The First Civilizations

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A Brief History

While history itself can be defined as all the actions taken by human beings and the consequences of those actions, including those events that shaped human existence, such as environmental and natural factors, people have not always had the inclination or the means to record those events and conditions, so a record of human history only dates back to Egyptian records dating to around 3200 BC or perhaps Babylonian/ Mesopotamian recordings from the same time frame.  The budding Sumerian civilization even predated other ancient nascent civilizations, by a good 1000 years or more!  The era of human existence before this time is often referred to “Pre-History,” or pre-historic times, and the advent of written records harkens the “Historical Era” of human existence.  Human civilization, defined as the transition from a nomadic life of small groups of people that hunt and gather their food to the creation of permanent settlements and the establishment of urban collective populations in villages, towns, and eventually cities with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry, along with a division of labor that allowed far greater human success, all complimented by the development of a system of recording events and ideas in a form of writing, also date back to the 4th Millenium BC.  It is these events and time frame from which we define human civilization as beginning.

Digging Deeper

In The “Fertile Crescent,” a land occupied by modern Iraq located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, people had lived for thousands of years, and by around 4500 to 4000 BC those Ubaid people began the steps toward civilization by developing agriculture and permanent settlements.  The benefits of such settled life allowed the Sumerians, as we have come to call this civilization, to specialize in various tasks, creating a division of labor that efficiently used the skills of individuals at their specific specialty instead of each person having to master every single survival skill.  Specialists such as carpenters, weavers, brewers, farmers, clothes makers, metal smiths, and arms makers emerged to create their contribution to society secure in the knowledge that other people were likewise creating the other necessities of life.  Animal domestication also reached a widespread and sophisticated level by this time.

As with other ancient budding civilizations, the Sumerians also developed a graphic method of communication by using pictographs and a written language called cuneiform.  Cuneiform is considered a “logo-syllabic script” language that used wedge shaped symbols to represent syllables of words and was used from around 3300 BC until about 1200 BC.  Cuneiform was used by other ancient civilizations, not just the Sumerians, at least in various forms.  (Some of the other languages that used cuneiform as their method of writing include Akkadian, Hittite, Eblaite, Elamite, Hurrian, Luwian, and Urartian.)  Another ancient form of written language that rivals cuneiform as the beginning of human writing is the Egyptian hieroglyphic form of writing, a complex system of about 1000 characters that represented an olio of methods of meanings, including logographic, syllabic and alphabetic.  Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics later gave rise to other alphabet systems.  Prior to a codified system of written communication such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics, the closest method of writing humans had to such structured systems were pictographs, mere drawings and paintings of people, animals and objects, later with designs added to the mix that may have been mere decorations or may have had a symbolic meaning.

Like many ancient civilizations, the Mesopotamian region spawned a polytheistic religious culture.  The early Mesopotamian cultures, including those of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia, practiced a polytheistic religion from their inception around 3500 BC until the introduction of major monotheistic religions, specifically that of Christianity, firmly established around 400 AD, and Islam around the 7th Century AD.  Natural forces and phenomena were naturally a source of wonder for these ancient people, and they soon ascribed a persona to fit the major natural forces in their world, each being labeled as a god.  Also consistent with other polytheistic cultures, each Mesopotamian culture singled out a main god as their preeminent deity, and developed a mythology concerning the origins and development of their gods.  In the Mesopotamian religious mythology, primordial gods were given roles in the establishment of the universe, the Earth, and gave rise to other gods.  These primordial gods included Tiamat and Abzu, Lahamu and Lahmu, Kishar and Anshar. Amd Mummu.  (These primordial gods listed together were mated couples that begat other gods.)  The successors to the primordial gods included 7 major deities that had the power to decree, including 4 primary gods and 3 “sky” gods; specifically Anu (the supreme god of Mesopotamia, a personification of the Sky and ancestor to all the other gods), Enlil (god of the wind, air and Earth as well as storms, Enlil was the chief god of the Sumerians, though also worshipped by other Mesopotamian cultures), Enki (god of mischief and crafts, as well as water, creation and knowledge), Ninhursag (ancient Sumerian mother goddess of fertility), and the sky gods; Inanna/Ishtar (goddess of war, beauty, love and sex, politics, and justice), Nanna/Sin (goddess of the Moon and planets, represented by a crescent that may have given rise to the familiar Islamic crescent of today), and Utu/Shamash (the male twin of Ishtar, the god of the sun, truth, justice and morality).  (Please note that these gods and related characters have a variety of names and spellings of those names.)  The Mesopotamian cultures often overlapped with their gods and myths, and also worshipped a variety of other major and minor gods and goddesses, as well as demi-gods and assorted heroes.  Spirits and monsters were also part of the Mesopotamian religious myths.  The gods and goddesses were worshipped in temples located at each major population center, the typical temple consisting of a “ziggurat,” a stone and earth massively built terraced dome, some of which survived into modern times.  Although there are several major examples extant today, others have been destroyed over the centuries as symbols of bygone pagan religions.  Ziggurats may well have been the inspiration for the construction of the Egyptian pyramids.  It is likely that common people were denied access to the interior of these ziggurats, and that only priests (and the gods that dwelled there!) were permitted entry inside.

