Western Civilization to 1650
Lecture 1. Near Eastern Origins of "Western" Civilization
Human origins: Dominant theory, African origins, then diffusion of small bands.
Emergence and diffusion tied to changing environmental/climatic
Paleolithic era (approx. 40,000-11,000 BCE)
Traces of physically modern humans from about 40,000 BCE in North
Africa, Near East, parts of Europe.
The early evidence of these cultures includes cave paintings, like these cave paintings of animals from Lascaux, France, from about 15,000 BCE.
These were nomadic peoples. They did not have domesticated animals and they had not yet discovered the secrets of agriculture. They lived by hunting wild game and gathering fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. They traveled in small bands, moving with the game and to find other new sources of food.
To assist in hunting and gathering, they manufacturing fine quality tools and implements of stone and animal bone as well as wood. Developing these new "technologies," which may have taken thousands of years, greatly improved these culture's abilities to survive.
These Stone Age cultures had no system of writing, and what we know of them is based only upon their paintings, their tools, their bones, and other fragments of evidence uncovered by archeologists.
From these we can deduce that Paleolithic nomad societies had small populations. They had few possessions and their society probably were more or less egalitarian, with few social divisions and very little specialization of functions. Probably almost the entire population (men, women, and older children) took part in hunting and in gathering. (There is no evidence that the men did all the hunting—that is a fiction of the modern mind).
Neolithic Era (11,000-4,000 BCE)
After 11,000 BCE, fundamental changes in global climate resulted in
changes in human economic and settlement patterns.
The last major Ice Age ended in about 11,000 BCE. During the Ice Age, glaciers covered much of Northern Europe (and North America and Northern Asia); the climate in the Near East, Southern Europe (around the Mediterranean Sea), and North Africa had been cool (the temperature ranged from 30-60 degrees). Bison and other large game had moved South during the Ice-Age in search of grazing land; they had been one of the main food sources for nomadic bands during the Stone Age.
Some nomadic bands appear to have followed the animal herds to the North (and settled northern parts of Europe).
But more significantly for the story of ancient civilization, some peoples stayed in place, because the new warm, wet climate in their regions provided them with plenty of plants for food, and especially plenty of wild grains. Historians call the region with the best environmental conditions the "Fertile Crescent," the place where western civilization was born.
In the lands that are now Israel, Syria, Southern Turkey, Northern Iraq,
and Western Iran, people could find enough food that they did not have to
migrate, and sometime around 10,000 BCE they began to live in
permanent settlements. Not only did they begin to settle, but
they also learned how to store and preserve the grain that they had
gathered. The ability to store grain in pits and in clay containers meant that people could have food in seasons when the harvest was poor. This meant growing populations and "fixed" (sedentary, rather than nomadic) settlements.
The Origins of Agriculture
Archeologists link storage of grain to the birth of agriculture in communities around the world. In the eastern Mediterranean, for instance, the "Nauftian" peoples living in what is now Syria and Israel probably noticed that grain spilled near their storage pits in fall began to sprout and grow in spring.
(The grain that we eat is, of course, seed of "domesticated" grasses—ancient peoples were probably gathering barley and small seed grains like spelt. Ancient peoples also learned to cultivate other plants, like fruit and nut trees, berry shrubs, and vegetables. But over time it would be grain crops that had the most powerful social impact.)
From this observation, they figured out that they could deliberately plant seeds and then harvest the results. At first this probably involved deliberately scattering seeds; at some point around 8,000 BCE, people in the Fertile Crescent began using sticks and other implements to break the earth so that they could plant seeds.
Now instead of gathering grain "randomly," humans could plant concentrations of grain. This meant higher yields (the ratio of grain harvested to seed planted). In general, historians argue that agriculture must provide minimum yields of around 3 to 1 (3 bushels harvested to every 1 planted) in order to sustain a community.
Higher yields meant that Neolithic peoples could increase their population. More food meant fewer deaths from starvation and less susceptibility to disease. It also meant both higher rates of fertility and lower rates of infant mortality.
