01 ~ The Takeoff of Egyptian Culture
02 ~ The Totalitarian Theocracy
03 ~ The Empire of the Nile
04 ~ The Structure of Dynastic Egypt
05 ~ The Dynastic Way of Death
06 ~ Hieroglyphs
07 ~ The Anatomy of Pre-Perspective Art
08 ~ The Decline and Fall of the Pharaohs
09 ~ The Rediscovery of the Pharaohs


At one time scholars believed that the civilization of ancient Egypt was the first in the history of the world and the progenior of all others. We now know this to be untrue, but the ancient Egyptians retain one unique distinction: they were the first people on earth to create a nation-state. This state, embodying the spiritual beliefs and aspirations of the Egyptian race, was in all its major manifestations a theocracy. It served as the framework of a culture of extraordinary strength, assurance and durability which lasted for 3,000 years and which retained almost to the end its ow unmistakable purity of style. In the Egypt of antiquity, State, religion and culture formed an indisputable unity. They rose together, the fell together, and they must be studied together.
Moreover, there was a fourth essential element in this creative unity: the land. It is impossible to conceive of the civilization of ancient Egypt except in its peculiar geographical setting. It was nurtured and continued to be dominated right to the end by the physical facts of its setting: the rhythm of the Nile and its productive valley, and the circumscription of the desert. They gave the Egyptian people and their culture certain fundamental characteristics: stability, permanence and isolation. The Egyptians, indeed, were self-consciously aware of their national immobility and separateness.


The Egyptians were perhaps the most self-confident people the world has known: the cultural egocentricity of the later 'Celestial Empire' of China was less exclusive by comparison. The Egyptians did not regard themselves as a chosen people; they were, quite simply, people. Other humans fell into another category. The Egyptian word for 'man', as distinct from gods or animals originally applied only to Egyptians.
This exclusiveness was not primarily racial, for the Egyptians were of mixed race and seem to have accepted everyone who adopted their culture wholeheartedly, but geographical. The Egyptians were people because they lived in Egypt.

Their word for right order was 'maat', which also stood for justice and morality. The pharaoh embodied maat, and also dispensed it. His divinity enabled him to determine what was maat and what was not. Thus Egypt, unlike the Mesopotamian city-states and later the Israelies, had so far as we know no written code of law, but (it seems) an unwritten customary law derived from pharaonic judgments, and altered by the pharaoh as he saw fit. Maat was also the form of justice dispensed when a man died and appeared at the last judgment: his soul was then weighed in a pair of scales against maat. There was, in short, a very close association in the Egyptian's mind between moral goodness, mundane justice and artistic canon.
Since art was ordered by a geometric sense, it is therefore not surprising - almost inevitable - that its supreme expression, to the Egyptians, should have been the purest of solid geometrical forms, the pyramid, a symbol for them at one and the same time of maat or order, of pharaonic authority and of eternity.

The pyramids of the Old Kingdom chart the rise and fall of the monarchy with some precision. They grew in size as the pharaoh's earthly power and divine attributes accumulated; and when both were eroded, the pyramids shrank and finally disappeared.

One reason why the pyramids were built was to baffle tomb-robbers by their size, terror, majesty and complexity. Great thought was given to the exact location of the burial chamber and to the provision of security devices. But nothing availed. Tomb-robbing in Egypt is as old an industry as pyramid-building; probably older.

We must face the possibility, difficult though it is for us to comprehend, that the gigantism of the pyramids was the product of religious fervour, rather than of royal egomania concripting a servile multitude. The Egyptian nation evidently did not regard these funeral works of their Horus-kings as expressions of a private whim but as public works of compelling importance, which had a direct bearing on the future well-being of all. In this sense Egypt was a collectivist society of a very rigorous kind. The King personified the collective. If he passed safely into eternity as a fully-fledged god, then the immortal status of his people - serving him in the next world as they had served him in this - was somehow also guaranteed. We must assume then, that the craftsmen and labourers of Egypt worked on the pyramids as though their eternal lives depended on it. Tombs of the kings they may be but we should also see them as collective cenotaphs of the people.