The first civilized settlements were tiny villages that grew into towns and eventually into larger cities.  These cities became somewhat like small individual countries, each ruled separately and making their own way through life with their own language, customs and culture.  The city state concept continued to be evident for many centuries and can be found in notable examples such as Rome, Athens, Sparta, Carthage and even into more modern times, especially in Italy where Genoa, Naples, Florence, Milan and other city states persisted into the 19th Century.  Just as the Italian city states eventually united to form the larger nation of Italy, the ancient Mesopotamian city states also coalesced into a nation larger and more significant than any of its component states.  The first great nation or empire in human civilization was the product of the unification of Sumerian Mesopotamian city states under the leadership of Sargon of Akkad (alternatively known as Sargon the Great).  This Akkadian Empire is the first such empire in history and existed under the rule of Sargon from 2234 BC to 2279 BC, and as an entity until 2154 BC.  Under Sargon the empire spread across about 250,000 square miles and later to as much as 310,000 square miles across what is now Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.  Prior to the establishment of the Akkadian Empire under Sargon, some Sumerian city states had joined in what has been called an “empire,” so the title as “first empire” and “first emperor” are debatable due to differences in the definition of empire, though most scholars recognize Sargon and his Akkadian Empire as the first.  The vast distance of time between today and the life of Sargon precludes detailed information about the man and the mechanics of how he created his empire, though some sources claim Sargon came from humble roots and usurped the reigning King to take control of a city state before conquering surrounding city states and expanding his empire from Mesopotamia into Anatolia and the Levant.  As Sargon referred to himself as the “King of Akkad,” it seems his original city state may have been called Akkad, with Kish (in modern Iraq) being the next city state on his agenda for conquering.  Unfortunately, the exact location of Akkad is unknown to us today, though speculation places it between the modern cities of Samarra and Baghdad in Iraq.  Sargon had a reign of about 50 years, and his dynasty lasted about another century.  The spread of the Akkadian Empire allowed Sargon to impose a standard spoken and written language upon the region, at least officially, further enabling the spread of information and ideas.

With civilization being partly defined as the widespread cooperation of many people over a shared set of norms and mores comes the concept of the law, a codified form of rules and mores enforceable by those in authority.  The earliest well documented such code of laws available for modern scholars to study is the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian set of laws in the ancient  Akkadian language, supposedly written by King Hammurabi of Babylon, a monarch in the First Dynasty of the Babylonian kingdom.  Since the survival of paper, papyrus, or wooden texts is problematic over such enormous spans of time since the 1755 to 1750 BC approximate date of the Hammurabi Code, it is fortunate for modern scholars that the code was inscribed on a large stone stele (a sort of column) over 7 feet tall with over 4100 lines of cuneiform writing.  Apparently taken as loot from a plundering some 6 centuries after it was written, the stone relic was taken to modern Iran, where it was discovered in 1901 by archaeologists near the city of Susa.  Hammurabi was sure to include his own likeness on the stone, along with that of the Sun God, Shamash (or Utu) and an introductory part explaining the divine right of Hammurabi to reign and rule.  The laws cover virtually all aspects of the law, from criminal to civil, including family, commercial and property law.  The laws are phrased in the format of “if…then…,” a technique known as casuistic reasoning or logic in which a certain action begets a certain reaction.  The famous stone law “book” today resides in the Louvre, in Paris, France, while even the Capital of the United States bears the image of Hammurabi along with other famous lawgivers, as do other notable institutions such as the United Nations.  Copied and distributed for centuries, the Code of Hammurabi has had enormous impact and influence on legal systems throughout recorded history.

Famous among these laws set down by Hammurabi, is the “eye for an eye” principle that may well have inspired later legal codes, including that of the Hebrew law given by Moses, known as Mosaic Law, a retaliatory type of law (lex talionis).  Inclusion in the Bible, the main holy book of the largest religious sect (Christianity) in the world, has had profound influence on legal opinions over the many centuries since the Code of Hammurabi was first promulgated, and many people today believe such a policy is the written will of God.  While largely out of fashion in most Westernized cultures today, the harsh “eye for an eye” concept was a common principle in laws influenced by the Code of Hammurabi for many centuries.  Other examples would include “a life for a life,” lending credence to capital punishment.  (Note: The New Testament, regarding the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, includes a repudiation of the “eye for an eye” concept, replacing that old Mosaic law with “turn the other cheek.”)