There is some evidence that over several generations peoples who had become sedentary became physically smaller in stature than had been the hunter-gatherers; their life expectancy probably increased, however: the average life expectancy of men in Neolithic farming settlements was around 34, and that of women around 30.
The most basic factors in the "population equation" are birth rates and death rates: if each year more children are born and fewer people die, then the population grows. Agriculture made this possible.
Creation of a grain "surplus" (more than what is needed to feed the farmers) also meant that Neolithic peoples could "afford" to domesticate animals (since they now had fodder). Domesticated cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats could provide meat (to replace or supplement wild game), so that early farmers had protein (in addition to fish); cattle, goats, and sheep provided milk. Animals provided leather, fur, wool, bone, and horn for manufacturing tools and clothing.
It still would be thousands of years before farming peoples figured out that animal manure made their soil richer and began deliberately pasturing livestock on the stubble. And it would take thousands of years before people figured out that they could use animals to drag plows, so that they could break the earth and plant seeds. First they had to make the shift from using sharpened sticks and bones to poke holes in the earth to building "scratch plows" that you push or drag across the earth to break the soil.
The invention of new kinds of plows took thousands of years and came in response to the needs of different types of soil, climate conditions, and crops. As long as people could grow sufficient grain using simple seed "drills," they saw no need for other types of technology.
Between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE, agriculture slowly spread across the Fertile Crescent and into Egypt and North Africa as well as into South-Eastern Europe (the Balkans). It may have developed on its own in several different places at the same time, or it may have spread as people left overcrowded communities and formed new settlements, or it may have spread with trade (as traders carried information about farming from one settlement to another; we know from archeologists that there was a great deal of trade across the region in the Neolithic period, in goods ranging from tools and volcanic glass to beer, wine, and oil). What is certain is that agriculture allowed people to form larger, permanent settlements—it gave birth to villages.
The Emergence of Villages
Once peoples in the Fertile Crescent began farming and gave up their nomadic hunter-gatherer economy, their populations increased and their social structures (including their political structure) became more complex.
As the size of communities increased (Jericho, for instance, probably had a thousand residents in the 8th millennium BCE), their physical organization became more elaborate—people concentrated their homes and storage buildings in tight clusters near sources of water and near their fields and meadows, and they often surrounded these settlements with walls to protect them from enemies.
Fixed settlement made possible a greater division of labor and more specialization. Much of the population engaged in agriculture (growing grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables), fishing, and livestock husbandry. But the creation of surplus and a sedentary lifestyle meant that it was practical to accumulate personal goods; this helped create demand for other forms of economic specialization.
Farming communities, for instance, began to store food using a "new technology," clay containers, which gave rise to specialization in the handicraft of pottery. Other specialized trades that probably in this period included tool makers, weapon makers, cloth makers, carpenters, stone masons, and brewers.
So in village life, large sections of the population earned their livings through their knowledge of specialized crafts (they became artisans). People began trading goods and services for food, other goods, and items of "universal" value (e.g., precious stones, volcanic glass): in other words, commerce became a way of life.
Commerce involved the trade of surplus food and manufactured goods within a village, but also between villages (and even between distant lands). Clay containers had made it easier to transport surplus goods, including foods and liquids, from place to place. This further stimulated specialization in various crafts.
Creation of an agricultural surplus, trade, and the growing size and complexity of villages led to divisions of labor and to social divisions between those who did labor and those who controlled its fruits (and controlled the laborers). The details are not at all clear. These societies had no form of writing, so there are no written sources from the Neolithic era. But the archeological evidence does indicate that society in these Neolithic villages had become stratified.
Elites--a ruling class--controlled much of the surplus, controlled trade, and probably came to control the artisans as well. Elite status probably was hereditary—certain families probably dominated villages over several generations. It is likely that the elite organized and commanded the soldiers of these Neolithic villages, although, again, we know very little about warfare in this era. And it is likely that the elite included a "priestly class" who organized rituals and sacrifices by which communities tried to please (or influence) their gods. Again, we know very little about Neolithic religions.
