Chapter 1 - Section 3

Ancient Empires, Kingdoms and Civilizations

     History is broadly speaking, a record of the past. This record includes human and material remains as well as the written words of humankind. For knowing what we do know about the ancients, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the geologists, anthropologists, geographers and archaeologists who have contributed so much to the comprehension of ancient civilizations. Students must try to remember that the words read in texts such as this are based upon the immeasurable efforts of the scholars and academicians in the related areas of history such as archaeology, linguistics, anthropology and geology, for examples. Much is owed to their discoveries and insights which enable us to understand the cultures and lives of the people of the ancient world.

     We will now study the accomplishments of the ancients; those that came before.

Ancient Egypt

     There is hardly anyone who has not heard of the civilization of ancient Egypt. In popular literature, film and folklore of the ancient Egyptians have become truly legendary. The Nile River, the pyramids and temples, the mysterious mummies and the famous and powerful pharaohs are a part of popular culture. General familiarity with the names of Ramesses II, Queen Nefertiti and King Tutankhamen, for example, are common today.

     The civilization of ancient Egypt began about 3100 BCE. Menes, the ruler of Upper Egypt united his kingdom with Lower Egypt. He became the first pharaoh of a united civilization that had begun centuries earlier in the Nile Valley. This great civilization much later began a long decline after the magnificent period of the Empire, (c. 1570-1100 BCE). It was subsequently ruled by a series of conquerors up to modern times.

     Over several millennia the ancient Egyptians, and their vibrant and long-lived culture, made many significant contributions to subsequent peoples. Even Egypt’s conquerors became captivated by its civilization. They assimilated much of its way of life and therefore, preserved many of the discoveries and achievements of the Egyptians. Several examples of what the modern world owes to the Egyptians are explained below.

Engineering an Empire - Egypt

     Religious beliefs and values: Ancient Egyptians were polytheistic. They worshipped many gods throughout most of their history. However, the concept of monotheism was introduced by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV in the 14th century BCE. Known as Akhenaton, he promoted the belief in one god, Aton. Aton was the Sun God. Although Akhenaton failed in the end, belief in one god was introduced as an alternative form of worship for the spiritual dimension of humankind. The strength of the priestly class and the strong attraction of the traditional gods restored polytheism to Egypt after Akhenaton’s death.

Ancient Egyptian Religion & Myths

     Another contribution that certainly did last was the concept of the belief in life after death. The ancient Egyptians strongly believed in immortality in the next world providing of course, that a person lived a good life in the present. Osiris, the God of the Dead, presided over the judgment of the soul.To live the good life, the Egyptians were expected to follow the ethical and moral principles carefully delineated in the Book of the Dead. Most of the precepts were written in the negative such as: “I did not lie. I did not murder. I did not steal.” Other lessons taught the individual to give food to the poor, water to those who were thirsty and other forms of charity to those in need.

     Therefore, if one lived a good life as defined in the Book of the Dead, the hope for an immortal life after death was very attractive and highly probable. As a result, the process of mummification became extremely important. The process preserved the body as an eternal resting place for the soul of the dead. The mummy was both an act of preservation of the physical remains of the deceased and a home for the dead person’s soul. Concepts such as an ethical, moral daily life, what constituted the “good life”, life after death and monotheism are some of the examples of the Egyptian religious belief and value system originated during the great period of ancient Egyptian civilization.

     Civil Engineering and Monumental Architecture: Stone was readily available along the rim of the Nile Valley. The Egyptians soon learned how to dig and transport the stone blocks to the building locations favored by the pharaohs. Royal officials, architects, engineers and highly skilled stonemasons were responsible for completing the projects ordered by the rulers. The pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one still standing, were completed during the Old Kingdom (3100-2200 BCE). The Great Sphinx was also built during this period.

Ancient Egypt Architecture

    Subsequent dynasties continued this tradition of building monumental works of stone. The superb stonemasons of the pharaohs constructed cliff temples, mortuary tombs for the dead and to honor the gods. In addition they built palaces, government warehouses, tombs above ground called mastabas, and most notably, gigantic temple complexes. Those found at Karnak are even most impressive  today. Ancient Egyptian civil engineers added to this record by building dams, irrigation and transportation canals. They built a series of frontier fortresses for the pharaoh’s soldiers and merchants. All this was achieved with simple tools and the labor of men and animals.

