Monday, March 26, 2007

Ancient Egypt

While the Sumerians were establishing themselves in Mesopotamia, another great civilization was develop­ing in the valley of the Nile. In central Africa, more than three thousand miles from the shores of the Mediterranean, streams running from a cluster of great lakes merge their waters to form the White Nile. The lakes serve as a reservoir, and the river’s volume remains constant with the seasons as it flows north to meet the Blue Nile at Khartoum. The Blue Nile is smaller than the White, but its sources are in the Ethiopian high­lands where the monsoon rains of June and the melting mountain snow become a torrent. This annual flood, which reaches the lower Nile valley in July or August, provides both the moisture and the rich layer of black silt that support Egyptian life. From the confluence of the two rivers, the Nile makes a wide sweep to the west before flowing north­ward through a valley more than 350 miles long but rarely more than ten miles wide.
The historic land of Egypt is a narrow well-watered passageway between the Mediterranean and the heart of Africa. To the west lies the vast emptiness of the Libyan desert; to the east, a line of parched and rugged hills mark the shores of the Red Sea. Open country is found only near the river’s mouth, a vast alluvial delta through which, in antiquity at least, seven main channels provided access to the Mediterranean. Summer temperatures in the valley are not as hot as those of Mesopotamia, but little or no rain falls and, without the river, life would be insupportable.
As in Mesopotamia, the key to Egyptian agriculture was the proper management of the annual flood. The Nile is more predictable and less violent than the Tigris or Euphrates, but the construction of levees, catch­ments, and an extensive network of ditches, was essen­tial both to protect settlements and to preserve water after the flood subsided in the fall. The high level of or­ganization needed for such tasks and for the preserva­tion and distribution of grain during the dry months may have been responsible for the centralized, hierar­chical character of ancient Egyptian society, but the point is arguable.
Little is known of politics before the advent of the First Dynasty around 3100 B.C.At that time, the kings of the First Dynasty or their immediate predecessors united the two lands of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt and laid the foundations of a political culture that would endure for nearly three millennia. The essential characteristics of Egyptian society were in place when the Third Dy­nasty assumed power in 2686 B.C. and began the Old Kingdom. The history of ancient Egypt is conventionally di­vided into three kingdoms and no fewer than twenty-six dynasties: the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 B.C.), the Middle Kingdom (2133–1786 B.C.), and the New Kingdom (1567–525 B.C.). The terms old, middle, and new do not necessarily reflect progress. Some of Egypt’s greatest achievements came during the predynastic pe­riod and the Old Kingdom. The Intermediate Periods between these kingdoms were troubled times during which provincial governors, known to the Greeks as nomarchs, increased their power at the expense of the central government. Eventually one would gain ascen­dancy over the others and establish a dynasty that served as the cornerstone of a new kingdom. The Old Kingdom ended when massive crop fail­ures coincided with the political collapse of the Sixth Dynasty. After an anarchic Intermediate Period of more than one-hundred years, Amenemhet I, the ruler of Thebes in Upper Egypt, reunited the country and estab­lished the Middle Kingdom.
During the Twelfth Dy­nasty (c. 1991–1786 B.C.), Egypt found itself under military pressure in both the north and south and, for the first time in its history, created a standing army. Ex­peditions into Palestine, Syria, and Libya helped to sta­bilize the north, while massive fortresses were built in Upper Egypt as protection against the growing power of Kerma, an expansionist state in what is now Sudan. The Middle Kingdom dissolved when a series of foreign dynasties known as the Hyksos supplanted the native Egyptian rulers. From the late eighteenth century B.C., Egypt’s wealth attracted an influx of immigrants from Israel and other parts of the Middle East. They came to power by infiltrating high office instead of by inva­sion, but their success was deeply resented.

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