Ancient Egypt

The Nile

To understand the ancient Egyptians, you need only a single ingredient: The Nile. This wide, slow-moving river was (and still is) the lifeline for the people who call themselves "People of the black earth." Every year, the Nile floods the surrounding land and covers it with a layer of dark, fertile sediments. Without these annual floods, the land around the great river would be an empty, uninhabitable desert. The Egyptians have never for a second doubted that the Nile, in a very real sense, is their source of food and life.

The Nile is formed where the White Nile and the Blue Nile flow together, in Sudan. The White Nile is a rather boring, well-behaving stream that comes from the great lakes around the equator further south (Lake Victoria, Lake George and others). The Blue Nile, on the other hand, comes down from the mountains of Ethiopia, and it gets much more violent during the annual tropical rains, which explains the floods.

Where there's water, there's life. Primitive hunters settled around the Nile and started cultivating the black earth deposited by the river's slow heartbeat. The Nile dictated their seasons and their time to harvest. They built dams and dug canals to guide the life-giving water to their crops. They constructed large barns to store and distribute the harvest. Keeping track of food logistics always requires sophisticated administration, so pretty soon you get a hierarchy of overseers, scribes, priests and rulers. Their social relations became more complex with time, leading ultimately to a highly organized state ruled by a dynasty of kings called Pharaohs. The word dynasty means that the king was not elected, but predetermined to be king at birth.

What does a logistic system need beside land and crops?Right: transportation. Again, the Nile provided an excellent solution. Rowing up north is easy: just let the water take you towards the sea. Going south is also easy, since the wind almost invariably blows from the Mediterranean into the desert. The Egyptian glyph for "going north" represents a boat without a sail, the one for "going south" has a sail alright, so there's ancient Egyptian logic for you.

Which brings us to another ingredient a tight logistic administration needs: communication. Ancient Egyptian scribes developed a special kind of writing called hieroglyphs, that allowed them to keep track of the amounts of corn available for the next season. From a rather simplistic system of pictures that you had to take quite literally, it evolved into a more complex system of phonograms in which each picture represents a sound rather than an actual object.


In a world where everything comes from water, it shouldn't surprise you that the religion is also entirely based on water. This may not be obvious when you look at the pyramids or the impressive statue of the sphynx. The Egyptian creation myth goes something like this: In the beginning, the earth and heaven rose up from the First Ocean called Nun. In other words: first there was water, then there were land (Geb) and sky (Nut). Geb and Nut then had four children: Osiris, Isis, Seth and Neftys. Since Osiris was the oldest son, he inherited the throne of Egypt from which he ruled with his sister, Isis. For many centuries, the land of the black earth prospered under their rule, and civilzation expanded and thrived. Unfortunately -- and not at all unexpectedly since this is after all a myth about life and death -- Seth, the god of chaos and violence, was rather jealous of his brother Osiris. He wanted the throne for himself, so he killed Osiris and declared himself the new king of Egypt. As if killing his own brother was not good enough, he chopped the corpse into fourteen pieces and spread them throughout the kingdom, an act that we can safely call paranoid.

Osiris is dead, so that kind of ends our story, right? Not quite. For now comes the ultimate ingredient of all Egyptian religion: the victory of life over death. Isis, grieving for her lost brother/husband, roamed the lands around the Nile and collected all the pieces of Osiris' body. She then used her magic powers to resurrect him, only for an instant, and he impregnated her with a son, Horus, who kicked Seth's divine buttocks right off the throne and took his father's place as the rightful heir of Egypt. Osiris himself became the ruler of the land of the dead, where he judges the souls of the departed.

This myth contains many of the fundamental ideas the Egyptians had about their world. The most important of these ideas is their obsession with death, and their struggle to find ways to overcome it. Mummification was one solution they applied. It was supposed to preserve the king's body until he had safely reached the land beyond the stars, where he would live eternally. The cult of the dead vividly acts out the firm belief in an afterlife.

Again, this obsession with the cycle of life and death is very likely to stem from the Egyptian's close relation with the great river. Every year, the Nile brings new life to an otherwise infertile desert. Every single year, the entire country with all its peasants, scribes, priests and its king, rises from the dead into a new bright existence. As the water retreats after the flood, hills and mounds seem to rise from the fading Nile like a phoenix from its ashes.

The same cycle is percieved on other scales as well. An Egyptian would see the same ritual enacted every day: the sun gets swallowed by the horizon in the west every evening, and then the next morning it miraculously reappears in the east, unharmed. It is only a small step from such an observation to the adoration of the sun as a god, Ra, who conquers death every single night to return victoriously in the morning.

Right. So we now have mummies, we have a sun-god, we have an afterlife with a judge who separates the good guys from the bad. What about the pyramids though? How do they fit into this picture?

There is another Egyptian story about the creation of the world. First, there is only water. From the water rises a single hill of fertile mud, just like the mounds that seem to pop up at the end of the floods. On that primordial hill, a falcon settles after its long flight, bringing the first sign of life to the world. The hill is shaped like a pyramid. And the falcon's name is Horus.

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