It is clear that people believed that supernatural powers—gods—controlled the forces of nature that so dominated their lives. They believed that they could in some way communicate with, or at least to, these gods through a special intercessor. A class of "priests" emerged whose special knowledge and abilities allowed them to serve as the connection between the people and their gods.
Beyond the existence of this elite ruling class, we know very little of the system of "political" organization of Neolithic societies—of how power and authority in their communities was organized and sustained.
We first see the emergence of what we would recognize as a "State"—an elaborate, coordinated system of power and authority—in ancient Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BCE. It is no coincidence that the first system of writing and the first cities (from which we get the term "civilizations) also appeared in Mesopotamia in this era.
Mesopotamia and the Birth of History
Mesopotamia (the site of present-day Iraq) was not a promising a site for large human settlements. It is extremely hot in summer, the land gets little rain, the soil is poor, and the two rivers that run down from the mountains of Turkey through this land to the Persian Gulf—the Tigris and the Euphrates—flood terribly. (Regular flooding of rivers actually can help make the land in river valleys more fertile, with the most important ancient example being floods of the Nile River in Egypt, but in the flat terrain and sandy soil of Mesopotamia rivers often shifted course, making their banks really dangerous places to settle.)
Still, people had been settling between the Tigris and the Euphrates since at least the 7th millennium BCE. Around 5,900 BCE the farming peoples known as the "Ubaid" moved to the region (either from the Fertile Crescent or to escape the great flood that hit the Black Sea at this time—this flood is perhaps the origin of the Great Flood myths in several ancient societies—including the story of the Noah in the Hebrew Bible).
The Ubiad adapted to the Mesopotamian conditions by changing the environment itself, through irrigation. They dug a massive system of canals, dikes, and levees, to move the flood waters of the Tigres and Euphrates out across the dry land, so that they could water their farm fields. This canal system allowed the Ubiad to support large agricultural villages that, like villages in the Fertile Crescent, became centers of various artisan crafts and trade.
Besides the remnants of their irrigation system, another important surviving relic of Ubiad society are the mud-brick buildings at the center of villages, which archeologists believe were temples at which the priestly class (probably the culture's ruling elite) made offerings to the Ubiad gods in thanks for the seasonal rains, which allowed their culture to thrive.
Uruk, Early Sumer, and the Origins of Writing (4300-2900 BCE)
After about 1500 years, some of the largest Ubiad villages merged into one another, creating cities. The large cities then extended their control over smaller surrounding villages—they became City States. The largest of these cities was Uruk, which gives its name to this period of Mesopotamian history.
The people of the lands around Uruk, known as Sumer (and the people as Sumerians), continued the development of irrigation-based agriculture, crafts, arts, commerce, and temple building begun by their Ubiad ancestors, but on a grander scale. Their cities were large, crowded (some had populations of over 10,000 by the late 5th millennium), and busy center of commerce.
Each city state had a hereditary ruling class (an aristocracy), which included the priestly class. In practice, the temples "ran" these city states (these were "theocracies"—there was no difference between religious and secular power, the two were fused). Many of the city's free artisans and artists worked directly for the temples. Perhaps half of Uruk's population was made up of free peoples; the other half was made up of slaves.
Slaves did agricultural labor and also practiced artisan crafts. City-states made slaves out of war prisoners—and the Sumerian city states were often at war with one another and with their neighbors. If a prisoner was from Sumer, than their slavery was only temporary; if he or she were from outside Sumer, they were treated as property, no different than domesticated animals.
Uruk and the other Sumerian city states had evolved a complex urban society. And critical to this process was the invention of written language.
Here is a problem that people faced as commerce became more complex and more extensive—how do you keep track of transactions and how do you keep track of your inventory? If you are selling wine to someone in a different city, how do you keep track of how much wine you have sent to him, at what price, and how much he owes you? Or of how much wine you still have in the storehouse? And how do you ensure that all parties involved in the transaction agree about what has been traded, how much of it, and for what price? The Ubiad and other Fertile Crescent societies had done this using simple tokens—one bit of volcanic glass, say, for every jar of wine—which the seller sent to the buyer along with the shipment of goods. These might have been placed into hollow balls of wet clay, on which the merchant would scratch simple pictograms symbolizing the good being sold.
Writing therefore began as a way of keeping track of commerce. Around 3300 BCE the priests of Uruk began etching pictographic symbols into flat tablets of clay.
This was important, because the temples were centers of economic life. The priestly elite that ruled each city controlled the irrigation system, and probably controlled most of the commerce and artisan activities as well. Although Sumer had a common religion (with about 1500 different gods), each city-state had a different "patron" god. Most of the farm land in the city state was owned by that god (which means that it was owned by the temple).
The temples collected (and stored) most of the grain and other food and goods produced in the city as offerings to the gods; the priestly class then determined how these goods would be distributed to the population. All of these complicated transactions had to be recorded. So either the priests themselves learned to make these marks or they had special "scribes" who would inscribe the marks on clay.
Over the course of generations, the scribes learned to use a standardized set of symbols that represented specific objects to communicate more abstract concepts associated with those objects. (The use of a picture of a bowl, for instance, might represent the idea of food.) Hundreds of years later, scribes learned that they could use these standardized symbols to represent the specific sound of the word for an object, and that they could string several of these symbols together to "sound out" other words. These "phonograms" became more and more closely connected to specific sounds and less and less connected to specific objects that they once represented.
A simple change in technology was crucial to the long, slow transition toward an abstract system of writing—the shift in Sumer in about 3100 BCE from scratching clay with a sharp stick to pressing down into wet clay "cuniform" tablets with a sharp reed stylus. The resulting mark did not look much like the original object, but the scribes knew that it stood for a certain sound. Sumerian scribes had to learn different symbols for each of the hundreds of possible combination of vowels and consonants it their language, so that writing was a specialized (and unusual) skill exercised almost solely by the elite.
By about 2500 BCE, Sumerians were using a standardized system of cuniform writing to keep track of commerce, but also for the purposes of government—sending orders to and from government officials, and for instance, for recording religious texts—such as the stories of the more than 1,000 gods in the Sumerian religion.
Early Sumerian Dynasties and the rise of Kingship (2900-2500 BCE)
Around 2900 BCE the institution of kingship appeared among the Sumerian city states. Probably the kings evolved out of the military leadership of the priestly elite, whose tasks became more and more important as the city states grew larger (by this time, some cities had reached a population of 50,000).
Wars generally were about competition for and control over resources—especially water and irrigated farm land. The kings appear to have been war lords, the dominant figures among the warrior elite, who led the warriors into battle in the name of the city's patron god. So the kings were religious as well as military and political leaders (again, these were theocratic societies—there was no distinction between secular and religious power). The king ("lugal," the "big man") became more important and powerful than the temple priests. Kingship eventually became hereditary—passed from father to son in family dynasties.
Although it had not existed before the 3rd millennium BCE, the kings of Sumer claimed that the institution of kingship stretched back to the beginnings of time, and had been ordained by the gods. In other words, they claimed that their right to rule was based upon history as well as religion. In the Sumerian King List (circa 2125 BCE), priests in the city state of Eridu claimed to trace back a list of hereditary kings that went all the back to the (mythical) Great Flood. The point was to say "there have always been kings, and our king is descended from the line of kings appointed by the gods." (In fact, as we've seen, the institution of kings was recent; also, each city state had its own king, and there was no one single King of Sumer.)
The most famous of the mythic Sumerian kings was Gilgamesh. (A note—archeologists this year announced that they think they have found the burial tomb of the actual historical King Gilgamesh, beneath the Euphrates River… but because of the war in Iraq they have been unable to continue their excavation.)
