Monday, March 26, 2007

The Pharaohs

The restoration of a native dynasty in 1567 B.C. marked the beginning of the New Kingdom. A series of warlike pharaohs destroyed the capital of Kerma and briefly extended their authority to the banks of the Eu­phrates. Ramses II (1279–1213 B.C.), the ruler associ­ated with the Hebrew exodus, fought the Hittite empire to a truce. Ramses III remained strong enough to protect Egypt against the great population move­ments of the early twelfth century B.C. Thereafter, the power of the monarchy declined, perhaps because the imports of gold and silver that sustained its armies be­gan to shrink.
After 525 B.C. Egypt fell first to the Per­sians and then to the Macedonians of Alexander the Great. The society that survived these changes bore little resemblance to that of Mesopotamia. Its most unusual feature was the absolute power it accorded to the king, or pharaoh, a Middle Kingdom title meaning “great house.” His authority in life was absolute, though in practice he presumably would always act according to ma’at, a concept of justice or social order based on the balance or reconciliation of conflicting principles. The king could not therefore appear arbitrary or irresponsi­ble, and his actions were further limited by precedent, for Egyptian society was conservative. If ma’at were not preserved, dynasties could fall, but the historical cir­cumstances in which this took place are generally unknown. When the king died, his spirit or ka would take its place in the divine pantheon and become one with Osiris, god of the dead. This was the purpose of the pyramids, the largest of which were built at Giza by the Fourth Dynasty (2613–2494 B.C.) monarchs—Khufu (Cheops), Khafre, and Menkaure. Constructed of be­tween eighty million and one hundred million cubic feet of cut and fitted stone, these vast funeral monu­ments held the deceased ruler’s mortal remains and served as the center of a temple complex dedicated to his worship. Projects on this scale were a measure of the king’s wealth and power. Scholars believe that the taming of the Nile was achieved by workers conscripted and di­rected by early rulers in the common interest. This right to labor services was retained by later kings, and conscript labor rather than slaves probably built the pyramids as well as the massive fortifications con­structed in Upper Egypt to protect the kingdom from Nubian invasions. Similar works in the delta have been obliterated by shifts in the course of the river. Bureaucrats, with multiple titles and responsibili­ties, supervised the construction of pyramids and other public projects. Many of these people combined priestly, secular, and military offices, which suggests that managerial competence was valued above special­ized skills.
The establishment of a standing army during the Middle Kingdom encouraged the emergence of professional soldiers, but no military aristocracy ex­isted. Some high officials were royal relatives, while others were drawn from what may have been a hereditary caste of scribes and civil servants. All, like the laborers, were paid in food, drink, and various com­modities including gold, for the Egyptians did not coin money until long after the end of the New Kingdom. Pyramids after the Fourth Dynasty grew smaller and less expensive, but the Egyptian penchant for pub­lic works, temples, and funerary monuments continued until the Hellenistic era.
The Egyptians were superior craftsmen in stone and could convert even the hardest granites into works of art. As architects they seem to have invented post-and-lintel construction in masonry. Their temples, whether cut into the limestone cliffs of the Nile valley or freestanding, are graced with mag­nificent galleries and porticoes supported by stone columns, many of which were decorated or inscribed with writing. The Egyptians also built spacious palaces for the kings and their officials, but few palaces sur­vived the centuries intact. These projects could be seen as an appalling waste of resources, but they may have served a vital economic and social purpose. They certainly provided sustenance for thousands of workers, especially during the months of flood from July to November when the fields could not be worked. As such, they were an important mech­anism for the distribution and redistribution of wealth. Furthermore, by centralizing the direction of arts and crafts under royal patronage, the projects improved the quality of both and led to technological advances that might not otherwise have occurred.

No comments: