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Glimpses of History #11: Unified Egypt

History of Unified Ancient Egypt

In one of the most important occurrences in the history of Africa, the first steps toward food production were initiated in its northeast corner. The area, now occupied by Egypt and Sudan, was the ground for initial attempts to keep cattle from an African stock. It was also the area that hosted the beginnings of cultivating cereals and of herding sheep and goats introduced from Southwest Asia.

Once agriculture arrived from Mesopotamia, Egyptian civilization evolved rapidly. It centered around the predictable regular flooding of the Nile River, which provided both irrigation and fertile silt. The Pharoah, treated as a living god, was thought to ensure both sunrise and river tides through various rites, recorded in hieroglyphic (‘priest-script’) texts. Two major kingdoms established: Lower Egypt around the Nile Delta, and Upper Egypt, bordering Sudan. Traditionally, the two were unified by the Pharaoh Menes around 3000 BCE. Menes founded Egypt’s First Dynasty (of 31 in total). Shortly afterwards, a new capital, Memphis, was built. Dynasties came and went recurrently, with major regional conflicts and civil wars defining the Old, Middle and New Kingdom periods.

The first step pyramid, built by the brilliant architect Imhotep about 2630 BCE, was a natural progression of the mastaba tombs—Khufu’s Great Pyramid, built a thousand years later, is the sole survivor of Herodotus’s Seven Wonders of the World.

Rituals and Rites of Ancient Egypt

The beginning of kings and chiefs was linked to the development of a belief in cosmic forces responsible for the generation (birth) and regeneration (resurrection) of life. Cows, already sacred in the African Sahara as indicated by elaborate cow burials, became life-giving deities, and kings became identified with bulls. The iconography of deities on decorated Nagada II pottery showed the cow goddess at the top of the palette associated with Narmer (5,000 BCE), the founder of a unified Egypt. Cows ultimately came to represent many of the earliest Egyptian goddesses, who were symbols of birth, nurturing, and protection. Local political centers in the Nile Valley were, moreover, identified with local cult standards and centers. Many of these centers developed into towns with large graveyards.

Pyramid building was a prominent characteristic of the Old Kingdom. The first pyramid was the Step Pyramid at Sakkara, built by King Djoser (c. 2667-2640 BCE) in the Third Dynasty, the first example of a pyramid and also of monumental architecture in stone. The Step Pyramid Complex developed out of the earlier royal burials at Abydos, where a squared mound covered the burial and a separate, large, rectangular enclosure provided space for royal rituals. By the Fourth Dynasty, the stepped pyramid had developed into a true pyramid, as seen best in the famous pyramids at Giza.

In the Fifth Dynasty, pyramid building persisted, although on a much reduced scale. Rather than a massive pyramid protecting the king’s body for his afterlife, each Fifth Dynasty king also built a sun temple complex, connecting his afterlife with the eternal cycle of the sun. By the time of the Sixth Dynasty, pyramid texts carved in the burial chambers of the royal pyramids guaranteed that the king awakened from death and joined the gods in heaven.

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Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab World’s Most Prominent Literary Figure

Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian Author, the Arab World's Most Prominent Literary Figure

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was an incredibly prolific Egyptian writer who, over course of five decades, wrote over thirty-five novels, five plays, fourteen short-story collections and many articles.

After a degree in philosophy from the University of Cairo, Mahfouz got a job with the civil service. In 1939, he published his first book: a historical novel called Mockery of the Fates. Mahfouz’s first three novels dealt with ancient Egypt, but his later novels were critical of contemporary Egyptian society and portrayed human foibles.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz “Al-thul al-hiyyah” or “the Cairo Trilogy”, consisting of “Palace Walk” (1956), “Palace of Desire” (1957) and “Sugar Street” (1957) recounted generational and philosophical conflicts in Cairo life between 1917 and 1944, and established Mahfouz as a leading Arab novelist. Mahfouz’s celebrated work is “Palace Walk” or “Between the Two Palaces” (1956), considered by many the most famous novel in the Arabic language.

In the novel “Children of Gebelawi” or “Children of the Alley” (1959), Mahfouz portrayed feuding brothers who resemble Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed and their power struggles in a traditional Cairo neighborhood. This book portrayed God in an allegorical manner, and metaphorically suggested the failure of religion and the prospective success of science in creating a better life. The book was deemed blasphemy and was formally banned in the entire Arab world with the exception of Lebanon.

Palace Walk or Between the Two Palaces: Naguib Mahfouz's most famous novel in the Arabic language Through his writing career, Mahfouz kept his day job as a civil servant in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema, and the Ministry of Culture. His daily routine included taking a ninety-minute walk around Cairo, and reading the newspaper at the same Cairo cafe each day.

Naguib Mahfouz is known as the “Father of Modern Arabic Literature.” He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. He delivered his 1988 Nobel Lecture in Arabic, and he commenced,

I would like you to accept my talk with tolerance. For it comes in a language unknown to many of you. But it is the real winner of the prize. It is, therefore, meant that its melodies should float for the first time into your oasis of culture and civilization. I have great hopes that this will not be the last time either, and that literary writers of my nation will have the pleasure to sit with full merit amongst your international writers who have spread the fragrance of joy and wisdom in this grief-ridden world of ours.

In the late 80s, the disputes over Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” again evoked the controversy surrounding Mahfouz’s novel “Children of the Alley” (1959). In 1994, Mahfouz was the target of an assassination attempt by militant Islamists. He survived the assassination attempt but damaged the nerves in his right hand. Mahfouz could not write for more than a few minutes a day and subsequently produced fewer works. He died in 2006 at the age of 94.

Naguib Mahfouz: Written Works

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