CHAPTER 3.—THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
OF ALL THE great ancient civilizations, ancient Egypt is by far the most marketable. For this reason it demands a chapter near the front of any world history with any hopes of success.
In the beginning, Egypt was divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. If you look at a map of ancient Egypt, you will invariably find that Upper Egypt is shown at the bottom, and Lower Egypt at the top. Printing maps of Egypt upside-down is only one of the many childish little jokes historians perpetrate at our expense. Such behavior is certainly sophomoric and unprofessional, but the historians have such a strong union that nothing can be done about it. You may complain until you are blue in the face, and all you will get for your trouble is a rock through your window. It is better to join the historians’ union than to oppose it; then you will be permitted to make sophomoric and unprofessional jokes in your own histories. This is the course that Dr. Boli has chosen.
This division of Egypt into Upper and Lower continued long enough to become an ingrained part of Egyptian tradition, so that the pharaohs still styled themselves kings of Upper and Lower Egypt centuries after the union of the two parts. There is apparently something in human nature that cherishes such memories: the United States keeps similar administrative divisions alive today, long after it has become impossible to make any meaningful distinction between one Dakota and another.
According to the most reliable historians, the union of the two Egypts was accomplished by Menes, or by Narmer, who may have been the same as Menes, or may have been somebody else. So we can see how much stock we ought to put in the most reliable historians. This Narmer, or Menes, who was king of Upper Egypt (unless he was not), bought Lower Egypt at a sheriff’s sale in about 3150 B.C., and moved his capital there for the convenience of tourists on Mediterranean cruises.
Egyptologists divide the history of united Egypt into numbered dynasties. With the Third Dynasty begins a period known to Egyptologists as the Old Kingdom, in spite of the strikingly obvious fact that the First and Second Dynasties were older. Egyptologists are a bit odd that way. Perhaps they went into Egyptology because they knew they were hopeless at mathematics.
In the time of the Old Kingdom, Egypt was a marvel of organization. Nature herself was impeccably organized: the Nile rose and flooded the land at the same time every year, giving the otherwise arid region an abundant source of water and fertilizer, and making a prodigy of sagacity out of the priest who happened to remember that the Nile had flooded at about this time last year. Naturally the priest, who recognized job security when he saw it, gave the pharaoh credit for the beneficent flooding of the Nile, and everyone dutifully pretended to regard the pharaoh as a living god without whose intervention the flood would never have come. Probably the only one who actually believed all that claptrap was the pharaoh himself, but as long as everything was going smoothly the people were willing to humor him.
Aside from making sure that the flood took place as scheduled, the government of the Old Kingdom expended most of its prodigious talent for organization on moving blocks of stone from one place to another. “Leave no stone unturned” was the Egyptians’ motto in the Old Kingdom. Many of these stones were ultimately piled up into pyramids, which were the leading product of Old Kingdom industry for quite some time.
Of all the constructions of the ancient world, surely the pyramids of Egypt have inspired the most pure malarkey. How could the Egyptians possibly have built such stupendous structures? What marvelously advanced technology did they possess that subsequent generations have forgotten? Did they learn their pyramid-building skills from an unimaginably intelligent race of pyramid-building extraterrestrial beings?—These are questions that can be asked only by people who have never had to make piles of rocks. If you pour a load of gravel out of a dump truck, it forms itself into a rough pyramid. On the other hand, if you try to stack stones one directly on top of another straight up, the stack soon falls over. A day out in the sun piling up stones is all it takes to learn that the pyramid is the easiest way to build something tall out of stones without having the stones fall down on your head. The Egyptians built pyramids because they lacked the advanced technology necessary to build log cabins.
At any rate, the Old Kingdom eventually wore itself out with pyramid-building. There are only so many times you can drag most of the population out into the burning desert sun to build a tomb for the king before they begin to suspect that there must be an easier way to dispose of royalty, and perhaps even attempt a few experiments along those lines. One pyramid is an accomplishment of which the entire nation may justly feel proud; a dozen of the things begin to seem like a plague. Eventually the people began to long for public works that would be of equal benefit to everyone, such as museums of avant-garde installation art. It appears that, owing to a severe drought, the pharaoh may also have failed in his duty of flooding the Nile every year; and a pharaoh who fails in the one thing he is supposed to be good for is obviously no longer welcome. Discontent breeds instability, and the usual halfhearted attempts at reform only bring more instability. The government falls, and the proud pharaohs have nothing to show for all their egotism but a few monuments that will still be exciting the admiration of the world five thousand years in the future. So perhaps modesty is overrated.
There follows a period of “anarchy,” which is a term historians use when history has got unmanageably sloppy and they do not wish to sort it out. Then comes the Middle Kingdom; and if you have guessed by now that there is still one “kingdom” to go after that, then you may confidently award yourself a graduate degree in Egyptology.
The Middle Kingdom was full of memorable accomplishments, all of which we shall ignore in our haste to reach the New Kingdom, where all the most interesting characters live. At any rate, the Middle Kingdom fizzled out from the usual combination of drought and incompetence, perhaps aided by mysterious Asiatic invaders known to history as the Hyksos, about whom the less said the better.
Once the Hyksos and the other ingredients in the inter-kingdom anarchy were sorted out, the New Kingdom could get going in earnest. This was (as Dr. Boli has already mentioned) the era of memorable characters in Egyptian history. There was, for example, Ramses II, who littered the landscape with so many colossal statues of himself that he inspired the famous poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The point of the poem, of course, is that all who seek earthly immortality will eventually lie forgotten in the sand, in spite of all their boasting. Of course, in the case of Ramses, Shelley’s exquisite poem captured the imaginations of a generation of English readers to such an extent that it was probably the main inspiration for the English mania for Egyptology, making Ramses a permanent household name in the English-speaking world, and ensuring that his wonderful deeds would live on as long as the English language survives. It is, as Dr. Boli has often remarked, funny how these things work out.
Another memorable character was Akhenaten, the pharaoh whose attempt to promulgate monotheism threw all Egypt for a loop. The traditional Egyptian religion believed in a huge pantheon of gods, most of them depicted as human beings with animal heads, apparently on the assumption that the head was the most useless and unattractive part of the human being and would have to be replaced before divine perfection could be achieved. This army of gods required an equally enormous class of priests, whose influence could often counterbalance the power of the pharaoh himself. Akhenaten believed that there was only one god, the sun-god Aten. No doubt he was sincere in this belief, and it would thus be mere churlishness to point out that religious reform that deprived the meddling priestly class of their vast power was bound to appeal to an ambitious pharaoh. Akhenaten was also famous for having Nefertiti as his wife, so you certainly can’t say that he never accomplished anything.
By far the most famous of all the pharaohs, however, was Tutankhamun, whose great accomplishment was dying at a young age, and thus remaining so obscure that tomb-robbers of later generations simply forgot to plunder him. (The one early attempt at robbing his tomb seems to have been a bit of a fiasco, with the robbers accomplishing little more than a bit of redecorating before they had to flee for their lives.)
Like every pharaoh, Tutankhamun was buried with all the comforts of home. The man who said “you can’t take it with you” was banished from Egypt as a rank heretic. When Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922, the treasures found there captured the imagination of the world; and since that time, “King Tut” has been the face of ancient Egypt as far as the average educated citizen is concerned. How the ancient Egyptians would have laughed if they could have known! It is as if Gerald Ford were the only figure from American history to have made any impression on the popular mind.
Eventually the New Kingdom came to an end as well, and Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. His successors ruled until Cleopatra, the last of the pharaohs, bet on the wrong side in a Roman civil war, with the usual fatal results.—But these events belong properly to Roman history and English drama, and therefore lie outside the scope of this chapter. For our present purposes, Egyptian history may be regarded as peaking with Tutankhamun, the most marketable of all Egyptian kings. In either direction, it is all downhill from there.