Monday, March 26, 2007

The Pharaoh Menkaure and His Queen. This statue from the Old Kingdom (Fourth Dynasty) is remarkable, not only for its artistic skill, but also for its intimacy. The couple is portrayed as affectionate equals, something that would have been virtually unthinkable in other ancient societies where the place of women was openly inferior.
Wood was the chief import. Egypt was self-sufficient in most other commodities, but the Nile val­ley contained few trees and those that existed were of species unsuitable for boat building or for the exquisite cabinetry favored by the royal court. Long before the First Dynasty, ships were sailing to Byblos on the coast of Lebanon and returning with cargos of rare timber. This trade probably was the primary vehicle for cultural and demographic contacts with Asia. The role of Egypt as a connecting link between Asia and Africa was reflected in the appearance of its people. In Upper Egypt, the predominant physical type was slender with dark skin and African features. The people of the delta were heavier, with broad skulls and lighter complexions that betrayed Asian or European origins. But representatives of both types were found everywhere, and the Egyptians as a whole seem to have been indifferent to racial or ethnic classifications. No apparent connection was made between rank and skin color. Immigrants from Palestine to the north and Nu­bia in the south were found in the army as well as in civilian society and often achieved high office. The Egyptian language, too, contained a mixture of African and Semitic elements. Women enjoyed considerable status. In art they were often, though not always, portrayed as equal to their husbands (see illustration 1.5). They could hold property, initiate divorce, and undertake contractual obligations in their own right. The women of the royal family owned vast estates and seem to have exerted an influence on politics. At least one queen ruled Old Kingdom Egypt in her own name, and two women ruled in the New Kingdom—Hatshepsut (c. 1503–1482 B.C.), who devoted her reign to the de­velopment of commerce and commissioned some of the finest monuments of Egyptian architecture, and Tawosre. But no evidence exists that women served as scribes or as officials in the royal administration. The absence of a legal code and the shortage of court records makes evaluating the true status of women in Egyptian society difficult, but several fac­tors seem to have operated in their behalf. The iden­tity of a child’s mother, not its father, established heredity, and the matrilineal inheritance of private property, a practice dating from predynastic times, was far more common in Egypt than in other parts of the ancient Near East. Attitudes may also have been affected by the respect accorded to women of the royal family.

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