We know Gilgamesh through the "Epic of Gilgamesh," a story told in various different versions over the course of almost two thousand years; the story as we know it now is patched together from fragments of various versions found on cuniform tablets in archeological digs of ancient libraries across Mesopotamia (Iraq).
King Gilgamesh was a "big man" who had won authority through his military leadership.
In the Epic, Gilgamesh as king has become quite full of himself and mistreats his people. His people pray to the gods for help, and the gods create a "wild man" names Enkidu, the hunter-gatherer who is Gilgamesh's equal in strength and fighting skill.
Gilgamesh the city dweller slyly tames the "wild" Enkidu by setting him up to be seduced by a prostitute. Knowledge of Sex removes Enkidu from the wilds of nature, it "civilizes" and tames him.
Gilgamesh then fights with Enkidu, after which the two men become friends—more than friends, since Gilgamesh says many times that he loves Enkidu "like a wife." The two go off on a series of adventures that involve taming the wilderness (battling against river demigods, cutting down forests, battling the demigod Humbaba).
But the gods prove fickle toward Gilgamesh, just as they could be fickle towards any man. The goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar, the goddess of female sexuality), insulted by Gilgamesh's arrogance, punishes him by making his dearest friend Enkidu become sick and die. Gilgmesh is torn by grief over Enkidu's death, but what is more, he realizes that he also will one day become sick and die.
Gilgamesh travels to the underworld of death, the "Land of No Return" to learn the secret of eternal life, so that he might bring back his beloved friend Enkidu and so that he might never die himself. He learns the secret to eternal life (a magical root), but he loses it (it falls to the bottom of the sea), and the great King Gilgamesh finally resolves that he, too, must grow old and die, and that he like all men will be forgotten in time.
The Gilgamesh tale includes elements of several Sumerian religious myths—such as the myth of the god Emil's separation of the heavens (which are male) from the earth (which is female), of the creation of the first man from (when Enil penetrated the female earth with a pickax and pulled man out of the womb of the earth), and of the Great Flood. The tale is an important source of information about ancient Sumer. It provides clues to the possible influence that Mesopotamian culture had on the early Hebrew society (the similarities, for instance, between passages in Sumerian religious myth and in the Hebrew Bible).
One of the remarkable aspects of reading the Epic of Gilgamesh is that people 5,000 years ago—people who in so many ways are so alien to us—cared about many of the same things we care about (love, friendship, honor) and feared the same things we fear (in particular, death and of our own impermanence).
Bronze Age Technology
The city states of Sumer and their new kings took advantage of three extremely important technological-intellectual breakthroughs—the purification of copper, the invention of the wheel, and the systematic study of mathematics.
Around 3,000 BCE metal smiths in eastern Anatolia (Turkey) learned how to combine heated copper with arsenic (or with tin) to make a new metal—Bronze. Hot bronze is easier to mold than is copper and cools harder. Bronze revolutionized warfare by making swords and spear-and arrow points harder and sharper. It also had all sorts of important applications for tools.
The most important of these applications was in making plow blades (plow shares). Bronze plows dug deeper into the soil than did wooden plows, and resulted in higher yields (more grain harvested per seed planted). Sumerian agriculture became much more productive as a result.
The wheel probably evolved in Sumer in the 4th millennium BCE in connection to clay pottery making (potters' wheels). Around 3200 BCE, Sumerians began attaching wheels to axels and building carts and chariots.
Wheeled carts made transporting goods quicker and cheaper, which revolutionized commerce. (The Sumerians also invented the first sail boats, which had an equally important impact on commerce). Sumerians traded throughout Mesopotamia, west across the deserts as far as Egypt, and east across the sea as far the Indian sub-continent. Chariots revolutionized warfare: a chariot was the ancient equivalent of a tank, used to mow down ranks of foot soldiers.
Sumerian priests were among the first people to systematically study and apply mathematics. They used mathematical calculations in planning and building complex irrigation systems, surveying land, and designing and building complex structures like domes and arches. They also used mathematics and astronomical observations to invent a lunar calendar (12 months, each with 30 days; each year had 354 days), and they divided days into multiples of sixty (60 second minutes, 60 minute hours).
