Thursday, August 12, 2010

Egypt - overview

There is no way I could possibly do any justice in trying to cover the historical aspects of this country as it is so ancient that it would probably take me 100 years to explain it all, of which I don't have. So, I will summarize in great detail in order to suffice.

Egypt is located in the northeast area of the continent of Africa. The capital city is Cairo; The currency used is the egyptian pound; Government is set up as a republic; Population is over 80 million; Official language spoken is Arabic while English and French are widely understood; Religion practiced is 90% muslim and 10% Coptic Christianity.

The country's boundaries actually extend into Asia by virtue of owning the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is bordered by Israel and the Gaza Strip to the north, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the east(across the Red Sea), Sudan sits south and Lybia sits west of Egypt. The country enjoys the liberties of being bound by two seas: the Mediterranian is to the north and the Red Sea is directly east. In addition to being blessed with two sea ports, Egypt has the luxury of being situated on one of the largest rivers in the world, the Nile. The Nile cuts the country almost in half going north to south and spills into the Mediterranian near Alexandria. It also has two large deserts on the east and west sides of the country.

In the beginning of time, there was Egypt. Well, not exactly, but close enough. Egypt being one of the oldest known civilizations has a very elegant history as you might imagine. And with that their version of how the world was formed is one of the most elegant and interesting stories of ancient Egypt and highly evident on all the walls that we visited in the valley of the kings and queens.

So this is how the story goes:
According to ancient egyptian cosmology in the beginning the earth or more accurately the entire cosmos was nothing but utter chaos filled with nothing but primordial, unformed and unconscious waters known as Nun. From these waters a god(today known as Ra) willed himself into physical existence. The god was alone and had both male and female principles, unisex if you will, but considered largely male in nature. So from his mouth he created two children: Shu who became god of the air(shown on the the wall paintings we saw with an ostrich feather on his head) and Tefnut who became goddess of the mist(depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness on the ancient wall paintings). Ra is depicted in almost all the paintings as a male with a cobra on his head. As a result of these deities being created, the world was, according to ancient egyptian history, now in order and no longer in chaos.

Soon Shu and Tefnut got busy procreating and the results of their union were Geb who was granted status as God of the Earth and Nut who was annointed Goddess of the sky. Geb was depicted on the ancient wall paintings with a goose on his head and a few times he was shown as just a plain ole goose which we saw many times in many of the ancient tombs we walked along. Nut was depicted as a naked woman arched over the world. We did not see many pictures of Nut on the walls. Although we did ask our tour guide why one of the gods we saw in one of the tombs in the valley of the queens was naked. Not sure it was Nut or not but I don't think our tour guide appreciated the question so we wasted no time in forgetting that we asked it. Geb and Nut ultimately gave birth to most of the rest of the Gods that completed the entire deity of ancient egyptian cosmology. But the story gets even better. There is a major twist to this completion of the ancient egyptian gods. Isn't that always the case with good stories of love and war? Drama, drama, drama!

Back to the story. So apparently Ra, who was considered as the most powerful god of them all, fell in love with Nut. What a nuthead! hehe! Sorry, couldn't help myself. So when he found out the she was involved with Geb he cursed her saying that she would not be able to give birth on any day of the month. However, the cosmos was evolving and soon enough a loophole came about. Thoth, the God of Wisdom, was well associated with the moon. Now here's where it really gets good so pay attention. According to ancient history, Thoth somehow managed to extract 5 extra days from the moon through some heave bargaining. This added 5 extra days to calendar thus making up for the shortcomings of the lunar year. So what does all this mean in terms of ancient egyptian cosmology? Well, the impact and significance of this would prove to be very profound. During these 5 extra days Nut consumated with Geb and rapidly began to have children. Pretty cool, eh? And so the plot thickens. In short she gave birth to Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis and Nepthys. And with this the long standing cosmological creation of ancient egypt's deities that are splattered all over the ancient paintings that we saw was complete and the long dramatic stories of the love, conflict and subsequent conquests could now begin in earnest. And there you have it. The story of how the world began according to ancient egyptology in a nutshell! No pun intended. :)

The Ancient Pharaohs:

The traditional starting point for ancient egypt as we know it was around 3000 B.C. Unfortunately, documentation is not very good for this far back and what we do have tends to be subject to constant, ongoing academic reinterpretation. The earliest evidence that has been found is a tablet that was found known as the Narmer Tablet that shows a pharaoh(Narmer) wearing the two crowns of upper and lower egypt that was dug up in 1894 that dated back to 3000 B.C. This palette is believed to represent the moment that upper and lower egypted were united as one under a single ruler. Some academians believe that the unification could have and most likely did occur even earlier than this but so far no evidence has been found.