About 2181 we enter what Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period, a time of actual confusion and documentary obscurity, which lasted for perhaps 100 years until the emergence of the Middle Kingdom under the Eleventh Dynasty of Thebes. This was an early 'Dark Age' of human history, by no means confined to Egypt, when the precarious civilization of the time collapsed from a combination of internal decay and external assault. In antiquity, these spasms tended to occur when civilized war technology - in this case copper weapons, and perhaps some bronze ones - became available to barbarians.

To the historian the central truth of ancient Egyptian society (is that) the health of the pharaonic throne was the index of prosperity and the only guarantee of civilization.


The texts which originate rom the Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom seem to come from a different age, almost a different moral universe. Men no longer believed they were part of a collective personality, subsumed in the pharaoh. An ever-growing circle of people were no convinced that each of them had an individual soul in eternity, which implied a separate personality on earth.
This process of spiritual democratization, which gave the diginity of a separate soul, and the right to an individual judgment in eternity, first to the rich and then to masses of ordinary people, is one of the most important phenomena in workd history. To use a phrase of the great American Egyptologist J.H. Breasted, it is 'the dawn of conscience'. Once the idea of individual conscience has become established, mankind can never be the same again, even though its rights are subsequently denied and suppressed. Indeed, the development is political as much as spiritual.


"The father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the brother of the divorced woman and the apron of him who is motherless."
        - Nerferti, writing in the early Middle Kingdom on the proper role of the Chief Steward

The royal service prided itself on feeding its men well. It was part of the Egyptian genius for organizing manpower, perhaps their greatest gift. Yet in many ways this gift, and the vast human resources which made it so effective, was a positive obstacle to progress. The Egyptians displayed extraordinary ingenuity in making the best possible use of primtive techniques, but their massive deployment of muscle-power acted as a disincentive to developing labour-saving technology. There was no internal marker of any size for manufactured goods, no private sector, no profit motive.
Egypt was never in the forefront of new technology, and tended to fall further behind as time went on. She clung to the Copper Age. Most of the novelties which made it possible for her to become an empire in the New Kingdom were the direct result of the Hyskos invasion, which in effect pulled Egypt into the full Bronze Age. Egypt seemed even more reluctant to enter the Iron Age and was, in fact, the last major civilized country to do so.

Egypt's technical backwardness was a consequence of intellectual limitation as well as social conservatism... in this respect they were primitives, unable to think in the abstract, or to remove their minds any distance from the actual loaves or jars of beer they were calculating. Left to themselves they always worked empirically, and they often worked very well, for their patience and accuracy in going through a monstrously tedious sum or measurement were admirable.
It was their long-suffering patience which formed the Egyptian's chief intellectual handicap: they lacked the inmpatient drive towards the short-cut which animates science, just as they lacked the incentive to save muscle-power which animates technology.


Originally only the pharaoh enacted this cyclical drama but from the late Old Kingdom onwards the right to struggle with Seth and be immortalized with Osiris was gradually extended to all Egyptians. The unversalizing of the myth accompanied the historical development of the individual conscience, Egypt's greatest spiritual gift to mankind, and to the idea of a last judgment for all, presided over by Osiris.

