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.
In any consideration of the ancient empires, Egypt must be among the most important. On the one hand we cannot but admire the amazing efficiency that must underlie the building of the Great Pyramid, not just in quarrying the stone, transporting it to the site, then hauling it up the pyramid and placing it into position, but also the task of feeding and providing accommodation for the huge workforce involved. On the other hand, as good democrats we must be appalled that all this was done to the glorification of just one man: the Pharaoh. Just how did this come about?
There are many reasons to study Ancient Egypt. The first is the very obvious achievements, notably the great pyramids. These have proved remarkably durable. The outer casing has indeed in most places been removed, but the blocks themselves are too tightly knit to be susceptible to removal. In 1196 AD, Othman, the son of Saladin, did indeed attack the smallest of the three Great Pyramids and set 800 men to destroy this iniquity. They made a great gash in the side of the pyramid which is still visible, but the pyramid still stands.
Secondly the outline of the history is well known. From an early stage the society was literate and following the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, we can read their records. In the 3rd century BC the history of Egypt was written by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who could read the hieroglyphs but who wrote a history in Greek. He divided the history up into 30 dynasties beginning with the unification of Egypt in Dynasty 1 in around 3,100 BC and running through to his own time, the 30th dynasty in 330 BC. His work is now lost but his list of dynasties was preserved by Eusebius and others and forms a firm basis for our chronology of Egypt.
Then too there are the wonderful preservative qualities of the Egyptian climate. Above the level of the inundation of the Nile, the dry desert conditions mean that preservation, particularly of wood is outstanding — to the delight of archaeologists.
There are nevertheless certain problems presented by Egypt in the study of the workings of the ancient empires. For one thing there is distinct paucity of palaces. Palaces are surely the centre point of these ancient empires, where the ruler makes all the decisions, the places where tribute comes in and where gifts may sometimes come out. They are the centre point of the ancient economy. Yet in Egypt palaces are little known. There is one big exception in the palace, or rather town of Amarna, the town built by the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton in the 13th century BC and then abandoned at his death, and thus well preserved. But only the outline is known of the great palace at Thebes, and no complete palace has been found elsewhere.
To some extent the role of the palace is complemented by the role of the temple. We should not think of temples so much as being a sort of primitive church, but rather as semi independent institutions, running alongside the royal economy. The great thing about temples was they were tax exempt, indeed often set up almost as tax havens, rather like the monasteries of medieval England. But this meant that they did not have to pay taxes to the pharaoh, but rather formed a rival economy with huge granaries and storehouses attached – the mark of the gift exchange economy. Temples need to be examined closely.
But if palaces are in short supply, tombs are there in abundance. The Egyptians were obsessed by death. Egypt was a society where one lived for one’s death, and you spent much of your life preparing the tomb in which you hope to spend eternity. Today, many people find this rather off-putting and Egyptologists tend to be a rather special branch of archaeology separated off from the archaeology mainstream: outsiders enter at their peril! But it does mean that the tombs out in the desert form a treasure house of well preserved objects, which means that there are rather a lot of Egyptian objects to fill the museums of the world and form objects of study for the archaeologist.
Finally, there is one further reason why those who wish to study the life and death of civilisations should study Egypt: it was very long lived. The pyramids represent a huge outburst of energy at the beginning of the Egyptian civilisation, yet the Egyptian civilisation continued as a great empire for another 2,000 years, through the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. And even when Egypt lost its independence and was ruled by others – the Persians, Greeks and Romans, it still maintained its distinctive character for another millennium and a half, until it was snuffed out by the rising tide of Islam. Only the Chinese Empire can begin to compare with this remarkable longevity. Our own civilisation in the West has only lasted for 200 or at the most 500 years since the Renaissance. If we want our civilisation to endure, we should examine the success of ancient Egypt.
On to Predynastic Egypt