A Detailed Look at the History of the Ancient Egyptian Culture

Ancient Egyptian culture has always been a subject of curiosity for people all across the world. Thanks to movies such as Indiana Jones, and The Mummy, this curiosity has gotten even bigger. Here's an insight into the mysterious world of ancient Egypt...
31st century B.C. was a period in history when the world was making its way towards a civilized way of life. Many 'civilizations' sprang up during this time, and all of them were important landmarks in the history of humankind. The civilizations of China, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and Egypt were all contemporary to each other, and shared numerous common traits which traveled by means of trade and commerce. All these civilizations were special in their own right, but the one that developed in Egypt, stood out. Their imposing edifices, paintings, script, and most importantly their culture, have made a deep impact on the world and in shaping some of our core ideologies. When admiration rises in heart, words subside. This is indeed true about the ancient Egyptian civilization.

INDEX
  1. A Brief History
  2. Evolution of the Culture
  3. Culture of the Ancients
  4. Ancient Egypt and the World
A Brief History

The historic timeline of Egypt begins with the Upper Paleolithic phase (40000 B.C. - 30000 B.C.). A few prehistoric tools have been found at the earlier levels, but since these display a striking similarity with the Upper Paleolithic ones, assigning them to any earlier phase becomes difficult. The Mesolithic/Middle Stone Age flourished from about 18000 B.C. to 10000 B.C., and some of the Late Mesolithic sites show signs of population migration. This phase was followed by the Neolithic levels, which show evidences of transition from hunting-gathering to a more settled Agrarian lifestyle. The Neolithic culture flourished in Egypt from 6,000 B.C. - 3,100 B.C.

The Archaic/Early Dynastic period in ancient Egypt is supposed to have immediately followed the period when the upper and the lower parts of Egypt were unified. It includes the Early Dynastic Period, comprising the first dynasty (3100 B.C. - 2890 B.C.), and the second dynasty (2890 B.C. - 2686 B.C.); the Old Kingdom comprising the third (2686 B.C. - 2613 B.C.), the fourth (2613 B.C. - 2494 B.C.), the fifth (2494 B.C. - 2345 B.C.), and the sixth (2345 B.C. - 2181 B.C.) dynasties. This was also a period when ancient Egyptian culture seemed to have flourished the most, as is indicated by the various evidences belonging to this period. The Old Kingdom fell in 2181 B.C., and the interregnum was a period of chaos and disorder, which lasted for almost 100 years up to 2055 B.C. The rule of the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh dynasties has been covered under this interregnum. There are very few structural evidences from this period, owing to the fact that there was large-scale looting and vandalism of structures and statues, which was a consequence of so-called political bedlam. Egypt, in this period, was bifurcated among two competing powers, which ruled the upper and the lower Egypt. The result of this pandemonium was an eventual conflict between the Heracleopolitan kings and the Theban rulers, in which the Thebans emerged victorious and reunified Egypt under a single rule.

Post-unification period in Egyptian history is known as the period of the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from the establishment of the eleventh dynasty in unified Egypt, till the end of the twelfth dynasty (2055 B.C. - 1950 B.C.). This period is characterized by the creation of a centralized rule, strengthening of militia, and numerous innovations in the fields of art and religion. After the abrupt end of the twelfth dynasty in 1802 B.C., things again fell into disarray. This was termed as the Second Intermediate Period, which encompasses the rule of the thirteenth to the seventeenth dynasties. This was a period between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the dawn of the New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom, popularly known as the Egyptian Empire (1570 B.C. - 1070 B.C.), was the most prosperous period in Egyptian history. It saw large-scale expansion of Egyptian territorial boundaries as well as emergence of enormous structural edifices, which stand testimony to the prosperity and stability during that period. Nevertheless, after the death of Pharaoh Ramesses XI in 1070 B.C., kingship in Egypt suffered a major setback. The period that followed is known as the Third Intermediate Period, which saw phases of prolonged instability and civil discontent. However, the dating for this period is heavily disputed. It was followed by the so-called Late Period (664 B.C. - 332 B.C.), when some of the last rulers of Egyptian origin ruled.