The democratization of religion and conscience, the ascent from collectivism to humanism, brought home to ordinary people the momentousness of death, the need therefore to organize their life on earth with this in view, and to make preparations for death every bit as elaborate (according to their means) as those of the pharaoh. The great majority of fine Egyptians tombs were built in the lifetimes of their occupants, a source of pride and self-satisfaction to them and very likely the most valuable items in their property.
This helps to explain why the overwhelming mass of the surviving evidence of Egyptian art and civilization is connected with death and fashioned for tombs. Egyptologists deny that this in any way indicates that the Egyptians were morbid. They were, so far as we can judge, a lively, extrovert, cheerful people, greedy for the pleasures of the senses and all the good things of this world. All this is true. But it is also true, as the instinctive modern Western reaction to the externals of Egyptian civilization indicates, that the Egyptians were, to our minds, obsessed by death. Death always had the first-fruits of Egyptian culture. Writing to his son, King Ammenemes I did not boast about his palace but his tomb, made in far more magnificent materials.
An Egyptian spent his adult years planning for eternity just as, today, insurance companies tell us we should plan for retirement.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptians did their best to conform to the notion that a well-preserved body was the best guarantee of life after death. Yet the origins of mummification were peculiar and based on misapprehension. The Egyptians identified body-preservation with eternal life by observing that bodies did not always decay. This was a result of the exceptionally dry climate of the Nile valley and above all the absence of bacteria in the sand and air. Even in modern times, archaeologists have dug up well-preserved mummies, placed without coffins, unenbalmed and uneviscerated, in sandy graves. In short, the best chance a body had of total survival was simply to be placed in the sand. But the Egyptians did not know this. In early attempts to guarantee the process of preservation, that is during the predynastic period, they built burial chambers. To their consternation the bodies, no longer in contact with the dessicating sand, putrified. So, by trial and error they moved towards the clumsy science of mummification, which was first practised, it seems, in the Second Dynasty.
The Fifth Dynasty 'Pyramid Texts' make it clear that the basic aim of mummification was to keep the bones intact and in place and above all to keep the head attached to the body. Hence the bandages to maintain the characteristic structure and bodily shape, but they quickly discovered that they had to remove the internal organs (to prevent decay) and, sometimes during the Old Kindgom, they began to take these out.

The existence of these well preserved cadavers has made some contribution to paleopathology, the study of disease in the ancient world - though mainly in a negative direction. No mummy has been found suffering from syphillis, for example, which helps to bolster the theory that the disease was imported from the New World in post-Columbian times. There is no evidence of cancer either.


They did not make for themselves pyramids of metal, with tombstones of iron. They were not able to perpetuate themselves through their children... but they made their heirs for themselves in their writings and in the works of wisdom they left behind... wise books were their pyramids and the pen was their child.
        - Theban papyrus circa 1300 BC praising seers Hordedef and Imhotep

The Canaantite-Egyptian alphabetic script (containing only the alphabetic signs from the hieroglyphs, rejecting the consonantal groups and the ideograms) was gradually adopted by the entire region, in various forms, and above all by the Phoenicians, who had an alphabet of 28 letters. In the ninth century BC, the Greeks took over the Phoenician alphabet more or less as they found it, retaining even the names of the letters.
The ultimate source of the Western alphabet, therefore, is ancient Egypt and the measure of its usefulness to subsequent civilizations through its amazing simplicity and flexibility is a measure of the opportunities lost by the Egyptians' failure to expand the alphabetical element they had introduced in their script.

With many aspects of Egyptian culture a plateau of achievement was reached comparitively early in the process of development and never thereafter surpassed. In architecture and sculpture the plateau was scaled in the Old Kingdom; in literature in the Middle Kingdom. The Egyptians seem to have felt this themselves.


When we look Egyptian art, we must remember that the artist is not striving primarily to present, whether in two or three dimensions, what he sees in his eye, but to give the maximum information, in pictorial or plastic shorthand, about what he knows intellectually to be there. We have to see the artist as communicator and his work as closer to hieroglyphics than photography. Hence, when we look at the Egyptian rendering of human figures in two dimensions, we should never judge them as human forms comprehended in one glance from a single viewpoint. They are in fact composites... put together to provide the archetypcal human form, rather than one seen in the artist's eye. Every part of the body was shown from the side which revealed it most characteristically... it conformed to the code of giving the maximum information.

What is reality in art? The ancient world asked the question and disagreed about the answer. Before they staged their perspective revolution, the Greeks learnt virtually everything they knew in art, above all in sculpture, from the Egyptians.

In the 'Republic', Plato mounted a polemic against perspective art as morally bad: it depicted the visual appearance, in the eye of the artist, rather than the actual reality. He advocated a return to the Egyptian system, which avoided the apparent contradiction between perspective sense-data and 'objective' reality. He reflected the views of children, savages and and the comparitively primitive societies of the Bronze Age, who wanted to cling to the comfortable, familiar world, in which the image corresponded to the 'known' truth.


