'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

24 January 2011

Ancient Egyptians

The First Known Egyptian

It is assumed that modern man and his forbears had trekked through the lands of Egypt in the earliest of days, some hundreds of thousands of years ago, as he moved from Africa to other parts, but the first known, excavated Egyptian, a child, dates back to around 55,000 years before the Pharonic era. The Nile is always thought to be the cradle of much of civilisation, but evidence is being upturned of civilisations in what is now the Sahara which in times past was a lush and wet area that promoted earlier ideas of community, death ritual and religion and these migrated to the fertile Nile as the wetlands of the Sahara dried.

The First Known Brilliant Egyptian

Imhotep is the earliest identified great man in Ancient Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. He was High Priest of Ptah, scribe, vizier, philosopher, architect and master builder of the first monumental stone pyramid, and indeed the first great stone building on earth, at Saqqara for his king Djoser almost 5000 years ago in the Third Dynasty. 'First after the Pharaoh', he was later raised to the status of a demi-god and eventually a god some centuries later around 525 BCE and his popularity continued into the Greco/Roman times. Imhotep also studied astronomy and was renowned as a healer and could be considered the true founder of medicine. In fact he was later identified with the Roman god of Medicine, Asclepius.  His thoughts and writings on medicine etc. are known only through the records of others, as none of his original texts remain. As evidence of what we have lost, he was known to possess the wisdom to consult even more ancient texts as he carried out his research. This period of surge in invention developed under the rule of Djoser who was also the first Pharaoh to be recognised as a god. Click Pic on right

Egyptian Life

The Egyptians were highly skilled artists and craftsmen and proud in their work. Contrary to what is often promoted, the artists and builders were seldom slaves, but free and expert tradesmen. They lived in private homes in villages with their families, passed on family skills and even were known to stage industrial action like sit-ins and strikes (one being for the supply of makeup). They wore clothes of fine linen, usually a simple skirt and sandals for the men and the women often exposed their breasts. The weather was probably the main cause of various fashions and the number of clothing items worn at any time. Jewellery and makeup were popular and the black kohl which we often see outlining the eyes helped deflect the bright glare of the sun. Their diet was good and they ate breads of wheat and barley, figs, melons and fish and the upper classes ate beef and drank wine where as the poorer classes ate mostly pork and drank a thick beer. Music abounded, as did dance, and sport. The towns had laundry services, bakeries and one specialist village, now known as Deir el Medina associated with the Valley of the Kings construction, existed for around 500 years. It consisted of approximately 70 houses and the workmen had a ten day working week, but had rest days and public holidays. Here at Deir el Medina the population grew from around 250 upwards to 1000, but only a tenth of them were involved in construction and decoration of the tombs. The necropolis of the workmen has some tombs, which they would have built themselves, that were even more elaborate than that of the nobles. For the major works, like the Pyramids about 5000 artisans were involved and in turn many others up to 20,000 joined the monument construction forces as a sacred duty during the Nile inundation when farming was impossible. They had literature and several well known stories such as the story of Sinuhe survive to today. Marriage may have been the simple agreement of a couple to live together, but many documents refer to a formal divorce. The common folk were probably monogamous although polygamy was allowed in the later times, but this may have been restricted to the Royal family and certainly a poor man could not support more than one wife, even though many women had businesses of their own. The King would need to produce heirs and also wished to emulate the gods by marrying not only for love, but many had concubines and also married within the immediate family as well as forming other political unions that became necessary. The incestuous marriages such as the King with his daughter may have been necessary for filling religious positions like Gods-Wife, but intimacy remains conjecture.

The Spiritual Egyptian

The Egyptians were far from obsessed with death and valued life highly, but definitely everything they did in this world was guided by a belief in the underworld. The duty of the Pharaoh was to provide a link between the gods and the land. It was his responsibility to represent the gods and in fact was Horus on Earth.  He was responsible for all worship and the priests acted in his place as he could not provide and be present at all temples. The essence was to see that Ma'at that is harmony, justice and balance was present in the land. Through Ma'at came a good life for the land and for the individual and was necessary to be able to be judged worthy to enter the underworld after death. The common people usually had a personal shrine in their homes where a particular god may be honoured but the main ceremony was conducted in the temples where the priests carried out the duties in private. Offerings could be left in the forecourts by the people but the shrines hidden inside were not approached by the people. On great days such as the Opet Festival (above) however the god (statue) was often taken from its inner sanctuary and adorned with ribbons and carried on a barque through the streets by chanting priests. On such occasions the people could participate and on such holidays they were provided with beer and bread as part of the celebrations. 
The most popular image in Egypt is the Last Judgement, which is found in houses, tombs and temples. The dead person kneels before the gods, swears that he is not guilty and presents offerings to help in his trial. Anubus, god of tomb protection and mummification leads him to the Balance of Justice to weigh his heart against the guiding feather of Ma'at -representing truth. A heavy heart means he is guilty of not following a good life and a light heart means he was a good person . Thoth, the god of writing, records the result and if honourable, orders him to pass accompanied by Horus, the god of protection, who leads him to Paradise for eternity. He is introduced to Osiris, god of  the underworld, who possesses the authority to take and to punish. Behind him his wife Isis, goddess of love, and his sister Nephtis, goddess of magic and beauty.

Rosetta Stone Click Right
It is believed that writing was invented in the time of King Scorpion as a means of marking and recording trade goods by means of symbols on small tablets attached to jars and the like. From there it grew into a sophisticated and complex system of recording events, prayers and stories. To modern civilisation the meaning of these markings remained a mystery until the Rosetta Stone was found at el Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta in 1799. This now resides in the British Museum where I once saw it. It contains a decree issued in 196 BC on the anniversary of Ptolemy V and was written in Hieroglyphs, Demotic (a late cursive Egyptian script) and also Greek. This discovery eventually unlocked the mystery of the hieroglyphs. Jean-Francois Champollion (some call the father of Egyptology) made the translation breakthrough in 1822.  It is unfortunate that the piece displayed prominently just inside the door to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is but a copy. Hieroglyphs can represent a word, a phonetic letter, an explanation or expansion of adjoining symbols and although an alphabet of sorts exists it takes a lot more than that to understand the true meaning.

Click on the Egypt tag to call up all my pages on Egypt

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