The Early Dynastic Period, "Phase III" (2500-2350 BCE)
In the "Phase III" dynasties, the power of the hereditary kings of each city state now was greater than that of the temple priests; the priests became subordinate to the kings and the ruling elites in each city state became more tightly consolidated.
As the elites drew closer together, the status of the free population declined. More and more people fell into hereditary debt slavery (as a result of their poverty and debt, they "sold" themselves and their families into slavery). Now slaves were the majority.
Power and wealth in Sumer was now concentrated entirely in a small elite. Kings demonstrated their power and wealth by building magnificent temples (in the form of "ziggurats," a type of step-pyramid); by building elaborate burial tombs; and carrying on ever-more costly wars against their rivals.
Sumerian kings continued fighting wars among themselves over water, land, and control of trade routes. They also warred with non-Sumerian rivals.
Akkadians and Centralized Rule over Mesopotamia (2350-2160 BCE)
One of the neighboring people against who the Sumerians warred was the Akkadians, a Semitic people (their language was part of the Semitic family of languages) who lived in Mesopotamia north of Sumer.
The Akkaidians had borrowed a great deal from Sumerian culture, but they were not bound by Sumerian traditions, as was clear in their war against the Sumerians in the mid 2300s BCE.
Between 2360 and 2350, King Sargon of Akkadia invaded Sumer. His aim was not to plunder cities and take slaves (like Sumerians did); his goal was to conquer and control all of Mesopotamia. He first conquered all the lands around Sumer, cutting off its trade routes. He then invaded the Sumerian city states.
Sargon set up a new capital in Kish, which he renamed Akkad. He imposed Akkadian governors over all of the Sumerian cities, which now had to recognize his personal rule and pay tribute and taxes to Sargon.
In other words, Sargon unified the Sumerian city-states by conquering them. Under Sargon and then his son (Naram-Sin), the Akkadians not only controlled all of Mesopotamia, but all of its wealth and its commerce, including trade with other lands. Under Akkadian rule Sumer's influence and its cities and its culture flourished.
Within the lifetimes of Sargon and his son, Akkadian and Sumerian urban cultures blended and coexisted. Most peoples of Mesopotamia recognized two sets of gods (Akkadian and Sumerian), and spoke two languages (Akkadian and Sumerian).
The Gutian Invasion and the Ur Dynasty (2100-2000 BCE)
After Naram-Sin's death, Akkadian rule disintegrated. Two hundred years after Sargon had invaded Sumer, a new foreign army conquered Sumer. These invaders were the Gutians, a people from the east (in Iran).
The Sumerian-Akkadians considered the Gutians uncivilized barbarians. But once the Gutians ruled Mesopotamia, they quickly adopted Sumerian culture. Eventually, were absorbed by the Sumerians whom they had conquered.
Gutian rule lasted sixty years before the independent Sumerian city states renewed their internal rivalry. By about 2100 BCE, though, one city had emerged as the most powerful in Sumer: Ur.
King Nammu of Ur and his son (Shulgi) again unified all of the Sumerian cities by military force. They used methods of the Akkadian kings, which meant centralization of power in the hands of one king. Again, the economy, foreign trade, and culture (arts and literature) flourished.
But they also changed Sumerian culture. Ur's kings introduced new laws that broke with many Sumerian traditions, and the influence of Semitic language and religious practice was far greater in Ur than it had been in the past.
The Ur kings would be the last Sumerians to rule Mesopotamia; after them, Semitic peoples would rule the region.
Early Egypt, From 5000 to 2000 BCE
Water and Civilization
At about the same time that cities were arising in Sumer, civilization also emerged in Egypt. In Sumer people had been harnessed the resources of the Tirgis and the Euphrates, in Egypt, people harnessed the resources of the Nile River.