The Code of Hammurabi or Hammurabi’s Code (whichever you prefer) takes its rightful place alongside the legal precedent and philosophy of other great legal minds and systems throughout history, such as Napoleonic Law, English Common Law and Egyptian Pharaonic Law.

While the Mesopotamian region saw the birth of human civilization, the lower Nile region of Egypt was also developing a significant parallel civilization, with King Narmer, a pharaoh of the Early Dynastic Period (circa 3100 BC) unifying the Upper and Lower regions of Egypt.  From about 3200 BC until the reign of Narmer (r. 3150 BC?) Egypt saw villages coalesce into larger associations of people eventually becoming kingdoms that Narmer later unified, creating the seeds of Egyptian civilization.  The name, Narmer (alternately known as Menes, although Menes might even be a different person), is depicted by a hieroglyph of a catfish and that of a chisel, and is interpreted as meaning “raging catfish,” or perhaps “stinging catfish.”  Some disagreement and confusion remain among scholars concerning Narmer as pharaoh and his name, though the title “pharaoh” is accepted to mean a monarch that transcended being merely a king to a person on Earth that was himself (or herself) divine and an intermediary between mortals and the gods.  The title of “Pharaoh” was not used until the era of the New Kingdom (beginning about 1292 BC).

Ancient Egypt had been divided into an Upper, or Southern region and a Lower, or Northern region, with Narmer reigning as king of Upper Egypt.  Upper Egypt had only recently been established as a kingdom, bringing the various villages and towns under one political roof.  The first of the kings of Upper Egypt had been Scorpion (reign circa 3400 BC).  Upper Egypt had seen the development of agriculture, animal husbandry, and permanent settlements starting around 3600 BC, more or less the same time that the Mesopotamians also developed such advances.  Lower Egypt, the Northernmost part of Egypt (North of modern day Aswan) included the Nile Delta region and also began to develop civilization around 3600 BC.  The use of Copper began around the same time, which quickly advanced into creating the alloy Bronze.  As in Mesopotamia, the Ancient Egyptians also used sun dried bricks as a major building material.

Ancient Egypt is divided by scholars into 3 distinct periods of relative prosperity and advancement referred to as The Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.  The “Kingdom” period of Egypt started with the unification of Egypt under the rule of Narmer, and the Old Kingdom dates from about 2700 to 2200 BC.  This period includes the “Age of the Pyramids” in the 4th Dynasty when Egyptians built the fantastic structures, some of which still stand today.  Each of these “Kingdom” periods were followed by a less profitable and stable period of upheaval including foreign invasions known as “Intermediate” periods.  The “Middle Kingdom,” circa 2040 to 1782 BC, followed this first Intermediate period and brought reunification to Egypt.  Another Intermediate period followed, to be followed in turn by the “New Kingdom” period of Ancient Egypt, spanning from 1292 to 1069 BC, and sometimes referred to as the “Ramesside period” in reference to the 11 Pharaohs that were named Ramses during this era.  The New Kingdom saw the greatest geographical extent of the Ancient Egyptian kingdoms.  Each of these 3 “Kingdoms” coincided with a corresponding period of the Bronze Age, specifically the Old Kingdom with the Early Bronze Age (circa 3300-2100 BC), the Middle Kingdom with the Middle Bronze Age (circa 2100-1550 BC), and the New Kingdom with the Late Bronze Age (circa 1550-1200 BC).

The Old Kingdom which included the 4th Dynasty is known best for its predilection for pyramid building, particularly those in Giza during the reigns of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.  Not only was the Old Kingdom the first of the sustained periods of civilization in Egypt, it also saw the highest level of cultural superiority of the Lower Nile region in the North of Egypt.  The capital of the Old Kingdom was located in In-Hedge, what we today refer to as Memphis, only 20 kilometers South of Giza near modern Cairo.  What distinguishes the Old Kingdom from the earlier First Dynastic period is the great advances in technology and architecture (notably the “step pyramid”) seen in the Old Kingdom.  The size of the Old Kingdom building projects eclipsed earlier construction and served to unite the people in a common goal.  Written records of the Old Kingdom are scarce indeed, and what we know of it largely stems from analysis of stone buildings, monuments and objects discovered by archaeologists, giving rise to the legitimacy of saying the history of the Old Kingdom was “written in stone.”

