By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Egypt saw a number of phases on its journey toward becoming a civilization. Be it the rule of Badarian culture, various kings and pharaohs, each one had a role to play it its progress and development. But how did the Egyptians claim cultural homogeneity, given the fact that Egypt was racially mixed?
Grave Deposit of Characteristics
Badarian culture was known mainly from cemeteries. The characteristic gravel deposit was the rippled bowl, named so because its surface was undulating slightly as a result of combing the clay. The effect was intentionally decorative. The shape was simple, the surface brown often with a black top, and the wall of the vase very thin, demonstrating a high degree of technical accomplishment.
Luxury items, including bracelets, combs, and hairpins were also deposited in graves, as were female statuettes. Fine tools, including arrowheads, axes, and sickles were also deposited. It was a culture recognized with its sense of community, appreciation of fine objects, attentiveness to physical appearance, belief in the afterlife, and its social stratification, as evidenced by the uneven distribution of wealth in the graves.
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Egypt was not civilization because to earn the title civilization, a society had to achieve a level of cultural, political, and technological sophistication, which certainly wasn’t the case in that period. A semi-legendary king, called Menes who around 3100 B.C., converted a land largely populated by tribes of nomadic herders into a unified Upper and Lower Egypt, thereby forming the first nation-state in history, with his capital at Memphis near Cairo. From then on, for about 3,000 years, with a few hiccups, Egypt remained stable and unified. Egypt succumbed first to the Persians 525 B.C., then to Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., and finally to the Romans in 30 B.C.
The Period of the New Kingdom
During the period of the New Kingdom, around 1570 to 1070 B.C., from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasty, the first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ahmose I, expelled a foreigner, Hyksos, who had been ruling the north of the country. For the first time in its history, Egypt came into contact with other civilizations of the Middle East.
Egyptians now had a sense of security and predictability that they could possibly imagine. The reason for that was, they lived in the most prosperous country in the world. Whereas Mesopotamia was dependent on the weather, Egyptians were dependent on the Nile, which, if controlled, guaranteed them to harvest every year. No other ancient people were so fortunate in terms of the environment.
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Egyptians lived in a theocracy, meaning the ultimate authority in the land was invested in the gods, whose supreme representative on earth was the pharaoh, who was a god amongst his people. The well-being of the pharaoh, both in this life and in the life to come, was an expression of the well-being of all his people. So they used to take a personal interest in his health and welfare. Although the pharaoh was divine, he was not distant, because he regularly sailed up and down the Nile in a barge.
Living in a theocracy like ancient Egypt meant, being self-confident and assured of a place in the world. That feeling of self-confidence and assurance was bolstered by the fact that their neighbors in Libya to the west, Nubia to the south, and Palestine to the east were desperately poverty-stricken and culturally backward who would come to the Egyptians for grain when their harvests failed, as mentioned in the Book of Genesis when Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for grain.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Powers of Pharaoh
Living in a theocracy also meant that ultimate power in all things resided with the pharaoh. It was the pharaoh who was the supreme judge. There was no equivalent to the law code of Hammurabi in Egypt, with prescribed punishments for specific offenses. Judging from various documents of lawsuits and trials, it seemed that Egyptian law was mostly based on precedent.
Although the pharaoh was the supreme judge, each local community had its own court and most cases were decided at the local level. Murder, treason, and tomb robbery were all capital offenses. There was also the punishment of mutilation, specifically the cutting off of the nose in the case of officials who abused their office.
Claiming Cultural Homogeneity
Having one pharaoh as their king, Egyptians identified themselves as a nation but it was not clear when the notion of nationhood, ethnicity, first crept into human consciousness and became a basis for an ideology, but the Egyptians were among the first, if not the first, to claim cultural homogeneity which was remarkable in light of the fact that Egypt was in reality racially mixed.
They achieved homogeneity based on a distinctive lifestyle and a shared set of values, rather than on any notion of blood-relatedness, instigating a sense that they were part of a great community, with whom they shared much in common.
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Power of Cooperation
For its survival, everyone pulled together to cooperate, working with their fellow-Egyptians to conserve the Nile floodwater, by building dikes and canals and were fair in sharing the water with neighbors. That was the first time in human history that cooperation on such a scale had taken place. It is estimated that the population of Egypt went from about 850,000 around 3000 B.C. to 4 to 5 million by the late New Kingdom, in around 1100 B.C.
They also shared an extraordinarily keen appreciation and awareness of death with fellow Egyptians. Egyptians probably lavished more on death than any other culture that has ever existed. The gods presided over their health and welfare, and the land as a whole.
Common Questions about Egyptian Civilization
Menes was a semi-legendary king, who around 3100 B.C., converted a land largely populated by tribes of nomadic herders into a unified Upper and Lower Egypt, thereby building the first nation-state in history, with his capital at Memphis near Cairo.
Pharaoh had the ultimate power in all things and was the supreme judge. But each local community had its own court and most cases were decided at the local level.
Egypt had a homogeneity culture which was remarkable in light of the fact that Egypt was racially mixed. They achieved homogeneity based on a distinctive lifestyle and shared values, rather than on any notion of blood-relatedness.
The secret to Egypt’s success was that everyone cooperated on a large scale and worked with their fellow-Egyptians to conserve the Nile floodwater by building dikes and canals, and were fair in sharing the water with neighbors. The population of Egypt went from about 850,000 around 3000 B.C. to 4 to 5 million by the late New Kingdom, in around 1100 B.C.