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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