Following the era of peace and prosperity of the Old Kingdom, came the First Intermediate Period in which over a century elapsed without significant accomplishments by the Egyptians.  Referred to as a “Dark Period,” the time from 2181 to 2055 BC spanned the 7th through the 11th Dynasties and saw inner conflict between power bases in Egypt located in Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt and Thebes in Upper Egypt.  The First Intermediate period saw fighting between these competing kingdoms and sadly, the ruin of many statues, monuments and temples.  The First Intermediate Period was resolved when King Mentuhotep II, the 6th King of the 11th Dynasty, managed to reunify Egypt in 2055 BC.  Under King Mentuhotep and other Kings of the 11th Dynasty, Egypt was ruled from Thebes, while under the ensuing 12th Dynasty until the end of the Middle Kingdom (circa 1782 BC) Egyptian kings made el-Lisht their capital.  Scholars are not in agreement as to exactly when the end of the Middle Kingdom should be dated, with dates ranging from 1782 BC to as recently as 1650 BC.  The 12th Dynasty (1991-1802 BC) is always included in the Middle Kingdom, while the 13th   Dynasty (1802-1649 BC) is often included and the14th Dynasty (1725-1650 BC) is sometimes cited for inclusion in this period, depending on how scholars define each dynasty.  During the era of the Middle Kingdom, the god Osiris rose to prominence as the main god in the Egyptian pantheon.  The goddess Isis, both the sister and wife of Osiris, also gained prominence as the leading female deity of Egypt.  The Middle Kingdom saw the building of defensive forts in Egyptian territory to defend against invasions from the East, and the establishment of an army along with the construction of ships.  Building projects also flourished, although some internal strife with regards to control of the throne did take place.  The Middle Kingdom was in turn followed by another period of unrest and disruption called the Second Intermediate Period (circa 1650-1550 BC).  The Second Intermediate Period is notable for the influx of the Hyksos people into Egypt from the Middle Eastern region East of Egypt (the Levant).  The Hyksos managed to seize power and establish control over Lower and Middle Egypt, creating the 15th Dynasty and ruling from Avaris.  The Hyksos were the first foreigners to establish control of Egypt, and they introduced Egypt to many technical innovations, including such notable items as domesticated horses, the composite bow, the chariot, and the sickle sword, along with various Canaanite customs and religious traits.  The Hyksos in turn also absorbed many Egyptian customs and beliefs.

After the Second Intermediate Period came the New Kingdom (beginning sometime between 1570 and 1540 BC), a time also referred to as the Egyptian Empire.  The New Kingdom ended in 1077 BC upon the death of Pharaoh Ramesses XI (reign 1107-1077 BC).  (A note about dating ancient events: Besides official records and correspondence that may be dated, radio-carbon dating of artifacts and examination of other sources, even as mundane as graffiti are used by archaeologists to determine ancient dates!)  As with previous Egyptian Kingdom periods, the New Kingdom was followed by a Third Intermediate Period.  During the 12th and 11th Century BC, much of the civilized Western and Middle Eastern world experienced a precipitous decline known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a period of transition from large cities to scattered villages.  This period also saw the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.  Theories put forward for the cause of the decline of the Mesopotamian, Southern European, Near Eastern and North African civilizations include a wide array of possible causes, from volcanoes and earthquakes to invasions and technological innovations, to weather.  Prior to the events that saw the fall of the New Kingdom, the period is sometimes referred to as the “Ramesside period” in recognition of the 11 Pharaohs that used the name “Ramses.”  The rulers of the New Kingdom sought to insulate Egypt from foreign invaders by expanding the geographical limits of the empire well into Nubia to the South, and into the Levant to the North and East.  In fact, the New Kingdom covered the greatest geographical expanse of all the “Golden Age” three Kingdoms of Egypt.  The population of the empire in the New Kingdom peaked at as many as 5 million subjects during the 13th Century BC.  The expansion of Egypt was notable during the reign of Thutmose III (reign 1479-1425 BC), including the successful conquering of about 350 cities, earning him the sobriquet, “the Napoleon of Egypt” Thutmose III had expanded the size of the Egyptian standing army to not only defend the empire, but to undertake territorial expansion of its own.  The Pharaohs of the New Kingdom were buried in The Valley of the Kings, that area famous for its pyramids that can be seen to this day.  Construction of temples, monuments, artistic works and public building projects were pervasive during the New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom also saw the second female Pharaoh of Egypt ascend the throne, Hatshepsut (reign 1479-1458 BC), only the second female Pharaoh after Sobekneferu (reign about 3 years and 10 months during the 12 Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom).  In contrast to the Old Kingdom, the New Kingdom saw far more pervasive professionalism of artisans and other specialists, and notably the professionalism of the military.  Another difference was the aggressive expansionist policy of the New Kingdom. Both Kingdoms are known for their impressive buildings, the Old Kingdom for pyramids and the New Kingdom for Hypostyle halls (that is, large halls with a roof supported by large stone columns).

