Any discussion about Egypt seems doomed to begin by quoting an extremely banal sentence of the historian Herodotus, who called Egypt "the gift from the Nile." Actually, the Egypt that we know today is quite different from the swampy land with a tropical climate that was the typical habitat of that part of Africa until circa the year 4000 BC. It was under this climate, so different from the desert climate that will be the typical Egyptian one from the time of the pharaohs to the present, that the largest part of the history of this country, the so-called predynastic era, took place (the term predynastic means the time of history prior to the beginning of the pharaoh era, around 3100 BC).
It is important to note that the difference between predynastic and dynastic is basically a formal, political one. It is impossible, indeed, to tell prehistory from history in this way; the findings from the predynastic era include many jewels with pearls and ivory carvings, and at that time the Egyptians were masters in the art of carving stones, from alabaster to the very hard diorite (cf. for example Gardiner 1971). Even much of the religious iconography is present from very ancient times, for instance the cow-goddess with the solar disk between the horns; as we will see, astronomy was already present as well.
The drying of the Saharan zones took place progressively through the whole Neolithic Age, ending during the course of the fourth millennium. In the meanwhile, two states were created, one in Upper Egypt (the south) and the other in Lower Egypt (essentially the Nile's delta). Around the year 3000 BC those two reigns were unified under one ruler, a pharaoh possibly by the name of Narmer, with whom the dynastic history was to begin. The
G. Magli, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76566-2_4, 69 © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009
Figure 4.1: Map of Egypt subdivision of the following pharaohs into 30 dynasties is due to the Greek historian Maneton and is not free of gaps and inaccuracies, and does not always match the genealogical successions. Anyway, it is a scheme that was kept also by the modern historians and it thus has become of common use. Within this scheme the Egyptian history is usually divided in three large periods, the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, regarding which I will provide some information that will be needed later on.
In the first centuries of the Old Kingdom the structure of the state became very well defined: on top there was the pharaoh, the god-ruler who resides in the capital (Memphis, not far from the modern Cairo) and exerts absolute power, followed by castes of scribes, priests, and warriors. The efficiency of this organization is one of the basic elements that contributed to making the Old Kingdom, and in particular the short period of the fourth dynasty (circa 2600-2400 BC), the period of the human history when humans created the greatest architectonical constructions of all times. There is nothing, indeed, that can be even remotely compared to the pyramids of the fourth dynasty in Dashour and in Giza, which we will visit in detail in later chapters.
With the fifth dynasty, the pyramids became smaller and of lesser quality construction. Nevertheless, for the first time under the pharaoh Unas, the walls of the interior rooms started to be adorned with texts carved on the walls, the so-called Pyramid Texts, a collection of formulas meant to aid and accompany the departed during his voyage to the afterworld (they are of extreme importance for us; see Chapter 17). With the following dynasties there was what looks like a slow decay of the centralized power, which culminated in political fragmentation and anarchy (First Intermediate Period). The reasons of the collapse of the Old Kingdom are unclear. The country was again unified around the year 2040 BC by the pharaoh Mentuhotep when, formally, the Middle Kingdom began (circa 2040-1790 BC) with Thebes (today's Luxor) as the capital. The Middle Kingdom terminates with the 13th dynasty and the invasion of the country by the Hyksos. The regaining of the sovereignty, started in Thebes, happens with the 18th dynasty and the beginning of the New Kingdom (circa 1550-1150 BC).
During the period of the New Kingdom, Egypt expanded toward the south and, under Tuthmosis I, conquered Nubia. When Tuthmosis II died, his sister (and wife, as it often happened in the royal families) Hatshepsut acceded to the throne and reigned for 22 years. The royal architect Semnut built for the queen the grand funerary temple of Deir el-Bahari. Various pharaohs succeeded Hatshepsut, and Egypt expanded toward Palestine and Phoenicia (Tuthmosis III) and toward Mesopotamia (Tuthmosis IV). Amenophis III founded the Amun Temple in Thebes; his follower
Amenophis IV-Akhenaton reformed the religion into a monotheistic cult of the solar disk Aton and moved the capital to a new city named Tell el-Amarna. Right after that, however, Tutankhamen, the pharaoh who died extremely young and whose tomb was discovered almost untouched in the Valley of the Kings, moved the capital back to Thebes and returned to the old religion.
