The fundamental belief was that a creator god had established a specific and unalterable universal and social order. ~ Australian Egyptologist David O’Connor
By 5000 BCE a patchwork of farming villages dotted the banks of the Nile River. The river provided a natural highway between settlements.
Villages soon became a patchwork of fiefdoms. By 3100 BCE these small polities had become a unified state: the largest literate civilization in the world at that time. Consolidation came via political machinations and conflict, reinforced by symbolic ideology. For thousands of years the Egyptian worldview concerned itself with imposing order over potential chaos, as represented by the mythical gods Horus and Set.
Horus (pictured) is one of the oldest Egyptian deities: the patron deity of Nekhen society that first unified Egypt. In time the king of Egypt was advertised as Horus manifest. When the king died, he transformed into Osiris, the god of the afterlife.
In contrast, Set was the god of chaos, manifest in darkness, the desert, and storms. In Egyptian mythology, Set was a usurper that killed his brother Osiris. Osiris’s son Horus sought revenge on Set, thereby symbolizing justice.
Egyptian rulers imposed power based upon social inequality that was justified as the natural order established by the gods when creating the world.
Egypt’s distinctive ideology systemized its civilization over wide areas at the expense of local religious cults. Mythology acted as cultural glue in a society where only a minor minority were literate.
Scribes held enormous power in all early civilizations. Egypt was no exception.
Egyptian society was shaped with the idea that the well-being of the people depending upon their ruler, who was supported by their labors. The increasingly grandiose pyramids and other building projects for the pharaoh as divine king amply testify to this idea.
Pyramid building created public works that defined the authority of a despotic ruler while rendering dependent subjects. Every flood season, with agriculture at a standstill, peasants were organized into construction teams, fed by a nearby pyramid workers’ community.
The peasants worked off tax obligations. Pyramid construction institutionalized the state practice of trading food for labor. Villagers became dependent upon the state for food 3 months of the year – food which was obtained by taxation of crop surpluses from the villagers. The permanent pyramid workforce comprised relatively few people: mostly skilled artisans, with attendant project managers.
Pharaohs had absolute rule: following no written laws, unlike contemporaneous Mesopotamian city-states. The empire existed for the benefit of a tiny minority.
A prolonged drought after 2180 BCE undermined authority. 300 years of repeated famines gave way to anarchy. Egypt splintered into competing fiefdoms.
~2134 BCE the city of Thebes in upper Egypt achieved supremacy and reunited Egypt (the Middle Kingdom). Having learned lessons from the past, rulers relied heavily on an efficient bureaucracy to increase agricultural production and stockpile food reserves.
With political stability achieved, for over 3 centuries Egypt prospered under a series of able pharaohs who were more pragmatic, and less divine, than the pyramid builders of the Old Kingdom. Overseas trade expanded.
Everything depended upon charismatic leadership. Succession disputes plagued the Theban court in the 17th century BCE. This occurred as thousands of Asian immigrants were moving into the delta region.
The Hyksos were a mixed tribe from west Asia who came to profit from Egyptian economic success. They climbed to power beginning ~1800 BCE; ultimately gaining control of lower Egypt by 1650 BCE, fragmenting the once-unified kingdom. Their chief deity was Set, whom they identified with their native storm god.
Ahmose was the son of soldier. He followed in his father’s footsteps, first as a foot soldier. His bravery put him in good stead, and by his wits he was promoted: serving 5 pharaohs, and eventually routing the Hyksos from their rule of lower Egypt, thus once again unifying the realm into the New Kingdom, beginning 1570 BCE. Thebes became the capital of Egypt.
As always, the quality of leadership determined the fortunes of the empire. The Egyptian empire suffered under Akhenaten, a heretical pharaoh who trifled with the traditional Egyptian polytheistic religious ideology, headed by the Theban Sun god Amun. Akhenaten instead favored the monotheistic Sun god Aten.
Akhenaten had taken the throne in 1353 BCE as Amenhotep IV, upon the death of this father Amenhotep III. Only after he switched religious allegiance in 1348 BCE did he take the name Akhenaten: “beneficial to Aten.”
Akhenaten transferred the capital to Amarna in 1343 BCE. It proved an inauspicious move. A serious pandemic occurred during the Amarna Period under Akhenaten. It may have been the plague, or polio, or the first recorded outbreak of influenza, spread from Asia.
Influenza arose from eating animals. Domesticated animals were widespread by this time. The Egyptians let the wastes of waterfowl and pigs mix into the water supply: a ready-made means for contagion.
Nefertiti (1370–1330 BCE) was Akhenaten’s wife. She may have briefly succeeded Akhenaten upon his death in 1336 BCE, but her name was then erased from history until the discovery of a bust of her in 1912. Subsequent publicity made her one of the most iconic visages associated with ancient Egypt.
The new capital was abandoned after Akhenaten’s reign. Its association with the pandemic doubtlessly played a part.
In 1332 BCE, Akhenaten’s 9-year-old son, Tutankhamun, succeeded to the throne. Presiding over a troubled kingdom, Tut’s advisors took the only course open to them: they restored the old spiritual order as well as moving the capital.
King Tut ruled but 10 years. His death was accidental, possibly from a fall. He had a badly broken leg which had become infected. And he had malaria.
With a bad overbite, a skewed hip, and a club foot, among other maladies, Tutankhamun was a product of incest: conceived by one of Akhenaten’s sisters, or a cousin, not by Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti. Tutankhamun himself carried on the tradition by marrying his half-sister. They had 2 daughters, both stillborn; hence, the lineage ended.
The Rameside pharaohs that followed labored to elevate Egypt to its former imperial glory. Rameses II (ruled: 1279–1213 BCE) began by building cities, temples, and monuments.
He launched numerous military campaigns into Syria, eventually meeting his match against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh (1274), where his army was fought to a standstill, owing to Rameses II committing the grievous tactical error of splitting up his combined forces. This was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving 5,000 or more chariots.
From that moment on, Egypt lost political influence. The kingdom began a slow decline, finally falling to the Roman Empire in 30 BCE.