Then, following repeated foreign invasions, Egypt fell into the hands of the Greco-Romans, the Arabs, and finally the Ottomans, who held their sway till 1805 A.D. It then went into the hands of the Muhammad Ali Pasha Dynasty (1805 A.D. - 1953 A.D.), which fell with the Revolution of 1952, and the Republic of Egypt was subsequently formed.
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Evolution of the Culture

Egyptian civilization was one of the oldest civilizations that flourished in the ancient world. Geographically located in the desert area around the Nile valley, it is said to have discouraged most attempts of hostile invasions, which is why it could survive for as long as 3000 years, which is a comparatively longer period of time as compared to the other ancient civilizations. The Mediterranean Sea to the North aided in trade and commerce. As mentioned above, the civilization stabilized around the early 2nd century B.C., when the entire Egypt was unified under a single monarch. This was the first among the 30 dynasties of the pharaohs that ruled the land, which is why the world also refers to ancient Egypt as the Land of Pharaohs. A few centuries after this unification, the Egyptian civilization witnessed its stage of maturity with the formation of strong political, economic, and social structures.

Under the rule of the pharaohs, Egypt saw phases of immense prosperity. Egyptian culture flowered to a great extent, which is evident even today from the many material remains. Imposing monumental edifices sprang up all over the place, and boasted not only of the artistic sensibilities of the ancient people but also of their technological advancement. They were flourishing in every aspect of culture, including art, architecture, religion, literature, and so on. The most prominent aspect on which an ancient Egyptian mind seems to have made its mark was the invention of a writing system - the hieroglyphs. Interestingly, we do not see any foreign influence on their culture until the fall of the last pharaoh, probably because there was no scope for an outsider to enter such a close-knit setup. However, soon after the Hellenic conquest of the land, and subsequent conquests by other foreign powers, its culture came under the influence of the outside world. Today's Egypt is an amalgamation of various cultural influences which the land has come under over the ages. However, the sheer essence of the original never ceases to exist.

Egypt and its history came into the eyes of the world when, during the French Revolution in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops were trapped there for almost three years. With the help of a team of scientists, Napoleon and his soldiers brought to light the mysteries of the pyramids, mummies, and several other fascinating things that the world was not aware of. This information triggered the interests of archaeologists, historians, academics, and a hoard of amateur treasure-hunters from across the globe, and they started making their way into the Egyptian territory for their respective purposes.
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Culture of the Ancients

The culture of the ancient Egyptian people is an amazing subject in itself, not only for the students and others who are related to the subject, but also for those who are simply interested to learn about this mighty ancient civilization.

