment became more difficult for humans to survive in, they retreated to oases and rivers on the fringes. One of these areas was the Nile River valley, a long thin area of fertility running through the deserts of eastern North Africa and made possible by the regular flooding of the Nile. The Nile is the longest river in Africa, and the second-longest in the world after the Amazon. It originates deep in central Africa and flows thousands of miles north through Egypt before it spills into the Mediterranean Sea.

It was around this same time, about 7000 to 6000 BCE, that agricultural technology and knowledge about the domestication of wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle were introduced into the Nile River valley, likely through contact with the Levant. The earliest evidence for the emergence of Egyptian culture dates from this era as well. Two related but different Neolithic cultures arose: one in the Nile delta, where the river runs into the Mediterranean, and the other upriver and to the south of this location. The people of these cultures lived in crude huts, survived on fishing and agriculture, developed distinctive pottery styles, and even practiced burial rituals. Over thousands of years, they developed into two separate kingdoms, Lower Egypt or the delta region, and Upper Egypt or the area upriver (Figure 3.17).

A picture of two maps is shown. The map on the left shows the northeastern portion of Africa, the southeastern portion of Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf), and the Arabian Sea are labelled. An upside-down U-shaped area is highlighted green from Egypt, northeast through the northwestern coast of Israel, through Lebanon, through most of Syria and into the southeastern portion of Turkey. Then it heads southeast through Iraq and into Iran, ending at the northern part of the Persian Gulf (Arabian Sea). Various cities are labelled throughout the map. An area in the northeast corner of Africa is encased in a red box and enlarged as a second map in the top right. This map shows the city of Cairo and the Nile River. Most of the area shown is highlighted green with an upside-down triangular-shaped portion highlighted orange starting at Cairo and heading north to the Mediterranean Sea.
Figure 3.17 The fertile Nile River valley became home to two different but related early Egyptian cultures, the Lower Kingdom in the north and the Upper Kingdom in the south. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

A major political and cultural shift occurred in about 3150 BCE when Upper and Lower Egypt were unified into a single powerful kingdom. Some evidence suggests this achievement belongs to a king named Narmer. More recent records attribute it to a king called Menes, but many scholars now believe Menes and Narmer are one and the same (Figure 3.18).

A picture of two arrow-shaped gray stones is shown on a black background. Both have rounded points along the bottom and along the longer top there are carving of bulls on either end, with their curly horns creating the shapes at the top of the stone. The stone on the left shows three rows of images. The top row shows two bulls with curly horns and etchings in between them. The second row shows a very tall person with a cloth at their waist, a tall, rounded hat on their head, a thin beard, bare-chested, and barefoot. He holds a long stick in his right hand and his left hand rests on the head of a man in a loincloth and headdress kneeling on the ground in front of him. Above the kneeling man is a bird standing on one leg on top of six tall mushroom-like projections coming out of a platform with a head at the left. His other foot is holding a stick that is attached to the nose of the head on the platform. To the left of the large man is another man standing in a loincloth holding objects with a sword at his side. The third row at the bottom shows two figures in minimal loincloths and headdresses running to the right and looking to the left. The stone on the right shows four rows of images. The top row shows two bulls with curly horns and etchings in between them. The second row shows four small people in the middle walking toward the right, holding tall staffs with various animals and items at the tops. To the left of this group are three people, all dressed with cloths around their waists and headdresses of various types. They carry various items. The one in the middle is very large compared to the other two. To the right of the middle group there are two columns of five headless bodies stacked on top of each other. A bird and some etchings are shown above the bodies. The third row shows two four-legged animals with long necks intertwined and then facing each other. A person on either side holds a rein that is looped around the animal’s neck. The last row shows a bull with its head pointed down looking at a person running away from them below them. Some designs are etched are on the right side. Throughout the stones are minor scratches and white spots.
Figure 3.18 Often called the Narmer palette, this two-foot-high siltstone Egyptian artifact appears to depict Egypt’s unification, which would place it from around 3150–3000 BCE. The large figure on one side (left image) is believed to be King Narmer wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt and striking a prisoner, and the tall, left-most figure in the upper row on the other side (right image) is likely Narmer wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt in a procession. Two mythical creatures stand below, their necks artfully entwined. (credit: "La palette de Narmer" by “Jean88”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Unification gave rise to what scholars refer to as the Early Dynasty Period (about 3150 to 2613 BCE), or the era of the earliest dynasties to rule a unified Egypt. The powerful kings of these dynasties established a bureaucratic system, possibly influenced by the palace/temple redistributive economic system in place in ancient Sumer. But unlike Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt in the Bronze Age was now a single state instead of a number of warring rivals. Also unlike Mesopotamia, which was subject to periodic invasion, Egypt was protected by its geography. On both east and west, the Nile River valley was surrounded by large deserts that were difficult to cross and that made the kingdom into a kind of island in a hot, dry sea. During this time, many of the best-known cultural characteristics of ancient Egypt emerged in their earliest forms. They include the institution of the pharaoh, distinctive religious practices, and the Egyptian writing system.