The following dynasties are marked by the greatness of two pharaohs, Seti I and his son Rameses II. To Seti I we owe the magnificent temple of Abydos, while Rameses II was a prolific builder. During his extremely long reign (which lasted probably 66 years), the temple of Dendera and the two large temples of Thebes—Luxor and Karnak—were refurbished and enlarged. In the western part of Thebes, Rameses II built the grand Ramesseum, and in Abu Simbel (not far from the border between Egypt and Sudan of today, in Nubia) the two temples that were excavated in the rock were both literally sliced and rebuilt on a higher ground when, in the 1960s, the Aswan Dam created Lake Nasser.
Rameses II was also the pharaoh of the war against the Hittites, which ended with the famous battle of Kadesh on the Orontis river. With the death of Rameses II a new phase of decline began. The proper end of the New Kingdom is usually identified as 1070 BC, but the independence of Egypt held quite a bit longer (Third Intermediate Period), until the arrival of the Persians in the year 525 BC.
During thousands of years, Egypt essentially kept many unitarian characteristics that made this civilization the longest lasting one in the history of mankind. Among the causes of this longevity one can include the solid structure of the state, a climate that was relatively constant, and the constant presence of an articulate religion, as witnessed by the many temples.
To understand the structure of the Egyptian religion, it is convenient to divide the complex Egyptian pantheon into different groups (cf. for example Donadoni 1975). A first group includes the divinities associated with the natural phenomena, led by Re (Ra), God of the Sun, sometimes worshiped also by the name of Re-Horakhty (Horus of the Horizon) and intimately connected with the figure of the pharaoh himself, and then Shu (the Air), Nut (the Sky), and Geb (the Earth). In the sky were also Sah and Sopdet (Sothis), respectively represented by the Orion constellation and by the star Sirius, and considered celestial counterparts of Isis and Osiris (see below). A second group included the divinities associated, at least initially, with specific geographic regions, such as the Crocodile God Sobek (Kom Ombo), the God Montu (then substituted by Ammon [Thebes]), the Cow-Goddess (Dendera), and so forth. From the western Delta of the Nile come instead the falcon Sopdu and Seth. A third group of divinities is associated with the afterworld: Anubis, the god of the mummification procedures; Osiris, the god of afterlife, whose cult was extremely popular and spread all over Egypt; and Ptah, a Creator God of ancestral type associated with the funerary cult during the New Kingdom. Because many divinities covered many similar tasks in different regions of the country, a gradual relocation grouped them either into families, composed by father, mother, and son, or by identification. In this way, for instance, Ammon and Ra became Ammon-Ra, Atum and Ra became Ra-Atum, and so on. It is necessary to add to this scheme the divinities associated with animals, such as the bull Api of Memphis, and the cult of some special objects, such as the Ben-Ben stone, worshiped in Heliopolis.
Finally, the ruler credited himself as a god, always the same one, named Horus, reincarnated each time in the new pharaoh. As a living god he was also the supreme priest, the contact point between the human and the divine, and responsible for the order of things, the cosmic order or Maat. The pharaoh symbolically renewed his rights of the reign with a celebration called heb sed, which ended with a (perhaps symbolic) race with the sacred bull called Api. It appears to have been a long-run celebration, occurring perhaps every thirty years, even if there have been many exceptions to this rule (for instance, Amenhotep III celebrated two festivals shortly after the first one). One thing is certain: the celebration was very ancient and it already existed at the time of the first dynasties; it would be interesting to establish if the origin of the cycle of thirty year had an astronomical reason, something that, as far as I know, no one has yet investigated.
The most complete documentation of the religious aspect of the life in Egypt comes from the cult of the dead. In the Old Kingdom, life in the afterworld is basically reserved for the pharaohs for whom the pyramids were built, rigorously on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun sets. This bank was reserved for the dead, as will be the royal tombs in Thebes in the New Kingdom. As time went by, the need to control the ever larger territories made the local authorities gain more and more power, including the sacerdotal duties. As a consequence, autonomous necropolises appeared together with large templar complexes. Thanks to royal donations, those temples accumulated territories of their own and became places of power that managed both humans and farming fields. This process, which had already started toward the end of the Old Kingdom, will then continue through the whole history of Egypt.
