Civilization means centralized government, secure borders, settled conditions, artistic accomplishment, technological know-how, permanent structures, extensive contacts abroad, an elaborate social hierarchy, all with confidence in one’s cultural identity. How did Egypt emerge as one of the first civilizations in the world, and did its lifestyle contribute to this process in any way?
Egypt as the First Civilization
Egypt was the first civilization as far as a civilization in the West was concerned. Not because of the absolute monarchy, gloomy emphasis upon death, the colossal labor expended on building the pyramids to protect the royal dead but because there was so much about Egyptian daily life, striking a familiar chord.
They were the first people to leave a record of their personal feelings, depict themselves relaxing, or because they were attentive to animals or believed that society only worked if everyone played their part.
The Gift of Nile
The Greek historian Herodotus described Egypt as, ‘the gift of the Nile’. The Nile rises in the highlands of East Africa but it was only its last 750 miles that constituted the ancient kingdom of Egypt, divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt described Southern Egypt from Wadi Halfa to Cairo. Lower Egypt described everything north of Cairo.
From June to September, the Nile flooded Egypt’s farmland, every year, causing agricultural labor to come to a standstill. However, the flooding also bought with its minerals and nutrients which helped fertilize the soil. No doubt, the Egyptians called their country Kemet or Black Land, in reference to the soil, as opposed to Deshret, a word for ‘desert’, meaning Red Land. There was fertile soil extending five miles either side of the riverbank. Once the waters of the Nile receded each year, it required organized labor to clear the broadband of silt that was left behind. The irrigation canals would be cleared out, the dikes rebuilt, and the land re-surveyed.
To accomplish those tasks, the administration conscripted a large labor force or corvée each year, although well-off people would get out of it by appointing a deputy to do the work on their behalf. Egypt was the gift of organized labor and the labor force was put to work during the flood season when men couldn’t work the land, transport, or carve stone for the pharaohs’ grandiose building projects. Until the early New Kingdom, around 1600 B.C., there was no wheeled transportation in Egypt and no horses. Travel on land was either on foot or by donkey, which meant that boats were preferred both for travel and for transporting goods. Since the prevailing winds which blew from the north, sails were used, going south against the current to row with the current going north.
Learn more about everyday life during the New Kingdom era.
Story of Ginger
At the British Museum, is the perfectly preserved body of a desiccated Egyptian male, who was buried directly in the sand approximately 3400 B.C., called Ginger because there were wisps of ginger-colored hair on his skull. He was buried in the fetal position with funerary gifts that were intended to serve him in the afterlife.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Egypt Through the Eyes of Herodotus
About more than two thousand years ago, Herodotus, one of the first westerners visited Egypt, also the first one to describe their practices. He stated that the manners and customs of the Egyptians were in most respects, the very opposite to those of other peoples. For example, the women went to the market to sell goods while the men stayed home to do the weaving. The Egyptians eased themselves inside their houses but ate out in the street.
Although Herodotus admired the Egyptians but regarded them as very odd. That’s because he looked at Egyptian culture from the perspective of a Greek. He did make some accurate observations though, noted that the Egyptians were excessively pious, that they always wore freshly laundered linen, practiced circumcision, and that their priests were shaven and detailed account of the mummification process.
History of Egypt
The earliest inhabitants of Egypt traced as far back as the early Paleolithic period, to around 200,000 B.C., although there was circumstantial evidence suggesting that Homo erectus passed through the country about 1.8 million years ago while migrating from East Africa to Europe and Asia. At the end of the last glacial period, about 20,000 years ago, Egypt was a grass-covered plain.
It was around this time that Egyptians began to establish temporary camps in the vicinity of the Nile. For thousands of years, life was static. Hunting and fishing were the sole means of survival, technical progress was limited to improvement in the manufacture of flint tools.
Learn more about the lives of an ordinary Egyptian family.
Around 6000 B.C. permanent settlements began to form along the Nile. Animal and plant domestication became the chief means of survival.
One of the cultures that flourished within this, Predynastic period, the period before the kings, was Badarian culture, named for the region of el-Badari, near Sohag, in Upper Egypt, although it also existed further south, at Hierakonpolis, and further east, at Wadi Hammamat, providing with the earliest Egyptian evidence for agriculture, sometime between 4400 and 4000 B.C.
Common Questions about Egyptian Civilization
Greek historian, Herodotus described Egypt as a place with customs, opposite of what other people had. For example, the women went to the market to sell goods while the men stayed home to do the weaving. He also made some accurate observations, that the Egyptians were excessively pious, practiced circumcision, and their priests were shaven.
Ginger was buried directly in the sand at approximately 3400 B.C. He was called Ginger because there were wisps of ginger-colored hair on his skull and was buried in the fetal position with funerary gifts that were intended to serve him in the afterlife.
Egypt was called Kemet or ‘Black Land’ before it was Egypt because the Nile flooded the farmland, bringing with it minerals and nutrients which helped fertilize the soil.
Egypt was the gift of the organized labor force that was put to work during the flood season when they couldn’t work the land, transport, or carve the stone for building projects. To accomplish the tasks during the flood season, the administration conscripted a large labor force or corvée each year.