Notable among the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom include the previously mentioned Hatshepsut and her husband, Thutmose II, and the son of Thutmose II, Thutmose III.  (Egyptian Pharaohs recycled names to such an extent that close attention must be paid to the number following each name.)  The political career of Hatshepsut began as the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, and upon the death of Thutmose II Hatshepsut became regent for Thutmose III, the eldest male heir of Thutmose II, though actually the son of a different wife of Thutmose II.  In the incestuous and convoluted manner of Egyptian royalty, Hatshepsut was the sister of her own husband, both Hatshepsut and Thutmose II being the children of Thutmose I, though with different mothers.  Thutmose II was obliged to put down rebellious parts of his realm (the kingdom of Kush and the Shasu Bedouin of the Sinai) and is believed by some historians to be the Pharaoh of Exodus in the Bible.  When Thutmose II died around 1479 BC, his son Thutmose III was his heir, but Hatshepsut was to act as regent for her stepson (and nephew) for the first 20 years the reign of Thutmose III (reign 1479-1425 BC).  Oddly enough, compared to our modern version of monarchies, both Thutmose III and Hatshepsut were named as Pharaoh, and neither was given seniority over the other during their co-reign.  Hatshepsut died in 1458 BC, leaving Thutmose III to rule as Pharaoh himself.  Hatshepsut made her claim to power as the eldest child of Thutmose I and his primary wife, Ahmose, while Thutmose II was the son of a secondary wife of Thutmose I, Mutnofret.  Additionally, Hatshepsut had the status of being the principal wife of Thutmose II.  Hatshepsut’s time on the throne was used productively for Egypt, with trade routes established and enhanced, and with major building projects undertaken.  Hatshepsut was apparently regarded highly by the Egyptians, and to secure her own place in Egyptian royal history she saw that the tomb of her father, Thutmose I, was expanded to include her to be interred with him as probably the first Pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings.  Thutmose III disrupted the burial plans of his stepmother/aunt by creating a new tomb for his grandfather, Thutmose I, and had Thutmose I removed from his original tomb and reburied.  It is unknown, but possible, that the body of Hatshepsut was also reinterred elsewhere, perhaps at the insistence of Amenhotep II, a son of Thutmose III.  Thutmose III was highly successful in controlling and expanding the Egyptian Empire, and was also an advocate of grand building projects, especially a the Temple at Karnak.  Thutmose III may have been responsible for the defacing of many of the monuments to Hatshepsut, perhaps out of resentment for being forced to wait 2 decades to rule on his own.  (Other previous Pharaohs suffered the post mortem indignity of having their monuments and memorials defaced, so speculation as to why those of Hatshepsut were treated so poorly are just speculation.)

Pharaoh Akhenaten (reign 1351-1334 BC) and his wife, Queen Neferneferuaten Nefertiti (usually just referred to as Nefertiti) were another pair of Egyptian rulers that left a lasting mark on the Egyptian Empire.  Notable among their accomplishments were the religious transformation to a monotheistic format, worshipping the Sun God, Aten, as the Supreme Being, and Akhenaten fathering the future “Boy King,” Tutankhamun (also known as King Tut), though by a different wife.  Their reign covered what might be the wealthiest period of the Egyptian Empire, and Nefertiti has become the modern image of Ancient Egypt courtesy of a famous bust depicting her (now located in Berlin’s Neues Museum) that became the most copied image from Ancient Egypt and even today is often depicted on jewelry and art.  Her name in Egyptian means “The Beautiful Woman has Come,” and if the famous bust is an accurate depiction Nefertiti was certainly a strikingly beautiful woman, no doubt contributing to the continuing popularity of her famous image. Scholars are not in agreement as to whether or not Nefertiti ever ruled as Pharaoh on her own before the ascension of Tutankhamun (reign 1332-1323 BC).  King Tut is of course famous today not for his deeds as Pharaoh but for the spectacular archaeological discovery of his tomb in 1922.  It would seem Nefertiti was not the sister of Akhenaten as some have postulated because of her titles and manner of naming, nor is there any evidence of her origin being foreign to Egypt.  Many details of the lives and reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are lost to history, such as the exact date of their marriage, which of the pair died first, how and why they died, and whether or not Nefertiti ever ruled as Pharaoh on her own.  We do know that this royal pair had a new capital built at Amarna (about 194 miles South of modern Cairo), which was destroyed soon after the death of Akhenaten, with the Egyptian capital then moved back to Thebes either by Nefertiti or by Tutankhamun.

One of the most famous of the Egyptian Pharaohs was King Tutankhamun, son of Akhenaten by an unknown wife, and known familiarly today as “The Boy King” or simply as “King Tut.”  Although his actual reign (1332-1323 BC) was not distinguished by epic advances or accomplishments, it is the exciting discovery of his tomb in 1922 by Harold Carter (financed by Lord Carnarvon) that revealed a treasure trove of archaeological materials as the most complete of the ancient Egyptian tombs of Pharaohs yet discovered.  Most of these treasures may be viewed by the public today at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, though travelling displays of the Tut related artifacts have reached many cities across the globe.  Beset by medical problems, perhaps including bouts of malaria, bone necrosis, and having scoliosis, Tutankhamun ascended to the throne as a young boy of only about 8 years of age, and was dead by the age of only 18 or 19 years old.  The main impact of Tutankhamun’s reign was the restoration of the Egyptian polytheistic religion along with the priestly orders to administer the faith.  His wife, Ankhesenamun, was the daughter of Akhenaten by a different wife than Tut’s mother, making her his half-sister.  Sadly, the royal couple is believed to have had only 2 stillborn children.