The lands east and west of the Nile River valley had turned into desert when the last Ice Age ended in about 10,000 BCE. But summer floods of the Nile deposited thick dark soil in its long river valley, making it extremely fertile. The Nile River fed the peoples of Egypt and linked them together as one culture. Egyptians considered this valley the center of the world.
Pre-Dynastic Egypt (5000-3000 BCE)
Archeologists don't know much about pre-historic Egypt (before the 5th millennium BCE). Peoples here remained hunter-gathers for about 3000 years after the evolution of villages and agriculture in the Fertile Crescent; they could remain hunter-gatherers because the Nile River valley was so rich in wild animals and plants. The valley attracted migrants from other parts of Africa and Western Asia, so the "Egyptians" were blend of several (former) migrant peoples.
The first signs of village life and farming in Egypt date from around 4750 BCE. By the mid 4th millennium BCE large farming villages had been established along the Nile Delta ("Lower Egypt") and were trading with peoples all along the Eastern Mediterranean. As early as 3500 BCE the lower Egyptian communities had developed a common culture.
At about the same time, villages arose to the south of the delta, in "Upper Egypt." The first Egyptian cities arose in Upper Egypt around 3000 BCE. Walled cities like Nekhen probably grew because of their association with particular gods, whose temples employed artisans and drew trade and pilgrims.
In about 3000 BCE the cities of Upper Egypt soon joined together in a confederation. Competition with these cities forced the Lower Egytpian cities to confederate also. So by about 3000 BCE the lands had been organized as two different but culturally related kingdoms.
Kingship and Religion in the "Archaic" Period (3000-2715)
We know very little about the first kings who established power over both Upper and Lower Egypt (figures like the "Scorpion King" and King Narmer). Like the Sumerian "big men," they were probably started out as military leaders who came out of the priestly class, and then passed power to their own children.
The Sumerian kings had claimed that there had always been kings, that the gods had created kingship, and that each king was descended directly from the earliest kings. But Egyptian kings—Pharaohs—said that they themselves were gods, or rather, gods who had taken earthly form.
Each pharaoh took a special name that identified him with the sky god Horus. Pharaoh (symbolically) was Egypt, and connected the people and the land to the gods.
The Egyptians saw their land as the center of the world, as the only civilized land in the world—anyone who was not Egyptian was a barbarian. They believed in an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth (probably influenced by the cycles of the seasonal flooding); they saw history as a cycle that kept repeating itself, with nothing ever really changing.
The cycle could be seen each day, when the goddess Nut gave birth to the sun god Ra (at daybreak). Ra then sailed across the sky all day, then disappeared at night into the Land of the Dead (in the west, at sunset). The next morning Nut again gave birth to Ra.
That was the way of order and harmony that the Egyptians believed govern the world—what the Egyptians called "Ma'at"—also the name of a godess who kept the world running in good, cyclical order.
The Egyptians believed in a great number of gods, whose myth-stories all followed a cycle of life and death. The most important were the nine "original gods" including Orisis, his sister/wife Isis, their son Horis, and their brother Seth.
Death played a central part in the world view of the Egyptians. They believed that souls of the dead made a long journey into the underworld, where they were judged by Osiris; if he found in their favor, they became part of the god Osiris and were then immortal.
They developed elaborate rituals to aid the souls of the dead in their journey. These included embalming the dead and mummification; burying the dead with food, tools, and goods they would need in the underworld; and placing near the mummified corpse various writings with magical spells to protect them from demons and evil spirits.
The Egyptian system of writing was similar to the earliest form of Sumerian writing, based on pictographs. But the Egyptians never developed a phonetically based system of writing (as had the Sumerians). Since their writing had nothing to do with the way that words sounded, we have very little evidence about their spoken language.
Egyptian writing (hieroglyphs) used simplified drawings of objects both to represent that object and to represent certain abstract ideas. Egyptian scribes also developed a sort of "short hand" script called hieratic, which was more practical for recording business transactions and for "ordinary" government documents.
Unlike the Sumerians, who inscribed their writing on clay tablets, the Egyptians wrote "everyday" documents on papyrus, a sort of paper (that is where we get the word paper) made from the pulp of reeds, from which they would form sheets that they then sowed into scrolls.
