Ancient Egypt, an introduction


Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Old Kingdom, c. 2675–2625 B.C.E. Photo: Dr Amy Calvert

Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Old Kingdom, c. 2675–2625 B.C.E. Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert

Egypt’s impact on other cultures was undeniably immense. From the earliest periods of Predynastic Egypt, there is evidence of trade connections that extended as far east as the Indus Valley. These trade routes passed through the Near East, resulting in an early exchange of motifs and ideas between the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The New Kingdom (c. 1539–1077 B.C.E.) brought even more active connections with Western Asia, including robust commercial and diplomatic relationships as well as a mutual exchange of imagery and concepts with cultures like the Assyrians and the Hittites. Lively interactions with the south contributed to dynamic cultures, such as the Kushites, who ruled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty and whose monuments displayed an innovative blend of local Nubian and pharaonic imagery.

Pyramids of Meroe - Northern Cemetery - Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (Sudan) (photo: UNESCO)

Pyramids of Meroe – Northern Cemetery – Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (Sudan) (photo: UNESCO)

Rulers and the elite from Meroe, in modern Sudan, were buried in pyramid tombs for many centuries—with more than 200 having been identified, that country actually contains more pyramids within its borders than Egypt does. Egypt also provided some of the building blocks for the Aegean, Greek, and Roman cultures, and, through them, influenced many aspects of Western tradition. 

Today, Egyptian imagery, concepts, and perspectives are found everywhere; when you know what to look for, you will see them in architectural forms, on money, and in our day to day lives. Many cosmetic surgeons, for example, use the silhouette of Queen Nefertiti (whose name means “the beautiful one has come”) in their advertisements. 

Longevity

Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for more than 3,000 years and showed a stunning level of continuity. That is more than 15 times the age of the United States, and consider how often our culture shifts; as recently as 2003, there was no Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.  

While today we consider the Greco-Roman period to be in the distant past, it should be noted that Cleopatra VII’s reign (which ended in 30 B.C.E.) is closer to our own time than it was to that of the construction of the pyramids of Giza. It took humans nearly 4,000 years to build something—anything—taller than the Great Pyramid. Contrast that span to modern times; we get excited when a record lasts longer than a decade.

Consistency and stability

Egypt’s stability is in stark contrast to the Ancient Near East of the same period, which endured an overlapping series of cultures and upheavals with amazing regularity. The earliest royal monuments, such as the Narmer Palette carved around 3,100 B.C.E., display identical royal costumes and poses as those seen on later rulers, even Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors on their temples more than three millennia later.  

Palette of Narmer, c. 3000-2920 B.C.E. (left) and Ramses III smiting at Medinet Habu (1160 B.C.E.) (right)

Palette of Narmer, c. 3000–2920 B.C.E. (left) and Ramses III smiting at Medinet Habu (1160 B.C.E.) (right)

This consistency and stability is closely linked with one of the central foundational concepts in the way ancient Egyptians saw the world around them. In their view, creation occurred when order triumphed over chaos and harnessed that amorphous power to bring the land of Egypt into existence. The perfect cosmic balance that resulted created the consistent cycles they saw in their natural world, such as the daily rising and setting of the sun and the Nile’s annual inundation. This divine order was known as ma’at—embodying truth, righteousness, justice, and cosmic law—and was eventually personified as a goddess. There was a perpetual struggle between ma’at and the chaos, known as isfet. From early in Egypt’s history, a primary role of the pharaoh was to be the champion of ma’at and preserve that cosmic order to help protect Egypt from the isfet that surrounded them. The ongoing preservation of ma’at was seen as fundamentally important and the drive to maintain that perfect cosmic balance permeated the culture on multiple levels.

A vast amount of Egyptian imagery, especially royal imagery that was governed by decorum (a sense of what was ‘appropriate’), remained extraordinarily consistent throughout its history. This is why, especially to the untrained eye, their art appears extremely static—and in terms of symbols, gestures, and the way the body is rendered, it was. It was intentional, as consistency was the whole point. The Egyptians were well aware of their consistency, which they viewed as stability, divine balance, and clear evidence of ma’at and the correctness of their culture.  

This consistency was also closely related to a fundamental belief that depictions had an impact beyond the image itself—tomb scenes of the deceased receiving food or temple scenes of the king performing perfect rituals for the gods were functionally causing those things to occur in the divine realm. If the image of the bread loaf was omitted from the deceased’s table, they had no bread in the afterlife; if the king was depicted with the incorrect ritual implement, the ritual was incorrect and could have dire consequences. This belief led to an active resistance to change in codified depictions.

The earliest recorded “tourist graffiti” on the planet came from a visitor from the time of Ramses II who left their appreciative mark at the already 1300-year-old site of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the earliest of the massive royal stone monuments. They were understandably impressed by the works of their ancestors and wrote of their desire to continue that ancient legacy.

Geography

Egypt is a land of duality and cycles, both in topography and culture. The geography is almost entirely rugged, barren desert, except for an explosion of green that straddles either side of the Nile as it flows the length of the country. The river emerges from far to the south, deep in Africa, and empties into the Mediterranean sea in the north after spreading from a single channel into a fan-shaped system, known as a delta, in its northernmost section. The river valley is flanked by imposing cliffs of limestone and sandstone, with deposits of other, harder stones like granite and granodiorite being found in the area of Aswan to the south.

One of the reasons for the overall stability of Egyptian culture was that it was largely isolated by virtue of its geography. With high cliffs and expansive deserts bordering the east and west, the sea at the north, and a series of huge rapids in the Nile to the south (known as cataracts), the stretch of the river valley that gave rise to dynastic Egypt was quite closed off from the outside. Egypt was undoubtedly the “gift of the Nile,” as the Greek historian Herodotus famously wrote. The influence of this river on Egyptian culture and development cannot be overstated without its presence, the civilization would have been entirely different. The Nile provided not only a constant source of life-giving water, but created the fertile lands that fed the growth of this unique (and uniquely resilient) culture.

View from the high peak of the Theban hills showing the sharp delineation between the lush Valley and the barren desert. Photo: Dr Amy Calvert

View from the high peak of the Theban hills showing the sharp delineation between the lush Valley and the barren desert. Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert

Each year, fed by melting snow in the far-off headlands deep in Africa, the Nile overflowed its banks in an annual flood that covered the ground with a rich, black silt and produced incredibly fertile fields. The Egyptians referred to this area as Kemet, the “Black Lands”, and contrasted this dense, dark soil against the Deshret, the “Red Lands” of the sterile desert; the line between these zones was (and in most cases still is) a literal line. The visual effect is stark, appearing almost artificial in its precision.

Time—cyclical and linear

The annual inundation of the Nile was also a reliable, and measurable, cycle that helped form their concept of the passage of time. In fact, the calendar we use today in the west is derived from one developed by the ancient Egyptians. They divided the year into 3 seasons: akhet (“inundation”), peret (“growing/emergence”), and shemw (“harvest”); each season was divided into four 30-day months.  

Although this annual cycle, paired with the daily solar cycle that is so evident in the desert, led to a powerful drive to see the universe in terms of cyclical time, this idea existed simultaneously with the reality of linear time. These two concepts—the cyclical and the linear—came to be associated with two of their primary deities: Osiris, the eternal lord of the dead, and Ra, the sun god who was reborn with each dawn.

The pharaoh—not just a king

Rulers in Egypt were complex intermediaries that straddled the terrestrial and divine realms. They were, obviously, living humans, but upon accession to the throne they also embodied the eternal office of kingship itself. The ka, or spirit, of kingship was often depicted as a separate entity standing behind the human ruler. This divine aspect of the office of kingship was what gave authority to the individual person who was the king.  The living king was associated with the god Horus, the powerful, virile falcon-headed god who was believed to bestow the throne to the first human king.  

Horus’s immensely important father, Osiris, was the lord of the underworld. One of the original divine rulers of Egypt, this deity embodied the promise of regeneration. Cruelly murdered by his brother Seth, the god of the chaotic desert, Osiris was revived through the potent magic of his wife Isis. Through her knowledge and skill, Osiris was able to sire the miraculous Horus, who avenged his father and threw his criminal uncle off the throne to take his rightful place.  

Osiris became ruler of the realm of the dead, the eternal source of regeneration in the afterlife. Deceased kings were identified with this god, creating a cycle where the dead king fused with the divine ruler of the dead and his successor “defeated” death to take his place on the throne as Horus.

The development of ancient Egypt

The civilization of Egypt obviously did not spring fully formed from the Nile mud; although the massive pyramids at Giza may appear to the uninitiated to have appeared out of nowhere, they were founded on thousands of years of cultural and technological development and experimentation. A separate essay covers ancient Egypt’s early development and dynasties.


Additional resources:

For instructors: related lesson plan on Art History Teaching Resources

An introduction to ancient Egypt from the British Museum

Egyptian art on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Amy Calvert, "Ancient Egypt, an introduction," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed May 29, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/ancient-egypt-an-introduction/.