The Late Bronze Age, which can be placed roughly between 1500 and 1100 BC, was the first period of international civilization in world history. For the first time the light of culture cast its beams over wide spaces and became, for vast numbers and varieties of men, a shared system of illumination.
To a great extent this internationalism was confined to court and palace, but trade was beginning to radiate into lower levels of society and, perhaps most important of all, the movement of gods and goddesses across the frontiers gave even the humblest peasant a hint of wider worlds.
The rise of empires produced also, alas, a cosmopolitan slave class, the pitiful victims of lost battles and fallen cities. Slavery was the great cancer of the ancient world. As slaves rose in numbers, so their price fell and the availibility of cheap muscle-power was a deadening disincentive to technical innovation. Enterprise tended to drown in oceans of human sweat.

The Romans did not succeed in stamping out any aspect of Egyptian religious magic. With the destruction of the Egyptian State and its political-religious institutions, magic gradually took over the whole system of popular Egyptian belief, as it had been threatening to do for a millennium.
With its mild winter climate, easy living and its relaxed atmosphere of religious tolerance, Roman Egypt became a haven, like modern California, for abstruse religious cults, cranks and heterodox preachers and seers. Even before the coming of Christianity, it gave birth to innumerable gnostic sects, who claimed to possess secret knowledge about the inifinite, and to hold intellectual communion with angels and other spirits.

The Roman authorities respected the religious truce of Philae, even after the emperors became Christians. But towards the end of the fourth century, Christian fanatics, whipped on by their bishops, destroyed the Serapeum at Memphis and many other shrines which had hitherto survived. Even Philae was not spared, and the sacred falcon was slaughtered... the priests were dispersed and no more hieroglyphs were carved. Thus the last link with the ancient culture of Egypt was severed. All living contect was irrecoverably lost, especially after the Coptic tongue ceased to be spoken or written in the last Middle Ages. Happily, however, the dry sands and the protective climate of Egypt cocooned the relics of the past against the ravages of time and preserved them for the modern world to rediscover.


By the time the last hieroglyphs were carved on the island of Philae towards the close of the fourth century AD the civilization of ancient Egypt was dead; it had already ceased to function in the rest of the country... a great chasm yawned between Late Roman and Byzantine Egypt, and the Egypt of antiquity, which no one had the knowledge to cross.

The "Description de l'Egypte" published by Vivant Denon between 1809 and 1813... recorded many hieroglyphs but made no real contribution to their decipherment; Silvestre de Sacy, France's leading Orientalist, thought the problem 'scientifically insoluble'. The Rosetta Stone, of which the French had copies made from a wax cast, plainly provided a clue. It was in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. The Greek texts, in 54 lines, recorded the award by the high priests of special divine honours to King Ptolemy Epiphanes, in 196 BC. Manifestly, the demotic text, in 32 lines, and the hieroglyphic, in 14, said the same thing... it was now apparent that hieroglyphic was not a philosophical ideas-code, but a script, albeit a strange one.

The discovery of the principles of the hieroglyphs demolished at one stroke the pretentious monument of nonsense which had been erected on the basis of a false symbolism for nearly two millennia. It robbed the ancient Egyptians of their non-existent esoteric knowledge, but instead it allowed scholars to begin the serious reconstruction of their true history and way of life, and the interpretation of their religion and culture. A new generation of professional Egyptologists emerged, combining some knowledge of the language with the elementary skills of the archaeologist.

During the first half of the 19th century, the looting of Egypt by wealthy antiquaries and museums was virtually uncontrolled. Of course these depredations must be placed in the perspective of vandalism going back millennia. The pharaohs themselves did not show the respect to their predecessors' monuments which the modern mind would expect. The Romans respected Egyptian antiquaries, sometimes keeping them in repair, until the coming of compulsory Christianity round the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, when the still-active temples were demolished.
Cumulatively, however, the worst damage by far was inflicted by generation after generation of Egyptian villagers, who stole millions of limestone blocks for burning in the limepits, and who consumed the ancient mud-brick palaces for agricultural fertilizer: thus the wealth of the pharaohs went back to the peasants who originally created it and that was how enormous monuments like Labyrinth of Ammenemes III, which astonished the ancients, literally vanished from the face of the earth.
But Egypt also numbered among its native inhabitants men whose hereditary profession was the pillaging of tombs... tomb robbery undoubtedly increased during the 19th century, when the market prices even of antiquities with no intrinsic value in metal or stones rose steadily. The last great outrages occured during the 1870s... such thefts continue to this day, though on a reduced scale.

