Why Egypt?


The pyramids of Egypt are the greatest monuments the world has ever seen. The great  Pyramid, standing 480 feet or 146 m high, was for 4000 years the tallest building in the world. The Romans, for all their building prowess, never built anything anywhere near so high. The Mayan pyramids in Mexico were only half as tall. It was not until 1311 when a timber spire was erected over the central tower of Lincoln Cathedral that the height of the great Pyramid was surpassed. Yet the wooden spire of Lincoln Cathedral blew down 200 years later and has not been replaced.  Several other mediaeval cathedrals vied for the title of the tallest building, but it was not until the late 19th century that the Eiffel tower and the early skyscrapers began to exceed substantially the height of the great Pyramid.

Yet the pyramid is a strange building. The Pyramids represent an orgy of competitive building, each pharaoh aiming to build an even bigger pyramid than his predecessor. Each pyramid should be built within the lifetime of the pharaoh, so he could be entombed within it at his death. The orgy did not last long — the great pyramids were all built over a space of 200 years, and though the Egyptian civilisation continued another 2000 years, it never quite achieved the glory of that short initial burst.

Yet how and why did this society come about, and how was it able to build such structures? An easy answer is to say that it was  all done by slavery – this is the facile Marxist answer — but even if it was done by slavery, the organisation involved in feeding the workers and enabling them to cut and then transport so many blocks of stone so efficiently is clearly a masterpiece of organisation which is equally remarkable whether the work was actually done by slaves or whether it was done by a free workers. The answer to the big question is how an essentially barbarian society could be so successful — and so obsessed.

The answer must lie in the very structure of society.  Ancient Egypt saw monarchy pushed to extremes.  There was a sense that society depended on the pharaoh and the pharaoh was society and that if the pharaoh was successful and built great monuments, then society was successful too.

In our age of democracy it is difficult to understand a country that was so successful under an absolute monarchy. Sons often succeeded fathers with great success and the hereditary system worked: our own suspicions of family succession are perhaps overdone. But the success of Egypt lasted over 2000 years — one might almost say 3500 — whereas our own efforts of democracy have not yet lasted 100 years and had been interrupted by two world Wars: should we not admit that the Egyptian system was more successful?

The secret seems to lie in the unity of Egypt. We are so used to the idea of Egypt being obviously a single country lying along the length of the river Nile that it is hard to realise that throughout Egyptian history it was always thought of as being two countries. One country was lower Egypt, the rich agricultural land in the delta of the Nile, stretching up to the area of Memphis where the great pyramids were built. And then there was Upper Egypt, 300 miles to the south, centred around modern Luxor,  ancient Thebes, where the kings of the new Kingdom were buried in the Valley of the Kings. In prehistory the two halves were at war and the history of Egypt begins in the first dynasty with the unification of the country and conquest of the north by the South, by a pharaoh called Narmer or Menes –  who were possibly the same person.

Was there a “peace dividend” as a result? The term peace dividend is out of fashion among academics as it was a phrase coined by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to describe the peace dividend after the end of the Cold War. The classic peace dividend was in the Roman Empire when after the chaos of the two triumvirates,  Augustus established himself as Emperor and brought peace and prosperity to Rome that would  last a further four centuries:  was there a similar “peace dividend” in Egypt?

Certainly there were two intermediate periods when the unity fell apart, but in each case unity was re-established and the intermediate periods were seen as dark ages and periods of disgrace. Unity, and the peace dividend that went with it,  was seen to be due to having a strong king who united the two halves of a country and imposed peace, and thus it was vital to have a king as a god,  because it was he who was responsible for the unity, peace and prosperity.


We shall consider this in three sections.

Firstly after a short excursus on the History of Egypt as established by the Greek historian Manetho, we look at prehistory and how  the predynastic period was discovered by Flinders Petrie.

We then looked at the Age of the Pyramids

And finally we look, at present only briefly, at later Egypt and the glories of the New Kingdom. I take a look at the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten, and the new town he built at Amarna, and ask how far it differed from Roman towns. And then there is a particular look at how the economics worked in the village of the workmen building the tombs of the new Kingdom