The Pharaoh

The king of the united Egypt, the pharaoh, governed a kingdom much larger than any contemporary realm. Historians estimate that the population of the Egyptian state, when first united in about 3150 BCE, numbered as many as two million people, whereas a typical Sumerian lugal ruled about thirty thousand subjects. The temple/palace system in Egypt therefore operated on a much vaster scale than anywhere in Mesopotamia.

The term pharaoh in ancient Egyptian is translated as “big house,” likely a reference to the size of the palaces along the Nile valley where the pharaoh resided and administered the lands. As in ancient Mesopotamia, the palace included large facilities for storing taxes in kind, as well as workshops for artisans who produced goods for the palace. Also, as in Mesopotamia, a large portion of the population were peasant farmers. They paid taxes in kind to support the artisans and others working in the pharaoh’s palaces and temples and living nearby, inside the city. The ruling elite included scribes, priests, and the pharaoh’s officials.

The pharaoh was not merely a political figure but also served as the high priest and was revered as a god. In the role of high priest, the pharaoh united the lands by performing religious rituals to honor the different gods worshipped up and down the Nile River valley. As a deity, the pharaoh was the human form or incarnation of Horus, the god of justice and truth. Egyptians believed the divine presence of the pharaoh as Horus maintained justice throughout the land, which, in turn, maintained peace and prosperity, as evidenced by the welcome annual flooding of the Nile.

Egyptian Religion

Like the people of Mesopotamia, Ancient Egyptians were polytheists and worshipped many deities who controlled the forces of nature. For example, Re was the god of the sun, and Isis was the earth goddess of fertility. Osiris was associated with the Nile. The annual flooding of the river, the central event of the Egyptian year, was explained through the myth of Osiris, who was murdered by his brother Seth, the god of the desert wind, but then resurrected by his devoted wife Isis. The Nile (Osiris) was at its lowest in the summer when the hot desert wind was blowing (Seth), but then it was “resurrected” when it flooded its banks and brought life-giving water to the earth (Isis). Horus (the pharaoh) was the child of Isis and Osiris. Since Osiris was a god who had died, he was also the lord of the underworld and the judge of the dead. Ancient Egyptians believed Osiris would reward people who had lived a righteous life with a blessed afterlife in the underworld, whereas he would punish wicked evildoers.

As these gods and myths indicate, the Nile played an important role in the development of Egyptian religion. Whereas the unpredictable flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Mesopotamia commonly brought destruction along with fresh alluvial deposits, the Nile’s summer flooding, predictable as clockwork, brought only welcome deposits of rich sediment. It provided Egyptians with a sense that the world was harmonious and organized around cycles. In later centuries, this notion developed into the concept of Ma’at (also personified as a goddess), which combined the ideas of order, truth, justice, and balance. In contrast to the apparently pessimistic people in Mesopotamia, Egyptians drew from their environment a feeling that their world was orderly, balanced, and geared toward a sense of cosmic justice. It was an Egyptian’s responsibility to live in harmony with this order.

In Their Own Words

Flooding, Stories, and Cosmology in Ancient Egypt and Sumer

Ancient Egypt (the first excerpt that follows) and Ancient Sumer (the second) both depended on life-giving rivers, but their reactions to periodic flooding were quite different. Note the way each discusses the flooding, those responsible, and the reasons for it.