The Pharaohs ruled Egypt for an enormous period of time: more that 2700 years! In that time they developed precise theories on the motion of the stars and planets and constructed monster monuments that have survived all the tests of time which still stand today. Most notably but not by far the only monuments still standing are the great pyramids of Giza. There are many ancient temples that still stand today some of which Katie has already mentioned that are just as amazing as the pyramids.

The period of the Pharaohs rule is divided into dynasties that were subsequently divided into 3 kingdoms: Old, Middle and New. The Old Kingdom is credited with having created some of the best and most enduring symbols of ancient egypt including the great pyramid of Khufu on the Giza plateau. Khufu reigned from 2589-2566 B.C. and was the second ruler of the 4th dynasty which just so happened to be the 1st dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Confused yet? Hold on to your camel, it gets better. Only one very small sculpture has ever been found of Khufu. It is only display at the Egyptian Museum and we saw it. :) It's a tiny little black rock sculpture that can't be more that 3 inches tall and 2 inches wide. This would seem rather odd considering he was one of the most famous pharaohs of all. Where's all the other stuff that should have been erected in his name? Maybe they thought that the pyramid was enough said. By the same token, the location of his mummy if it even exists has never been discovered. Khufu's reign represented the height of the Old Kingdom. Subsequent rulers of the Old Kingdom never obtained quite the status and power that he did. By the 7th and 8th dynasty 2181-2125 B.C. centralized control of Egypt had broken down and in rushed the era of the Middle Kingdom. The beginning of the Middle Kingdom ushered in what is now called the First Intermediate Period which signified the separation from the Old Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom was characterized by the expansion of Egyptian territory to include Nubia and the development of a vast and sophisticated bureaucracy that was able to exert influence on most aspects of life in the country. The end of the Middle Kingdom is synonymous with the Second Intermediate Period and is characterized by more installments of bureacratic rules and laws but more importantly with education and development in the area of agriculture. That's about it. No big name pharoah's came from the period of the Middle Kingdom.

It was the era of the New Kingdom that was probaby the most fascinating and which most people associate most with the glories of ancient egypt. Hatshepsut(the she god) reigned as pharaoh between 1473 and 1458 B.C. and was one of the most successful rulers of the New Kingdom. Her mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile(the one in Katie's pictures) is one of the most visited temples of all the pharaohs and deservedly so. Another notable ruler of the New Kingdom was Akhenaten whose reign spanned between 1352 and 1336 B.C. those evidence of this great pharaoh is hard to be found. That is because after ruling for only 5 years on the throne he abruptly did an about face and abandoned Thebes(basically the religious center of ancient egypt at the time) and their gods and attempted to found a new capital, religion and brand spankin' new gods near Al Amarna (middle egypt). He decided that the new chief god was now to be named Aten, the sundisk god. Pretty cocky guy, eh? If I remember correctly, even though he was a very influential pharoah he is viewed by most egyptians today as somewhat of a quack for obvious reasons. There is a room in the Egyptian musuem that is dedicated to this pharoah that has some of the most interesting stylized depictions of this unusual man. We did not get a chance to see this room because it wasn't a main attraction for us and as Katie pointed out there are 5 gazillion things to see in that place. We actually asked our guide how long it would take to see everything in this massive museum and she said a minimum of 3 full days at an accelerated pace, minimum 5 days at a relaxed pace. It was a HUGE museum with so many artifacts that it just made us dizzy!

The most famous of all the pharaohs came from the New Kingdom. I am speaking of course of Ramses the Great or more formally known as Ramses II. His reign spanned an incredible 66 years between 1279 and 1213 B.C. Longer than any other pharaoh. He was also known as the great builder as well because there were more monuments and structures erected during his reign that any other pharoah. Every where we went there was some sort of building, image, monument, tower, carving, or whatever that had been erected to honor him. What a modest guy, eh? He is probably most well known to most westerners as the pharaoh that lived during the biblical days as he tormented Moses because he would not let his people go until Moses finally set the record straight.

So there you have it. A summary depiction of ancient egyptian's theory of how the world was created and the most influential of the many ancient pharaohs.

Other notable times in the making of what is now Egypt today:

Macedonian and Ptolemaic period in Egypt:

It is a general consensus that the Period of the Pharaohs ended in 332 B.C. when Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, successfully invaded Egypt and had a brilliant but rather short rule. He promptly founded the city of Alexandria, was declared the son of god by the Oracle of Amound and then basically left Egypt to be run by his premier bodyguard, General Ptolemy. Since Alexander the Great was viewed as a liberator by the people at the time his 1st General Ptolemy was allowed to carry out Alexander's rule without much resistance. Unlike Alexander, Ptolemy was a very corrupt ruler. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C. there was a dispute over who would get his body, Macedonia or Egypt? Ptolemy fought hard for his body and won. This was a very vital and strategic win for Ptolemy because the burial of his predecessor in Egypt gave him right of passage and succession by Macedonian tradition. In doing so, Ptolemy was able to lay claim as Egypt's legitimate ruler and named himself Ptolemy Soter(savior)and created a dynasty that would rule Egypt for the next 3 centuries until 30 B.C. when Gaius Octavius Thurinus(emperor of Rome) effectively took over and made Egypt a province of the Roman Empire.

The history of the Romam Rule is far too vast and involved for me to explain so I will just try to summarize as best possible. The transition from Ptolemic to Roman rule was a slow work-in-progess. The Ptolemies had gone to great lengths to integrate their regime(Greek in nature as Ptolemy was from Macedonia) into Egyptian society. They adapted Greek religious figures to match local morays and built and rebuilt temples with a Greek emphasis in the southern part of the country. As the pressure to become more Roman mounted on the militarily and politically weaker Ptolemic dynasty it was inevitable that there would be resistance in the ranks. Cleopatra VII(the famous one) played Roman politics textbook but lost in the end. She bore a son to Gaius Julius Ceasar(the famous one of the Shakespearean stage) to hopefully rule someday. Gaius was knifed and killed by the opposition so she shifted here allegiance to Marc Antony who was also killed before he had any chance to make a change. She allegedly killed herself by letting her poisonous pet snake bite her but some believe she was killed off in the end as well. Her son ended up ruling briefly before being executed by the Roman Emperor Augustus which finally ended the Era of the Ceasars' family rule and marked the official beginning of the Roman ruling era of Egypt.

The roman rule is characterized with the rise of Christianity which the Egyptians readily accepted but the Romans first persecuted and suppressed. Christianity became well established by 200 A.D. Christianity then became commonplace when Constantine the Great became emperor of Egypt in 306 A.D. During his reign the Edict of Milan(made christianity legal) was circulated and put into place. Constantine's rule was seen as very pivotal in that it shifted the imperial gravity from Rome to Constantinople. This was a massive turning point for Egypt because it effectively signified a transition point from 4000 year old deities of Pharoanic ancient cosmology to a new monotheistic cosmology that would take its place. So basically they threw out all of ancient egypt's gods and everything that had preceded their history with the bathwater overnight. Just like that. However, there were flies in the religious ointment and the cheif one was that the Church of Egypt was on the wrong side of the Counsel of Chalcedon. The beef was all about what form Christ actually had while here on earth. The Church of Egypt believed that Christ's from was monophysite in nature(being both divine and human all at once)and refused to alter its view despite being ruled out of bounds by the Byzantine counsel. The rifts caused by these disputes proved to be monumental. Christian Egypt was in no position to take on the Byzantine Empire, they were just not organized and/or smart enough to do so and so they just let themselves be ruled. It wasn't until the 7th Century that the Byzantine Empire would be challenged and finally defeated but in the name of another god, Allah. A small army arrived from the Arabian peninsula under the name of a new prophet, Mohammad, and so began the reign of the Muslims. They soon took control and that is where Egypt stands today, 90% Muslim.

There are other less significant periods of history I have not yet touched on but will do so in brevity. Egypt was once occupied by the French (Napoleon) for a very short time and Britain seized gov't control in the 1800's to protect it as a sovereign nation. These brief periods of history are not as significant as the ones I have laid out. Also, there is much between these time periods that I have left out(simply because it is a country with a history that is just too vast to cover indepth on any blogsite and because I have finally tired of telling the historical aspects of this very intriguing country). The rest you will have to find out about on your own perhaps when you visit this wonderfully fascinating country as well.


Anonymous,  August 14, 2010 at 9:19 PM  

Wait - could you go over that again?


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