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Ancient Egypt in the Bronze Age

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  • 0:04 The Benefits of the…
  • 3:42 Stoneworks of Egypt
  • 5:16 The Archaic Period
  • 6:39 The Old Kingdom
  • 7:26 The Middle Kingdom
  • 8:23 The New Kingdom
  • 10:40 The Fall of Egypt
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture first compares the natural features of the Nile valley to those of Mesopotamia, enumerating the advantages that geography offered the Egyptians. This is followed by a brief discussion of why Egyptian material culture survives while so much of Mesopotamian culture has been lost. The lecture ends with a a whirlwind tour through 3,000 years of Egyptian history broken up into traditional historical periods.

The Benefits of the Nile Valley

The Bronze Age saw the rise and spread of many civilizations. Yet of all the civilizations that rose and fell in the Bronze Age, Egypt remains the most enduring example and is considered by many to represent the apex of Bronze Age civilization.

To understand why the Egyptian legacy shines so brightly compared to the other civilizations of the time, we must first compare Mesopotamia to the Nile valley because, in all fairness, the Egyptians owe as much of their glory to geography as to anything else.

At the heart of Egyptian civilization lies the Nile. All of Egypt lies along the banks of the Nile. To the east and west lay only barren desert, impassable for armies of the time. Thus, Egypt had but two fronts to defend: the mouth of the Nile at the Mediterranean to the north and the upper reaches of the Nile valley to the south. Compare this to Mesopotamian culture, which was in danger of invasion from all directions. The natural protection of the Nile valley allowed Egyptian civilization to avoid the constant incursions that destroyed so many Mesopotamian cultures.

The Nile had only two points of entry for invaders.
Nile River Map

The Nile is also very different from the Tigris and Euphrates that fed Mesopotamian civilization. Where the Tigris and Euphrates flood chaotically, the Nile floods in a regular, predictable fashion. This predictability had two main results. First, it makes it much easier to plant and harvest according to a regular time table, allowing for reliable and bountiful harvests. Second, the predictability of the Nile allowed for central planning of agriculture to be very successful. This bolstered the credibility and power of centralized authority.

While Mesopotamian rulers were easily undermined, the priests and pharaohs of Egypt could predict, and therefore pretend to control, the very floods that made agriculture and life possible in the middle of a desert. It is no wonder, therefore, that Egyptian priests held incredible power and that the Pharaoh himself was considered a god.

This regular agricultural schedule might also provide the reason why the first calendars appeared in Egypt. By 4000 BCE, the Egyptians had already developed a calendar with 12 months of 30 days, with an extra five sacred days at the end of each year.

Thus, we see how the unique characteristics of the Nile valley protected Egypt, allowed it to thrive and encouraged centralized authority. Yet the gifts of the Nile to Egypt did not stop there.

Papyrus

Along the Nile, there grows a plant that grows nowhere else in the world, papyrus. As early as 3000 BCE, the Egyptians had discovered that the pith of this thin, reedy plant could be spread, flattened and dried to make a rudimentary sort of paper. While the Sumerians were busy poking sticks in clay tablets for millennia, the Egyptians were already using scrolls of papyrus to write. Records on Papyrus were lighter, easier to store and easier to make than clay tablets. This superior writing surface also allowed the Egyptians to retain their pictographic hieroglyphics long after the Sumerians had reduced their pictographs to the more abstract and standardized cuneiform. The superiority of papyrus was eventually recognized by the ancient world, and Egypt grew rich indeed on the export of paper.

The papyrus plant was used to make paper for Egyptian writings.
Papyrus Paper Example

Stoneworks of Egypt

Yet the main reason Egypt shines so brightly in the otherwise murky Bronze Age has less to do with what the Egyptians achieved and more to do with how well those achievements survived. As you may recall from a previous lecture, Bronze Age Mesopotamia did not just write on baked mud, they built with it. Since the Mesopotamians were building with mud brick, even their most magnificent architectural achievements were quickly reduced to shapeless mounds by erosion. As a result, Sumerian cultures spent a great deal of energy and resources constantly rebuilding their temples and palaces. By contrast, Egypt had plenty of stone at its disposal and made good use of it, ferrying it up and down the Nile to where it was needed. Stone allowed the Egyptians to build larger, stronger, enduring monuments that survive to this day. As an added bonus, once the Egyptians had built a temple, it was there forever, allowing them to move on to build another temple.

The Temple at Luxor was one of many temples built in ancient Egypt.
Temple at Luxor Picture

Even when they did not use stone, the arid climate of Egypt allowed Egyptian artifacts to survive, while Mesopotamian artifacts quickly rotted away. This abundance of textual and material remains provides archaeologists with an abundance of evidence to interpret. The relative stability of the region ensured an almost unbroken record spanning nearly 3,000 years, offering us the clearest glimpse we have into the Bronze Age world.

Six Periods of Egyptian History

The first 3,000 years of Egyptian history have been divided into six periods ruled over by a succession of 31 dynasties: the Archaic, the Old Kingdom (also known as the Pyramid Kingdom), the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, the Second Intermediate Period (also known as the Hyskos period) and the New Kingdom.

In the Archaic Period (3100-2700 BCE), the First and Second Dynasties unified the Nile valley to build the kingdom of Egypt and established Memphis as its capital. They dug canals, built roads and founded cities. These early pharaohs established centralized bureaucracies and administered them with a well-developed written language. They also centralized Egyptian religion, using a method called syncretism to combine opposing gods into a single deity. Syncretism allowed Egyptians to avoid the sort of religious conflicts that would plague their Mesopotamian neighbors. Egyptian religion was polytheistic, worshipping semi-anthropomorphic gods who often behaved like humans despite having the heads of animals. A powerful priestly class would ensure that these deities and their worship would remain mostly unchanged over the millennia. The efforts of the Old Kingdom pharaohs laid the groundwork for one of the longest-lasting civilizations in history.

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