Perhaps the most celebrated Pharaoh of them all was Ramses II (reign 1279–1213 BC), the son of Pharaoh Seti I and his wife Tuya.  Perhaps the most powerful of all Pharaohs of the New Kingdom, Ramses II (alternately spelled Ramesses) assumed the throne at the age of 24, established a new Nile delta area capital at Pi-Ramesses, and expanded his kingdom into the Levant and Nubia through aggressive military expeditions.  Ramses II also made his mark by a vigorous building program of temples, monuments, and public works, as well as established new Egyptian cities in Egypt and in newly conquered territory.  It is likely more building projects took place during the reign of Ramses II than during the reign of any other Pharaoh.  One of the reasons for the great legacy of Ramses II was his incredibly long life and reign, living to the age of 90 or 91 at a time when such longevity was indeed rare.  The approximately 67 year reign of Ramses II is the longest documented reign by any Egyptian Pharaoh.  As with other Pharaohs, Ramses II had several wives, and is believed to have fathered as many as 50 sons and 53 daughters!  His son, Merneptah (reign 1213–1203 BC), the issue of Isetnofret, a principal wife of Ramses II, succeeded him as Pharaoh.

After the death of 20th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses XI in 1070 BC, the New Kingdom devolved into the Third Intermediate Period, a period characterized by the disintegration of the cohesive Egyptian Empire, including foreign invasion and internal divisions.  Spanning the 21st through the 25th Dynasty, the Third Intermediate Period coincided with the Late Bronze Age collapse that ravaged much of the European and Middle Eastern world at the time.  Each Dynasty during the Third Intermediate Period moved the capital to a different city, starting at Thebes during the 20th Dynasty and successively moving to Tanis, Bubastis, Heracleopolis Magna, Sais, and finally Napata during the 25th Dynasty.  The 22nd Dynasty (945-720 BC) reasserted control over much of Egypt that had been lost during the 21st Dynasty, under the ruling clan of Meshwesh immigrants that came from ancient Libya, founded by Shoshenq I (reign 943-922 BC).  In the Hebrew Tanakh (Bible), 1 Kings 11:40, 14:25 and 2 Chronicles 12:2–9, Shoshenq I is referred to during the time of Solomon, although some scholarly dispute over the identity of the Biblical “Shishak” being Shoshenq I exists.  A unified Egypt was not to last, as the Upper and Middle portions became separate from the Lower portion in civil wars that saw the creation of the 23rd Dynasty in Upper Egypt.  Upon the death of the last King of the 23rd Dynasty, Rudamun (reign circa 741-739 BC), the 23rd Dynasty disintegrated as the kingdom devolved into fragmented city-states, each with their own king.  Egyptian disunity allowed for the Nubian king, Piye, to conquer Egypt and usurp the 24th Dynasty, creating his own 25th Dynasty around 732 BC.  (The 24th Dynasty was an olio of various kings with a capital at Sais that was short lived and only loosely held power over the various kingdoms in Egypt.)  The final dynasty of the post-empire/Third Intermediate Period of ancient Egypt was the 25th Dynasty, founded by the Kushite/Nubian King Piye (reign 744-714 BC), the first of what are sometimes referred to as the “Black Pharaohs.”  The 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC) saw growth of Egypt to the extent that Egypt controlled more territory than at any point since the New Kingdom.  25th Dynasty rulers used Napata, located now in what is modern Sudan, as their capital.  The last dynasty to rule Egypt as native Egyptians prior to the conquering of Egypt by the Persians (525 BC) was the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC), a period also referred to as the Saite Period due to the 26th Dynasty pharaohs having their capital at Sais.  This Saite Period also marks the beginning of the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (664-332 BC), covering a period of Persian and other foreign rule or hegemony as well as Egyptian rule, which ended when the Macedonians of Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and established the 33rd Dynasty (305-30 BC), also known as the Ptolemaic dynasty in recognition of the first of the Greek/Macedonian rulers of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter (reign 305-282 BC).  The Ptolemaic Dynasty in turn was replaced by Roman rule in 30 BC, when the disruption caused by the Roman Civil War in the wake of the assassination of Julius Caesar (died 44 BC) and the unfortunate alliance of Pharaoh Cleopatra with Marc Antony being on the losing side of the Roman struggle for power, effectively ending Egyptian independence for centuries to come.