In the Old Kingdom, life in the afterworld was thus reserved for the Pharaohs, and the people of the higher social classes tried to share such a destiny by being buried in tombs, today called mastabas, next to the pharaoh's pyramid. During the Middle Kingdom the possibility of a life in the afterworld spread to priests and high state officials, so that texts regarding the rebirth, similar to the Pyramids Texts, were carved on the internal sides of their coffins. Finally, during the New Kingdom, the texts meant to accompany the departed were written on the walls of the tombs and on papyri (Bresciani 2001). Among those texts, the most important one is the Amduat (the book of what is in the afterworld), which documents the voyage of the Sun God into the 12 divisions of the Reign of the Dead, corresponding to the 12 hours of the night (see below). Similar to the Amduat are the Book of the Gates, in which the 12 divisions are associated with 12 doors or gates to cross; the Book of the Caves, in which the afterworld is divided in six parts; and the Book of the Earth. The ancient formulas of the Pyramids Texts and of the Coffins Texts, instead, merge in the Book of the Dead.
All these texts were somehow meant to guide the soul in the afterworld. It is, nevertheless, difficult to explain the various types of souls that the ancient Egyptians believed to exist. Indeed, the body (Khat) was just one of many, and not just two, parts of the human being, and the meaning of the remaining spirit-parts is far from having being completely understood. First there was the Ka (the "double"), which was independent from the body and could be "transferred" elsewhere, in a statue for instance. Then there were the Ba, a kind of bird-soul, meant to feed the dead and female partner of Ra on the solar boat; the Khaibit, or shadow-soul; the Akho, or immortal soul, destined to ascend to the heavens; the Sahu, a kind of spiritual incorruptible body that one could obtain by undergoing the judgment of Osiris; the Sekhem, or vital force; the Ab, meaning the heart, destined to be weighed during the judgment of the dead and possibly eaten by the god Ammut if the actions in life were found unworthy; and finally the Ren, the true name, to be kept secret to avoid magic spells.
In this way, the afterlife of those who would have managed to pass the tests of the afterworld and the judgment of Osiris was going to be quite hectic: Khat and Ka in the tomb; Ba with Ra on the solar boat; and Akhu, as we will see later, together with the gods in the region of the northern stars. The necessary condition, though, was the perfect preservation of the body, obtained through mummification, a procedure linked to many ceremonies. Perhaps the most important one was the so-called Opening of the Mouth. It seems that this ceremony was initially conceived of as a ritual to allow the statue of the dead to "receive'' the Ka as a guest and also the food offerings for it. The statue was situated in the Serdab, a special room in the tomb. There is evidence that this ritual already existed in the first dynasties and it is also mentioned in the Pyramids Texts. From the scenes of the tomb of a royal officer, Metjen, and from the texts it appears that the ritual was performed by touching four times the mouth of the deceased, first with the fingers of the officer and then with some special instrument. One instrument was the foreleg of a bull (perhaps made of wood) and another one was a curved ax with the same shape but with an iron blade.
The techniques for iron extraction in Egypt became of use some 1500 years after the Old Kingdom; therefore, at first glance the use of this material looks puzzling. Actually the iron used in the Old Kingdom was meteoritic, meaning that it was not extracted but was directly available in small quantities that fell on Earth in the form of meteorites. The meteorites, being fragments of comets or of very small planets that disintegrate, can indeed be of two kinds: stone meteorites (the vast majority), or iron meteorites (made of iron and nickel). The arrival of these latter objects, in flames and accompanied by a thundering noise, was interpreted as a celestial message, to the point that the iron, called bija in the Pyramids Texts, was the material in which the bones of the dead pharaoh were supposed to turn into; it may be that the whole celestial sphere was thought to be made of the same material. The iron meteorites are usually in the shape of a cone, and it is likely that the Ben-Ben stone, worshiped in Heliopolis, which was exactly in this shape, was an iron meteorite.
Another instrument used during the rituals was a kind of knife with two blades, in the shape of a swallow tail, called psh-kef, already present in predynastic tombs. Complete sets to perform the Opening of the Mouth ritual have been found, and can be seen in the Cairo National Museum. They are limestone boxes with separate spaces for two iron blades, one psh-kef, two small bottles, and four small chalices. The ritual remained in use also during the Middle and New kingdoms, becoming, however, one of the main operations to be performed directly on the mummy of the dead and not on his statue. One of the most famous depictions of the ceremony is that appearing on the fresco of Tutankhamen's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In the scene, the priest Ay is depicted while he is opening the mouth of the pharaoh's mummy, granting him, in this way, the celestial life and legitimating, founding, at the same time his own temporal power as successor.
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