Occupation and Housing:
  • The ancient Egyptian society was primarily Agrarian in character, which is obvious owing to the fact that they were located around the Nile valley. Due to their location near a river valley, they had at their disposal fertile soil, which brought good harvest and wealth to the land.
  • The ancient Egyptians built their houses with mud bricks, so that they could remain cool throughout the day.
  • Most houses were built around an open courtyard, which also had a small section for an open-air kitchen evidenced, by the presence of hearths.
  • The houses contained three, four or more rooms, depending on the status of the family. The most lavish houses that have been found on some of the ancient sites had been assigned to the nobles, and consisted of three sections, viz. the entrance area, the reception rooms, and the private rooms.
Attire:
  • White linen was used as a clothing material.
  • Wool was also used sometimes. But, considering the fact that it came from animals, it was not allowed in the places of worship.
  • Ancient paintings depict men wearing white loincloth and women wearing robes or tight dresses.
  • Style of clothing depended on the person's occupation. So, the poorer farmers wore loincloths, whereas the upper class nobles wore longer robes.
  • Poor people seemed to wear very little clothing, simply because it was hardly affordable.
  • Both men and women belonging to the upper classes wore jewelry and cosmetics.
Cuisine:
  • Traditionally, the ancient Egyptians ate with their hands. This is also supported by the lack of evidence with respect to ancient cutlery or related articles.
  • The kind and amount of food a person ate was ascertained by his social status. So, where a rich man enjoyed a variety of breads with numerous vegetables such as peas, cucumbers, lettuce and radishes, a poor man had to be satisfied only with bread, onion, and sometimes fish.
  • Various kinds of meats were eaten, ranging from cattle, sheep, pigs and goats.
  • Local fruits such as apricots, dates and melons also formed a part of their diet.
  • Wine and beer were drunk by everybody, irrespective of their social status.
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Language:
  • The oldest written sources of Egyptian language come in the form of signages and labels, and belong to 3200 B.C. The language of these sources has been referred to as Archaic Egyptian.
  • Old Egyptian language came to be used from 2600 B.C. onwards, for a period of about 500 years.
  • This was followed by a further development and the appearance of Middle and Late Egyptian languages, which remained in use for the next 700 years.
  • These were followed by the Demotic Egyptian of the 6th century B.C. and the Coptic Egyptian of the fourth century A.D.
  • Coptic Egyptian survived as a spoken language till 16th century A.D.
  • These languages were written in both hieratics and hieroglyphics.
Literature:
  • A popular piece of ancient Egyptian literature is a verse called the Tale of Sinuhe, and is a narrative portraying the outcome of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I.
  • The Book of the Dead is another evidence of ancient Egyptian literature that is worth a mention.
  • The ancient Egyptians wrote on varied surfaces, including walls, pyramids, tombs, and of course the famed papyrus scrolls.
  • The Rosetta Stone is a classic example of ancient Egyptian literary text, which possessed writings in three different languages by a group of priests in honor of a pharaoh.
Music and Dance:
  • Paintings depicting people playing lutes, harps and cymbals have been found, which shows that music and dance were a popular form of entertainment at that time irrespective of the social status.
  • Music and dance generally seemed to have complemented each other and seldom performed solo.
  • There were male and female dancers, as well as dance troupes that performed during special occasions.
  • There were festive dances, funeral dances, as well as dance dramas.
  • Other leisure activities included games, boating and hunting.
Art:
  • The ancient Egyptians excelled in various forms of tangible arts, which include pottery-making, sculptures, paintings, etc.
  • Notably enough, the Egyptian artists created art forms, not for the sake of art but to serve a specific purpose. They adhered to their list of set principles for thousands of years, and therefore, one cannot see any foreign influence on their ancient art forms.
  • The Egyptian artists seem to have painted on every plain surface they found. So, we have a large number of ancient paintings on their temple walls, pyramids, coffins, stelae, tombs, papyrus scrolls, and so on.
  • The paintings depict stories of their vibrant culture and life, as well as some myths.
  • The art of sculpting was also highly developed. The bust of Nefertiti is one of the best known masterpieces among ancient Egyptian sculptures.
  • The most interesting and impressive art form that they had developed was the system of hieroglyphs, also considered their writing system, in which pictures and symbols represented sounds and words. This system was formed of more than 700 symbols.
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Architecture:
  • Ancient Egyptians were prolific builders. They built a large number of secular as well as religious structures all along the Nile valley, and interestingly, a vast majority of them were patronized by the rulers.
  • The pyramids of Egypt are the hallmark of their ancient architecture, and there were almost no similar structures found belonging to that period throughout the world.
  • The Great Pyramid of Giza is the largest of all the Egyptian pyramids discovered so far, and it has also found a place in the list of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
  • The Great Sphinx is yet another mighty structure, which possesses a human head and a lion's body, and stands at a height of about 65 feet tall.
  • They also built a host of temples such as those at Karnak and Luxor. These and many other temple complexes still stand proudly, telling tales of the age of the pharaohs. They are full of columns, statues, friezes and open courtyards.
  • The remnants of some of the palaces along with other secular structures have also been found, which display the majestic lifestyles of the Egyptian royals.
Customs and Beliefs:
  • Evidences about ancient Egyptian customs are few, but we know about some of them from their paintings and literature.
  • Arranged marriages were not known to the ancient Egyptians, and the boy had to make the fact that he wishes to marry a girl known by taking gifts to her house.
  • Men were compelled by religion to treat their wives well, and a portion of the husband's property was given to his wife during marriage.
  • All Egyptians, except the pharaohs, practiced monogamy, and divorce was easy to attain, though a costly affair.
  • Festivals generally revolved around the temples. People participated in large numbers when the temple idol was taken out in a procession.
  • Boat processions occupied an important place, as the Egyptian civilization was a river valley civilization.
  • Ancient Egyptians had a very elaborate set of burial rites in order to guarantee immortality after death.
  • Before the pharaohs assumed power, the dead were buried in desert pits.
  • The process of mummifying the bodies and preserving their organs in canopic jars began during the rule of the pharaohs.
  • The mummified dead were buried along with various burial goods, which were thought to help the dead in their afterlives.
Religion:
  • Ancient Egyptian religion was based on the notions of the divine and the afterlife, which were very deep-rooted in their society.
  • During the rule of the pharaohs, the notion of divine right of the ruler gained a lot of impetus, where the king played the role of a sacred mediator. However, after the decline of the last dynasty of the pharaohs, people were permitted to worship the divine idol directly.
  • The ancient Egyptian pantheon was crowded with a plethora of gods and goddesses, with more and more new divinities gaining importance according to the needs of the society.
  • The belief that every divine being is filled with supernatural powers made them develop a system of oracles in order to communicate with the gods.
Ancient Egyptian culture is a vast subject in itself. A lot of things have come to light so far by means of ancient records and archaeological excavations. A lot more is yet to surface, as every new find enhances the scope for further research.
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Ancient Egypt and the World