Society in Ancient Egypt was, like almost all societies throughout history, stratified by a class structure that implied certain expectations, rights, privileges and power.  At the top of Ancient Egyptian society was the monarchy, the Pharaoh at the peak followed by his closest advisors and royal family, top government officials, top priests, and then wealthy landowners.  Other government officials, such as scribes, along with military officers rounded out the Upper Class of Ancient Egypt.  Next in line was the Middle Class, consisting of craftsmen and artisans, merchants, manufacturers, and others that could parlay their skills into a profitable existence.  The Lower Class was made up of the remainder of Egyptian society, the farmers and unskilled laborers and those with no personal property.  Another group of people ranking even lower than the Lower Class was slaves, a group of people often made up of prisoners captured in wars.  Slaves were not normally owned by common people, but usually only the monarchy and employed in typical servant duties as well as in mass labor operations such as construction and mining.  Unlike rigid caste systems, Ancient Egyptian society allowed for some social mobility, where a person of lower class could raise his or her lot through hard work, luck and profit, or perhaps through advantageous marriage.  While possible, social mobility was not a common occurrence.  While men dominated Ancient Egyptian society, both in business/government and the family, women had considerably more rights and legal recourse than in many other societies then and even now, with the right to own property, inherit property and money, conduct trade and business and even to divorce their husbands.

For most of 3000 years, religion in Ancient Egypt was a polytheistic practice recognizing many Gods and various deities, with the Pharaoh believed to be of a divine nature (though not immortal) allowing him (or her) to act as an intermediary between humans and the Gods.  The Pharaoh and his priests took care of the praying and devotion to the Gods, in an ongoing effort to maintain “Ma’at,” a principle roughly meaning truth and the good order of the Earth and Cosmos, while simultaneously avoiding the opposite condition, “Isfet,” meaning chaos and disorder.  While common folk could pray on their own behalf, it was the Pharaoh and priests that conducted sacred rites on behalf of the entire country and its people.  Among the hierarchy of the Gods, at different times, different Gods were preeminent, including Ra (the Sun God), Amun (the God of Creation), and Isis (the Mother Goddess), along with her brother and husband, Osiris and their son, Horus.  During the reign of Akhenaten (circa 1351-1334 BC), the Pharaoh decreed that the God, Aten, a Sun related deity, would be the single God worshipped.  Aten was in the pantheon of the Gods both before and after Akhenaten.  Animals also played a significant role in Egyptian religious beliefs, with some animals regarded as sacred, notably cats, the Egyptian Cobra (or Asp), the Ibis (bird), dogs, crocodiles, and various others including such diverse creatures as the Jackal, cattle, and the Hippopotamus.  Animals were, like people, mummified and buried with the expectation of being reanimated in the afterlife.  Rich and powerful Egyptians, notably pharaohs, were buried with all sorts of items and treasures they would presumably need and utilize in the afterlife.  Roman annexation of Egypt did little to change Egyptian religion, until later in the 3rd and 4th Century AD when Christianity usurped the ancient deities, a process completed by about the 6th Century AD, in turn largely displaced by the spread of Islam in the 7th Century AD.

A particularly interesting aspect of Ancient Egyptian religion revolved around Anubis, the God of Death, who was likewise the deity concerned with such activities as embalming, mummification, burial and cemeteries and tombs.  Anubis was the God of the afterlife and the underworld and was usually depicted in the form of a man with the head of a canid.  The sacred animal of Anubis is the African golden wolf.  The canine head used in depictions of Anubis is often mistakenly referred to as that of a Jackal, though it is much more likely the head is that of the wolf.  Throughout the age of Ancient Egypt, Anubis and other deities often changed roles and evolved in various ways, so descriptions of what exactly was included within the purview of Anubis and other gods may differ with the particular era being examined.  Anubis, like many Egyptian deities, had a wife and family, namely Anput (or alternately Anuput, Input and various other spellings) and a daughter, Kebechet, the Goddess of Embalming fluid!  The Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs included an afterlife in which people that had been embalmed and mummified (royalty and the wealthy and powerful) would be able to use their preserved corporeal bodies and the riches and items buried with the deceased in the afterlife.  The practice of embalming and mummification (preservation of dead bodies) in Ancient Egypt is believed to have started earlier than 3000 BC.  Careful removal of internal organs to be preserved in jars of special oils prior to embalming the main body and wrapping it in linen strips became a highly technical art conducted by skilled practitioners of the practice of mummification.  Preparingof the body for mummification not only included evisceration and the use of oils and wraps, but also the dehydration of the corpse and a protective layer of resin.  The dry climate of the Egyptian desert also helped in the preservation of mummies.  The power, wealth, and social status of the deceased was directly related to the degree of preparation a cadaver would be subjected to in the mummification process, as well as the size and grandeur of the tomb and items placed within the tomb.  The practice of embalming and mummification of people and animals (both domestic and those of a sacred nature, notably Cats, Ibises, Crocodiles, Raptors and others) became so widespread and pervasive that during the 19th Century AD in the wake of Napoleon’s discovery of the Rosetta Stone and other ancient Egyptian artifacts, that the vast trove of mummies (people and animals) in Egypt was exploited for the amusement of rich Europeans to hold “unwrapping” parties of mummies and the mummies themselves were ground up and used as fertilizer (mostly those of animals), and possibly even used as fuel to power steam locomotives for trains in Egypt, though some scholars dispute this allegation.  (Preserving oils and resins used in mummification were largely flammable.)  Prior to the 19th Century AD, Europeans long employed mummies for a variety of uses, including as pigments and medicines.

