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 in this stupendous achievement came at a cost. For a generation, indeed for several generations, the whole population was devoted to building this useless tomb for just one man. Some were building the pyramid, quarrying the stone, transporting it to the site, then hauling it up the pyramid and placing it into position, but the rest of the population had the task of feeding and providing accommodation for the huge workforce involved. No doubt there was considerable satisfaction that came from participating in this stupendous project: but was it really worth it?
But how did Egypt reach the situation where one man could command this almighty effort by the whole population of the country? The story of predynastic Egypt, of Egypt before the pyramids, is a long story, spread over more than a thousand years, and we will unpick the story, step by step. But in Egypt, the tomb became the principal object of desire, and everyone who could afford it, spent their life preparing for their death, or as they saw it, for their afterlife. The pyramids dominate the Old Kingdom, and though new forms of tomb dominate later periods, they do so with almost equal extravagance.
Palaces, or indeed houses, are by contrast of lesser importance, or have survived less well. Instead the later periods saw magnificent temples to glorify the rulers and to some extent provide entertainment for the masses, and offer further evidence of what can be achieved when the whole population can be persuaded to work for one supreme ruler.
The other remarkable thing about the Egyptian civilisation, is its longevity. 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