     Art and Creativity: Ancient Egyptian art is characterized as realistic and naturalistic. This civilization produced excellent sculptors capable of creating huge stone sculptures such as those found at Abu Simbel, as well as fine miniatures and life sized statues found in tombs and ancient cemeteries.

     Egyptian artists carved and laboriously painted their works on temple and tomb walls. The themes were religious, domestic scenes, historical events and economic activity. They displayed scenes of daily life and significant events in the lives of the pharaohs, the people and the nation. Skilled Egyptian artisans created exquisite jewelry, furniture, pottery, glassware and many other personal use items for the present life and for the deceased to use in the afterlife. For example, the smallest items such as the glass vials used for perfume were in themselves delicate works of art created for beauty and pleasure.

     Indeed the ancient Egyptians displayed their love of life in the artistic beauty they created and of which they surrounded themselves. They appreciated painting, sculpture, and music applying quality craftsmanship in all aspects of their daily lives. The beauty and creativity of their civilization amazes people even today.

     Written Expression: One of the first systems of writing was developed and created by the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics and the writing system associated with them means sacred writing that was first carved in stone and later, as writings on papyrus. The hieroglyphic picture symbols stand for particular sounds, concepts and objects. The symbols were put together to form names, complex ideas and to provide information to the readers.

     The Egyptians were great writers. The educated privileged and upper classes, including the scribes, recorded virtually everything. They recorded historical events, laws, tax records, literature, religious texts, mathematics, medical knowledge, economic records and matters relating to the education of the young. The ancient Egyptians developed paper, libraries, government record offices and temple archives. Everything written was stored for immediate knowledge and for later reference as necessary. The hieroglyphics carved and painted on tomb and temple walls are excellent examples of written expression about the religious, ethical and daily preoccupations of the ancient Egyptians. Today, studying and reading the ancient writings have become a popular attraction. There are many published books and manuals to aid the student and enthusiast in these endeavors.

     All this knowledge about the ancient Egyptians is now possible to understand because of the discovery and translation of the famous Rosetta Stone found by Napoleon’s scientists and soldiers in his invasion of Egypt in 1799. Jean Champollion, a French scholar, was able to translate the Egyptian writing on the stone. It was also written in Greek which the scholar knew. He used the Greek letters to break the code and therefore, was painstakingly able to decipher the hieroglyphics. For the first time in about 1500 years, the written language of the ancient Egyptians came alive. This was truly a remarkable accomplishment and provided the key to learning about the ancient Egyptian civilization.

     Applied Science and Medicine: The religion of the ancient Egyptians incorporated elements of astronomy into its belief system. The movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars were a part of the theology and identified specific gods of the Egyptians. Consequently the priests were often experts in astronomy. They created the 365 day year calendar around 4200 BCE. The Egyptian solar year and its calendar became the basis of the modern calendar of Western Civilization. Documents from ancient Egypt included medical advice and manuals for curing various illnesses and injuries. Egyptian doctors combined religion and magic with the use of practical medicine. They learned how to set bones, identify symptoms of diseases, remove cataracts and even administer brain surgery. They prescribed medicines and cures of all sorts. Perhaps because of the process of mummification, Egyptian doctors knew a great deal about the human body and how it functioned.

    The ancient Egyptians loved life and sought the good life in family, religious beliefs, and a certain level of comfortable affluence. They were also eminently practical for people. For their building and construction projects, land ownership, and flood management issues and for simply doing business in amounts, weights and measurements, the Egyptians learned geometry, mathematical applications and along with the writing system, created their own number system.

Egyptian Medicine - The Factors

     They also taught themselves about chemicals and chemical reactions as they perfected the science of embalming the dead. They used chemicals to manufacture perfume, ointments, salves and creams. They mastered the properties of plants such as papyrus, herbs and grains. They learned about animal husbandry and use of animal products. Their merchants traded with the nearby peoples of the known world. The Egyptians sailed the Mediterranean, Arabian and Red Seas. They may have even circumnavigated Africa although this is not for certain. However, their geographical knowledge was extensive.

     Perhaps the greatest legacy of our cultural heritage from the ancient Egyptians is the longevity of their civilization. For about 2,000 years, the Egyptians met the spiritual, economic, political and social needs of thousands of generations of ancient Egyptians. Today, their accomplishments are held in deep respect by the many admirers of this ancient civilization. Will the same be stated for Western Civilization in some future world?

Section 2   Section 4