Hymn to the flood. Hail flood!
emerging from the earth, arriving to bring Egypt to life,
hidden of form, the darkness in the day,
the one whose followers sing to him, as he waters the plants,
created by Re to make every herd live,
who satisfies the desert hills removed from the water,
for it is his due that descends from the sky
—he, the beloved of Geb, controller of Nepri,
the one who makes the crafts of Ptah verdant.
Lord of fish, who allows south marsh fowl,
without a bird falling from heat.
Maker of barley, grower of emmer grain,
creator of festivals of the temples.
When he delays, then noses are blocked,
everyone is orphaned,
and if the offerings of the gods are distributed,
then a million men perish among mankind. . . .
Verdant the spirit at your coming, O Flood.
Verdant the spirit at your coming.
Come to Egypt,
make its happiness.
Make the Two Riverbanks verdant, . . .
Men and herds are brought to life by your deliveries of the fields, . . .
Verdant the spirit at your coming, O Flood.

—Author unknown, Hymn to the Nile, 2000–1700 BCE

I will reveal to you, O Gilgamesh, the mysterious story,
And one of the mysteries of the gods I will tell you.
The city of Shurippak, a city which, as you know,
Is situated on the bank of the river Euphrates. The gods within it
Decided to bring about a flood, even the great gods,
As many as there were. . . .
I saw the approach of the storm,
And I was afraid to witness the storm;
I entered the ship and shut the door.
I entrusted the guidance of the ship to the boat-man,
Entrusted the great house, and the contents therein.
As soon as early dawn appeared,
There rose up from the horizon a black cloud,
Within which the weather god thundered,
And the king of the gods went before it. . . .
The storm brought on by the gods swept even up to the heavens,
And all light was turned into darkness. It flooded the land; it blew with violence;
And in one day it rose above the mountains.
Like an onslaught in battle it rushed in on the people.
Brother could not save brother.
The gods even were afraid of the storm;
They retreated and took refuge in the heaven of Anu.
There the gods crouched down like dogs, in heaven they sat cowering.

—Author unknown, Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by R. Campbell Thompson and William Muse Arnold and compiled by Laura Getty

  • What do these excerpts reveal about each people’s view of their world and the supernatural?
  • What do they suggest about each culture’s relationship to its river(s)?

Egyptian Writing

Egyptians developed their own unique writing system, known today by the Greek word hieroglyphics (meaning “sacred writings”), though the Egyptians called it medu-netjer (“the god’s words”). The roots of hieroglyphic writing can be traced to the time before the Early Dynastic Period when the first written symbols emerged. But by at least 3000 BCE, the use of these symbols had developed into a sophisticated script. It used a combination of alphabetic signs, syllabic signs, word signs, and pictures of objects. In this complicated system, then known only to highly trained professional scribes, written symbols represented both sounds and ideas (Figure 3.19). The Egyptians also developed a simplified version of this hieroglyphic script known as hieratic, which they often employed for more mundane purposes such as recordkeeping and issuing receipts in commercial transactions.

A picture of a brown rectangular stone is shown with a red and beige checkerboard trim around the top and two sides of the stone. Three rows run across the top and sixteen columns run under the rows. All the rows and columns are filled with various hieroglyphics. Along the bottom the head of two men in helmets can be seen as well as a scarf with tassels in between them. Scratches and cracks can be seen throughout the stone.
Figure 3.19 The hieroglyphics in this Egyptian stele from circa 1944 BCE are far more stylized than the Egyptian writing produced a thousand years earlier. It took many centuries for the Egyptian script to evolve into the style of writing seen here. (credit: modification of work "Stela of the Steward Mentuwoser" by Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1912/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

Egyptian scribes recorded their ideas in stone inscriptions on the walls of temples and painted them on the walls of tombs, but they also used the fibers from a reed plant growing along the banks of the Nile to produce papyrus, a writing material like paper that could be rolled into scrolls and stored as records. Some of these papyrus rolls have survived for thousands of years because of the way the dry heat preserved them, and they proved very useful for modern historians and archaeologists after hieroglyphics were deciphered in the nineteenth century. They preserved Egyptian myths and poetry, popular stories, and lists of pharaohs, along with records of the daily life of ancient Egyptians.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax