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The Culture of Ancient Egypt

The Culture of Ancient Egypt

by John A. Wilson

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The story of Egypt is the story of history itself—the endless rise and fall, the life and death and life again of the eternal human effort to endure, enjoy, and understand the mystery of our universe. Emerging from the ancient mists of time, Egypt met the challenge of the mystery in a glorious evolution of religious, intellectual, and political institutions


The story of Egypt is the story of history itself—the endless rise and fall, the life and death and life again of the eternal human effort to endure, enjoy, and understand the mystery of our universe. Emerging from the ancient mists of time, Egypt met the challenge of the mystery in a glorious evolution of religious, intellectual, and political institutions and for two millenniums flourished with all the vigor that the human heart can invest in a social and cultural order. Then Egypt began to crumble into the desert sands and the waters of the Nile, and her remarkable achievements in civilization became her lingering epitaph. John A. Wilson has written a rich and interpretive biography of one of the greatest cultural periods in human experience. He answers—as best the modern Egyptologist can—the questions inevitably asked concerning the dissolution of Egypt's glory. Here is scholarship in its finest form, concerned with the humanity that has preceded us, and finding in man's past grandeur and failure much meaning for men of today.

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University of Chicago Press
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Phoenix Bks.
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5.32(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.75(d)

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The Culture of Ancient Egypt

By John A. Wilson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1951 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-90152-7



Geographic Factors of Egypt

Most visitors to Egypt are distinctly aware of the exceptional nature of climate and topography along the Nile. They have come from lands of normal rainfall, where meadows run from valley to hill without break and where the clouds may conceal the sun, moon, and stars for days on end. They have come from lands where the roads may run in any direction. Their expectations in terms of terrain or weather have allowed for a wide variety of chance: they have looked to all four directions of the compass; they may have experienced rain in March or August; they are uncertain about the weather for their week-end outing; they may have planted their crops in a riverside meadow or in a highland meadow. Now they find Egypt a land essentially rainless, confined closely to the banks of the Nile River, and thus restricted to a single north-and-south axis. They find the sharpest possible contrast between riverside meadow and highland desert (Fig. 1). That contrast between the fertile black land and the red desert sands is marked by a definite margin, which is the extreme limit to which the waters of the Nile may reach. It is possible to stand with one foot on the fruitful alluvial soil and one foot on the lifeless desert sands. As one looks inward toward the river valley, one is conscious of bustling and teeming life. As one looks outward toward the sandstone hills, one is aware of vast desolate stretches where no life is possible. Inevitably, the polarity of attention is the great muddy river which brings the life-giving water and soil. If the Nile were by some chance cut off, that soil would dry to dust and blow away. The land of Egypt would become a vast dry wadi of the great North African desert.

Because of this dramatic contrast between the desert and the sown, we all repeat Herodotus' observation that Egypt is the gift of the Nile. One is scarcely aware of the few little oases spotting the Libyan Desert. The Nile has come with pulsing prodigality out of equatorial Africa and the highlands of Abyssinia and has flung fabled riches across one of the world's poorest areas. Only that surging summer inundation of the River makes a land possible here, and the annual gifts of refreshing water and refertilizing soil in a semitropical climate give an agricultural richness which has been proverbial in all times. With the proper use of the soil, two or three crops a year are a happy expectation.

However, as one lives in Egypt, one is conscious that the Nile's gift lays heavy obligations upon the Egyptian peasant. The inundation rushes through the valley on its way to the sea. Unless its waters are captured and retained, the fertility of the soil will last for a few months only. In the spring one hears the ceaseless musical groaning of the water wheel bringing moisture up from deep wells; one sees the back of a peasant, bending and lifting all day long at the well sweep (Fig. 3b); one sees the heavy work of mending little water channels, which carry moisture off to the outlying fields. Incessant toil is the responsibility laid on the Egyptian peasant by the Nile's great gift. Without that labor to make the most lasting and economical use of the waters, Egypt would be a much narrower country, snatching at a single crop immediately after the inundation.

That observation leads us back into distant prehistoric times, in an attempt to imagine the valley of the Nile before man had developed any system of irrigation. Life then must have been concentrated even more closely at the margins of the River. Each summer the inundation must have rushed through without restraint, spreading thinly beyond the riverside marshes and draining off quickly. The red desert must have come down much closer toward the River, close to a thick, jungle-like tangle of marsh at the edge of the stream. The two banks must have been a thicket of reeds and brush, and the profusion of waterfowl and jungle fowl must have provided a happy hunting ground for the smaller animals. That this riverine jungle did exist before man drained the marshes and carried the water up toward the foot of the hills is evidenced by pictures of historic times (Fig. 2a). There, in scenes of hunting in the swamps, we see the vestiges of earlier conditions, with the tangle of reeds and brush and the swarming of game and fowl. The flora and fauna of Egypt down into historic times were much like the life now present in the southern Sudan. For example, the ibis and the papyrus, so symbolic of ancient Egypt, are now found in the jungle-like Nile reaches fifteen hundred miles to the south.

Thus earliest man in Egypt was trapped between the encroaching desert sands and the riotous riverine jungle. To gain any permanent foothold, he had to drain and root out the jungle, and he had annually to thrust and hold the water out against the greedy desert sands. This was hard work, and it probably was a slow, dogged effort covering thousands of years of prehistory. Indeed, we have no clear evidence of any really important irrigation, involving community effort on canals and catch basins, before historic times. Before then, one infers a clearing-out of swamps by an inching process. It is an inference that late prehistoric times saw major developments in irrigation—but only an inference. The supporting argument would run as follows: large-scale irrigation extended the arable land and produced the necessary food for a larger population and for that element of surplus which goes with civilized living; but large-scale irrigation requires a common effort, binding together different communities, and is a factor promoting the growth of a state; the visible elements of historic times argue that, for several centuries back, there must have been a widespread economy in the utilization of water, to make those historic factors possible. We shall return to this theme in the next chapter.

The Nile lays another obligation upon the Egyptian. The River is not precise in the timing of its inundation or in the volume of its waters. Man must be on the alert against its antic behavior. In particular, its volume is a matter of serious concern. Only a few inches of maximum height separate the normal Nile from famine or riotous destruction. In modern times, before the Assuan Dam was built, a high Nile at the First Cataract, rising 25 or 26 feet above a zero datum, meant a good, normal inundation, easily controlled and covering enough ground for bountiful crops. A high Nile which fell 30 inches below this normal meant insufficient crops and a pinched year. A drop of 60 inches—80 per cent of normal—meant a fatal famine, with starvation stalking the Egyptians for a year. Too high an inundation was also a peril. The levels of canals and protective dikes were fixed on the expectation of a good, normal flood; only a foot above normal would mean damage to the earth embankments; a 30-foot Nile—20 per cent above normal-would sweep away dikes and canal banks and bring the mud-brick villages tumbling down. The legend of the seven years of plenty and the seven lean years was no fantasy for Egypt; it was always a threatening possibility. The margin between abundant life and hollow death was a very narrow one. Constant vigilance against the antic behavior of the life-giving River was necessary, and only an orderly government could provide that vigilance for the entire land. Again the gift of the River imposed its hard obligations.

This was the setting in which the ancient Egyptian civilization flourished, and these were the incentives which led the Egyptians to struggle upward toward a fuller life based on the fertile potentiality of their soil. It was no warm and drowsy land of lotus-eaters. In Toynbee's terms of an environmental challenge and a human response, there were problems to be met progressively. The full potentiality of climate, water, and soil was a challenge which demanded long centuries of back-bending toil to drain the jungle marshes and reclaim the land nearest the River, then centuries of weary labor to carry the River water against the greedy desert by canals and catch basins. Thereby the ancient won great richness of crops, and these, in turn, set new challenges. How was the resultant large population to be organized, and how was the surplus of wealth to be applied? For the present our concern is to describe the geographic factors of the land and to suggest how they were conditioning factors. In the next chapter we shall take up the social and governmental responses which the ancients made to the challenges of greater population and wealth.

Another environmental factor which needs attention is the physical isolation of the land of Egypt. The Nile Valley was a tube, loosely sealed against important outside contact. To the west and east of the valley lay forbidding deserts, passable for small caravans of traders but insuperable barriers for any people coming in force. Along the northern frontiers the Sinai desert thinned out and weakened contact with Asia, while the Libyan coast provided a slightly greater potential of traffic for pastoral and nonaggressive peoples. Land communication east or west meant five to eight days of desert caravaning—across Sinai to Palestine, through the Wadi Hammamat to the Red Sea, or out to the nearest of the western oases.

There were also barriers to contact by water. Prehistoric man, with his flexible little boats and his lack of experience in navigation, would not venture across the Mediterranean in force. The Egyptians themselves built boats for the Nile River and adapted them inadequately for the sea. The earliest boats may well have hugged the coast for protection and direction. If that be true, the overseas communication between the Egyptian Delta and the Phoenician coast, instead of being four days' direct sailing, may have been twice as long. Contact with Crete presents a distinct problem, since a crossing between that island and Africa would require open seas. Possibly the Cretans themselves, living in the midst of the sea, were the first to open that contact. It still required four or more days' sailing.

To the south of Egypt proper there were also barriers. The First Cataract was not a serious obstacle, as it could easily be navigated or by-passed. However, the land south of the First Cataract is relatively inhospitable, with the desert cliffs cutting in close to the Nile and limiting the arable land to meager strips. No large and powerful culture was possible between the First and Third Cataracts. South of the Third Cataract the land opens out and provides wider fields and greater pasture land, but the Third Cataract itself, the Second Cataract, and the Nubian deserts were all serious obstacles to movement north and south. There was always the possibility of infiltration from the south, just as there was the possibility of infiltration from Libya or through Sinai. However, the elements which strained out these threats were strong, and a normal Egyptian government was able to handle the threats as a police problem. In earliest times Egypt was well sealed against invasion.

The many generalizations made in this book are subject to modification, exception, or different interpretation. The generalization that Egypt was secure against attack from outside is relative to time and place. There were periods in ancient history when the movements of peoples exerted such pressure that forces broke through the barriers of desert or sea. However, such great folk wanderings as the Hyksos movement or the Sea Peoples' attack come much later in Egyptian history; in earlier times the complacent sense of security was a dominant psychology. Further, there were parts of Egypt where infiltration might be a constant problem: at the First Cataract, at the northwestern frontier against the Libyans, or on the Suez frontier against the Asiatics. In those areas frontier police were necessary, and constant vigilance was an element of the psychology of the region.

Security from foreign threat is also relative in the comparison of different cultures. In contrast to their contemporary neighbors—the Mesopotamians, the Syro-Palestinians, or the Anatolians—the Egyptians were in a happy position of geographic isolation. It was not necessary for them to maintain major and constant force against attack. Any potential threat could be seen at a considerable distance, and it was unlikely that that threat would penetrate Egypt with damaging force. This relative sense of security bred in the ancient Egyptian an essential optimism about his career in this world and the next, and it permitted a marked element of individual freedom for the ordinary Egyptian. In contrast to his neighbors—the Babylonians and the Hebrews—the ancient Egyptian was not constrained to slavish obedience to authority, in the interests of the complete conformance of the community. His rules were general and well understood, but within those rules he enjoyed a relatively high degree of liberty to exercise his own personality. This freedom arose out of his basic confidence in himself and in his world, and this optimism, in turn, was possible because of his relatively high degree of geographic security. As we shall see in a subsequent chapter, when that sense of security was finally shaken, the entire attitude of the Egyptian was reversed, and the mailed hand of national demand closed down upon his optimism and his freedom. But that is a story of the end rather than of the beginning.

One must make a distinction between the sense of insecurity which arises out of the threat of invasion from abroad and the sense of insecurity which arises out of the possibility of a low Nile and famine conditions. The Egyptian did not have the first threat; the second threat was always a lurking possibility. However, that second threat was constantly countered by the hope and expectation that a year of low Nile might be followed by a year of good Nile. It was possible to face the low Nile by a cautious husbanding of Egyptian resources, in order to tide over the famine months of the year until another Nile came. Another Nile always came in its season. That element of periodicity of the life-bringing inundation strongly promoted the Egyptian sense of confidence. Every spring the River would shrink down into its bed and leave the fields to the fury of the hot desert winds—the invader from without—but every summer the Nile would surge again with floodwaters, lift high above its bed, and revive the fields with moisture and new soil. The Nile never refused its great task of revivification. In its periodicity it promoted the Egyptian's sense of confidence; in its rebirth it gave him a faith that he, too, would be victorious over death and go on into eternal life. True, the Nile might fall short of its full bounty for years of famine, but it never ceased altogether, and ultimately it always came back with full prodigality.

The reassuring periodicity of the River was supported by the periodicity of the sun. In a sky carrying few or no clouds, the sun sank into darkness every evening but surged back in power every morning. The Egyptian might be respectful of the sun's heat; he might be grateful for the cooling north wind or for cooling water; but he was happy in the warmth of the sun after the cool darkness of night. He stretched himself thankfully in the morning rays and observed that his animals did likewise. The grateful sense that daylight was the time of life and that night was a time of arrested life was marked in a land where the distinction between night and day came suddenly and clearly. The sun was the great governing factor of his day- by-day life. Its conquest of death every night and its brilliant rebirth every morning were factors of importance; they renewed the Egyptian's confidence that he, too, would conquer death, as did the sun and the Nile.

Let us look at the land of Egypt from a different viewpoint. Only one-thirtieth of the modern state of Egypt is black land, where man may live and plant crops; more than 95 per cent is barren desert. It is as if our entire Atlantic coast were a country, of which only the state of Maryland was habitable territory. At the present day, 99 per cent of Egypt's population lives on this one-thirtieth of the whole land. The density of habitation is more than twelve hundred to the square mile. This is nearly seven times the density of Maryland's population. Egypt is still agricultural, but it has an extraordinary concentration of population, so that the little agricultural towns lie close together and are packed with people. Except in the back districts, there is a kind of semi-urbanism, through the intensity of contacts.


Excerpted from The Culture of Ancient Egypt by John A. Wilson. Copyright © 1951 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

The late John A. Wilson was Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.

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