The ancient Egyptians themselves treated their life-giving river with the greatest respect, knowing that the Nile was not easily trifled with, and had ways of dwarfing her human constrictors, however ingenious. A similar view was taken by all the various conquerors of Egypt, down to and including the British. While Britain was in power in Egypt, from the 1880s to the 1940s, many successful efforts were made to improve the Nile's performance as an irrigation system, and to diminish its periodic destructiveness. The British, who had immense experience in India and the Middle East of devising river control systems in low-rainfall territories, had learned to respect the nature of rivers and not to risk draconian changes in their flow. However, when Egypt attained full control of its affairs in the early 1950s and especially after the arrival in power of revolutionary leader President Gamel Abdul Nasser, other counsels prevailed. He flouted ancient wisdom and defied the advice of elders. His idea was to construct a new, immensely high dam at Aswan, to create a vast artificial lake in Nubia, to be called after himself and to generate large quantities of electricity. The British never liked the scheme, which they calculated would inflict irreparable damage on the Nile valley and change the climate of Nubia for the worse.
The long-term results, which continue, were pretty well as the British had predicted. The effect of the High Dam was to drown many ancient sites in the new lake. Lake Nasser offers warm hospitality to the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and to the snails which spread the curse of Egypt, bilharzia. Vast quantities of water lake from the lake, drift downstream underground, and rise in unwanted places, especially some of the sites, undermining and destroying yet more precious relics of the past.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Lower Egypt, especially Cairo, poses threats both to Egypt's past, and to our enjoyment of it. The fundamentalists care nothing for antiquities, which to them are relics of infidel paganism, better destroyed than preserved. They are actively hostile to the tourist trade, which they see as responsible for many vicious infidel customs. So tourists visiting the sites are a prime target for their atrocities, and Egyptologists working on the sites are also at risk.

It is such scholars - archaeologists, cartographers, numismatists, linguists, historical sociologists and the like - who have together succeeded, during the 20th century, in placing ancient Egypt, for the first time, in its correct historical context, and in relating its development to that of other ancient civilizations.

Egypt was not the first civilization, but it was the first to emerge as a national, as opposed to a city, culture. Egypt was not only the first State, it was the first country: it was the product not only of human ingenuity but of racial grouping and, above all, of a felicitious geography. Therein lay Egypt's initial strength. But the durability of the State which thus evolved was ensured by the overwhelming simplicity and power of its central institution, the theocratic monarchy.
All power and, to begin with, all personality and all rights whatever, rested in the king. Let no say that dictatorship cannot work in human societies: the throne of Egypt, legitimized as it was not by any doctrine of human selection but solely by its own divine sanction, lasted for 3,000 years. And it was the principal reason why the civilization of Egypt produced such riches and lasted so long, for it provided a framework of absolute certitude.
But the second point we should ponder is a necessary corrective: clarity and certitude are not enough. There was no freedom in the Egyptian State, and in the end its absence was fatal. In the course of the second millennium, Egyptians secured for themselves individual rights in eternity - as opposed to those subsumed in the divine person of the pharaoh - but they never won any rights on earth.

Egypt was a great Bronze Age power but it was already technically backward even during the glory of its Nineteenth Dynasty, and by the middle of the Twentieth it was a culture in rapid and manifest decline... it retreated into its past and reinforced the regulated collectivism of its society.
But all civilizations are born to die. Those fortunate enough to live in one should study the past to learn from its errors, and with the wisdom of hindsight strive to keep at bay for a while the drifting sands of decay.

>> Quotes from Paul Johnson's 20th century epic "Modern Times".

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