All the civilizations of the ancient world have made an impact on the modern world in some way or the other. Egypt is not an exception. Immediately after the Egyptian expedition of Napoleon, ancient Egyptian history and culture caught the eye of the West. Some of his troop members recorded their finds in detail in the form of notes and drawings, which were published later on as Description de l'Égypte. This publication was one of the founding stones in the establishment of Egyptology as an inevitable branch of modern archaeology. Since then, a large number of people seem to have been bitten by the Egyptology bug. Egyptology - the study of ancient Egypt - has become a compelling and an irresistible discipline. Universities offer full-time courses in Egyptology, and there are also a number of part-time certificate courses which are attracting more and more people. Moreover, ancient Egypt has been glamorized to such an extent by writers, television and film producers, and the like, that it seems to make a complete and an unavoidable package.

The reasons for this attraction towards ancient Egyptian culture are numerous and varied. These include their art and architecture, literature, hieroglyphic representations, artistic and aesthetic sensibilities of their artisans and craftsmen, and above all, their nearly perfectionist approach towards life. Their lifestyles and belief patterns are evident from their material remains. Seemingly, their thought processes were not very different from ours. They seemed to live comfortable lives by making adequate use of the resources available to them, and looking at their technological advancements, they indeed seemed to be ahead of their time. Moreover, they tended to ask the same questions as the people of the other ancient civilizations did or even we do today, for that matter. These were questions such as what happens after death, where do the gods live, and so on. They attempted to answer all these questions with a series of myths, which formed part, not only of their oral traditions, but also subjects of depiction in their paintings, literature and hieroglyphs. Interestingly, these myths seemed to have traveled to the distant lands of Greece and Rome along with traders and merchants, which in turn is responsible for the evolution of the modern religious thought.

The pyramids are the markers of ancient Egyptian architecture. These monuments are so grand that they are even visible from space. It is absolutely amazing how the structures of this magnitude might have been erected with utmost precision without the availability of advanced mathematics or modern technology. All the pyramids seem to adhere to a set list of norms. All four of their sides exactly face the four cardinal directions. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest amongst all the pyramidal structures, is an impressive example of mathematical perfection of the ancient architects. It is a mesh of chambers and shafts, and two of the shafts are perfectly in line with the constellations. This also throws light on the depth of their astronomical understanding. These compelling structures have so aesthetically made their mark on modern minds, that the pyramidal form makes its appearance in what can be regarded as some of the most impressive examples of modern architecture. Some of them include the entrance of the Louvre Museum in Paris, the 30-storyed Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, the 48-storyed Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Kazakhstan, the building of the Hanoi Museum, which is a classic contemporary illustration of an inverted pyramid, and so on.
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The Egyptian mummies have a lot to offer to the development of modern medicine. This is due to the fact that the mummies are basically human bodies that have been preserved for a long period of time. These bodies are an unparalleled source of ancient human tissue, the study of which helps in understanding the changes that have been brought about in a human body over the years. It also helps to apprehend the kinds of diseases and illnesses that the people suffered from, their causes and treatments, and furthermore, to look at the continuity of any such illnesses to the modern day.

It seems that the ancient Egyptians were making continuous attempts to make their day-to-day lives more and more comfortable and luxurious. The result was that they have left, as their rich legacy, a whole lot of things, their inventions, some of which we tend to use even today. The priests then are said to have invented apparatus to measure time - the sun dial, the water clock, and the calendar. The so-called Julian Calendar, which was introduced in Rome by Julius Caesar in 1st century B.C., was based on the model of the Egyptian calendar. The Egyptians also invented the basic unit to measure length, the cubit. Their understanding of the human body, medicine, and astronomy was unparalleled. One of the most amazing inventions was the eyeliner. They used kohl as eyeliner, a practice which continues even today.

In 1922, Howard Carter, a British archaeologist, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh belonging to the 18th dynasty. The tomb was loaded not only with paintings and hieroglyphs, but also with immense treasure, and showed signs of robberies in the past. The discovery of this almost intact edifice led to renewed curiosity for Egyptian past. The curiosity about what laid beneath the ancient remains led to hoards of archaeologists, amateur and professional, and treasure-hunters, invading the sands of Egypt in attempts to unravel its past glory and become famous. The fact is that ancient Egypt has something or the else to offer to each and every curious mind, and this is what has made it more and more popular among historians, archaeologists, as well as tourists and the locals.
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