Another interesting member of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon of deities was the Scribe of the Gods, Thoth (a Greek adaptation of the Egyptian name, Djehuty).  Known as the messenger and all-around communicator for the Gods, Thoth held many roles, including as arbitrator amongst those deities as well as the purview of subjects as diverse as the moon, wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, art, magic, and the judgment of the deceased.  (The Greek role of the god Hermes was roughly similar.)  Usually depicted with the body of a human and the head of an Ibis, Thoth was sometimes shown as having the head of a Baboon.  Ancient Egyptians considered Thoth as self-produced, and not the offspring of other gods.  In his guise as the judge of souls in the Underworld (Duat), Thoth had been depicted as a dog-headed baboon, A’an or Aani, carefully weighing the soul of the deceased against the feather of an Ibis.  (Or A’an was a sort of assistant deity to Thoth.)  As the God of Writing, Thoth took on a crucial role as the giver of written language to the Egyptians.  While the cuneiform writing of the Ancient Sumerians (circa 3400 BC) may have pre-dated Egyptian hieroglyphics (circa 3250 BC), the Egyptian hieroglyphics themselves greatly predated other inventions of written language, such as that of China (circa 1200 BC) and that of Meso-America (circa 500 BC).  Egyptian hieroglyphics were a ponderous method of recording words and messages, with over a thousand characters that formed a composite “alphabet” of logographic and syllabic elements as well as quasi-alphabetic characters.  These Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in turn gave rise to follow on systems of writing, including hieratic (circa 3000 BC) and demotic (circa 1000 BC) Egyptian scripts, eventually evolving into the Phoenician alphabet and its own offspring written languages, Greek and Aramaic.  Thus, the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are ultimately the ancestors of most forms of Western and Near-Eastern written languages and alphabets used today, especially those stemming from Greek, Latin and the Cyrillic alphabets, as well as Indic and other forms of script.  Ancient Egyptians used ink on papyrus as well as painting on stone, inscribing clay tablets, inscribing metal and stone, and other methods to record their writings.  As the last of the Ancient Egyptian religious shrines and temples closed in the 5th Century AD, the ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphics became lost until the Egyptian Expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed French scholar   Jean-François Champollion to decipher much of the hieroglyphic language by 1820.  Much as modern English words may be pronounced differently and mean different things depending on context, Egyptian hieroglyphs also had multiple meanings and nuance depending on context, sometimes literal and sometimes figurative, with different interpretations based on semantics and phonetics.  The hieroglyphs could stand for a particular sound (much as our letters do), or for a specific word or name of an object.  In contrast to modern English, Egyptian hieroglyphic writing does not make use of what we call vowels.  Without the Rosetta Stone as a key, deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics was a daunting task indeed.

The study of Ancient Egypt (circa 5000 BC to the 4th Century AD) is a many faceted approach called “Egyptology.”  Far more than just the archaeological exercise of digging through ancient ruins, Egyptology is an entire academic discipline that encompasses all aspects of Ancient Egypt, including religion, literature, architecture, government, art, language, history and social relationships.  Modern Egyptology is often considered to have begun with the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion in 1820-1822.  This newfound ability to read hieroglyphics spurred interest in Ancient Egypt that continues to this day.  The spectacular discovery of the nearly intact tomb of Tutankhamun (known familiarly as “King Tut”) by Harold Carter in 1922 likewise created and international stir and greatly stoked interest in Ancient Egypt.  In the academic world, Egyptology can be considered a branch of archaeology (usually the case in the United States) or a philological discipline (in much of Europe).  While curious academic researchers, casual and more intense as well, have studied Ancient Egypt virtually from the time of Ancient Egypt, it was the Egyptian Expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 that triggered the modern version of what we call Egyptology, especially with the exploitation of the greatest find of that expedition, the Rosetta Stone.  Egyptology became an academic area of study at colleges and universities in Europe during the 19th Century, and today many such institutions in Europe and the United States offer classes and major courses of study on this subject.  Numerous publications, journals and professional associations concerning Egyptology exist today, both for serious academics and for those with an informal interest in the subject.  Of course, Egyptology is of great interest to those in the History and Anthropology disciplines as well.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Fagan, Brian. Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations. The Great Courses, 2013.

Oakes, Lorna. Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Reference to the Myths, Religions, Pyramids and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs. Barnes & Noble,2003.

Rector, Rebecca. The Early River Valley Civilizations. Rosen Young Adult, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a Sumer satellite map, is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGovNASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)


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