The Old Kingdom (2715-2170)
By the Third Dynasty (2715-2640), the pharaohs had centralized power over both Upper and Lower Egypt. They ruled their kingdom through a system of appointed governors and an extensive government bureaucracy. Administrators in the government bureaucracy (who were literate) organized and managed the economy (farming, grain storage, artisan crafts, building projects, commerce, foreign trade, etc.). The priestly caste belonged to the government bureaucracy.
To prevent governors and other officials from building up local or hereditary power bases and challenging the Pharaoh, the Pharaoh periodically moved then from place to place and could not hand down their posts to their descendents.
Bureaucrats like Imhotep (the assistant to Pharaoh Djoser) organized the building of pyramids. Imhotep was probably the principle architect of Egypt's first pyramid—the 200 foot tall step pyramid built near Memphis (the capital) as a tomb for Djoser sometime around 2700 BCE.
The pyramids built by Egypt's pharaohs were massive building projects that involved cutting, transporting, and then assembling enormous blocks of stone into complex structures. This required the labor of tens of thousands of men over dozens of years, all carefully coordinated by architects, engineers, and work bosses. We used to think that slaves built the pyramids, but the current theory is that they were built using the voluntary labor of Egyptian peasants.
Pyramids were elaborate tombs meant to ensure the pharaoh's safe journey into the underworld, and that they were also demonstrations for the living of the pharaoh's great power.
The pyramids and an extensive system of canals (that irrigated farms with water from the Nile) were marvels of Old Kingdom engineering and technology. The building of pyramids and other massive monuments to the power of the pharaohs reached its peak in the Fourth Dynasty (2640-2510 BCE), with the construction of the pyramids a Giza.
Again, these huge projects (originally covered in white limestone with caps made with gold from Nubia) required great amounts of labor and other resources. They demonstrated the power and wealth of the Egyptian monarchy, which now ruled territory that stretched from the Nile delta to Nubia, hundreds of miles south.
But unlike the Sumerians, the Old Kingdom Egyptians did not figure out that the same wheels used to turn pots could also be used for transportation.
Society in Old Kingdom Egypt was organized like a pyramid, with power, wealth, and authority concentrated at the top (pharaoh and the royal family).
Beneath the royal family were the aristocrats (priests, scribes, and other government officials). Women served in the administration only in the capacity of priestesses; otherwise the bureaucrats were all men. The aristocrats were a hereditary elite with independent wealth, slaves and servants, land, large villas with fine furniture and art, etc.; they lived in great luxury and spent much of their time at leisure.
Beneath the elite were the great majority of Egyptians, people crowded into cities and large villages. They were divided into commoners and slaves. The best off among commoners were the artisans (potters, bricklayers, goldsmiths, merchants, etc.) But most urban commoners did not have special trades and lived in poverty as unskilled laborers.
Probably the majority of free people were peasants—men and women who did agricultural labor on the land of pharaoh and the aristocrats. Among free people, both men and women had legal standing and could own property (although men clearly were superior to women under Egyptian law).
Egypt also had slaves, most of who were prisoners of war (men, women, and children) from other lands. But slaves in Egypt do appear to have had some legal rights, and even could own personal property.
The power of the pharaohs began to decline during the Fifth and Sixth dynasties (2510-2205 BCE). Evidence suggests that terrible famines killed off large numbers of people, reducing the work force and crippling the economy. Social order broke down, and at the same time Egypt was tied down by ongoing warfare in Nubia.
Local governors and temple priests (especially at the temple of Ra at Heliopolis) took advantage of this chaos and reduced the authority of a series of weak pharaohs. The pharaoh was "demoted" from his status as an incarnation of a god to the lesser status of being the son of the god Horus.
By the end of the Seventh and Eight Dynasties (2200-2170), the power of the pharaoh had been completely broken. The country was in anarchy, without any coherent system of rule—a situation that would last for almost a century.