It is not known whether Sumer or Egypt was the cradle of the most ancient civilization in the world. It is possible that the civilization that arose in northeast Africa, on the banks of the great Nile, was more ancient. In any case, there is no doubt that the centralized state arose here for the first time in world history.
The boundaries of ancient Egypt proper are sharply outlined by nature itself –
Below the first rapids, the Nile carried its waters strictly to the north along a narrow long valley (Upper Egypt), the width of which ranged from 1 to 20 km. Only two hundred kilometers from the mouth, where the river in ancient times branched into several branches, the valley expanded, forming the famous Nile Delta (Lower Egypt). The sources of the Nile, located thousands of kilometers from Egypt, were not known to the Egyptians, and it was there that one should look for the reasons for the peculiar water regime of the river, those of its features that over the millennia had a huge impact on many aspects of the life of the ancient inhabitants of the country. Two thousand kilometers south of the first Nile rapids, at the present capital of Sudan, Khartoum, two rivers connect – the White and Blue Nile.
The swift Blue Nile originates from the high-mountainous Ethiopian Lake Tana, towards it, through the chain of great lakes and the marshy plains of Central Africa, the calm, deep White Nile flows. In spring, when snow melts intensively in the mountains of Ethiopia, and in Tropical Africa in the midst of the rainy season, the rivers feeding the Nile simultaneously absorb a huge amount of excess water, carrying the smallest particles of eroded rocks and organic remains of lush tropical vegetation. In mid-July, the flood reaches the southern borders of Egypt. The flow of water, sometimes ten times higher than the usual rate, breaking through the throat of the first Nile rapids, gradually floods all of Egypt.
Flooding reaches its highest point in August-September, when the water level in the south of the country rises by 14 m, and in the north – 8-10 m above the normal level. In mid-November, a rapid decline in water begins, and the river re-enters its banks. During these four months, organic and mineral particles brought by the Nile are deposited in a thin layer on the space flooded during the flood period.
This sediment gradually created the Egyptian soil. All the soil in the country is of alluvial origin, the result of many thousands of years of river activity during the period of its annual floods. Both the narrow stone bed of the Upper Egyptian valley and the former sea bay of Lower Egypt are completely covered with a deep layer of river sediments – soft porous Nile silt. It is this very fertile, easy-to-cultivate soil that is the main wealth of the country, the source of its stable high yields. The wet, ready-to-plant soil of the Nile Valley shines like black varnish. Kemet, which means Black, called their country its ancient inhabitants, noting a very significant sign: in the harsh natural conditions of North Africa with its hot and dry climate, surrounded by waterless spaces of rocky-sandy deserts, only on the soil created and watered by the Nile, only on this alluvial black land, the very possibility of settling people appeared, the main source of existence of which was irrigation agriculture.
The floodplain of the Nile should have greeted the first people unfriendly: impassable thickets of Nile reeds – papyrus – and acacias along the banks, vast swamps of the low-lying Delta, clouds of insects, predatory animals and poisonous snakes of the surrounding deserts, many crocodiles and hippos in the river and, finally, the unbridled river itself , during the flood period, sweeping away everything in its path with a mighty stream. It is not surprising, therefore, that for the first time people settled in the valley itself only at the Neolithic stage, having already quite perfect stone tools and various production skills, and they came here under pressure from external conditions.
The climate of North Africa 10-12 thousand years ago was less arid than it is now. More recently, the melting of ice that covered part of Europe at the end of the Ice Age ended. Moist winds swept over North Africa, heavy rains fell, and in the place of the present deserts there was a savanna with a high grass cover, with a rich animal world. Hunting tribes, which were at the stage of the Mesolithic and early Neolithic, lived in the vastness of the present Sahara. They left us rock paintings depicting elephants, ostriches, giraffes, antelopes, buffaloes, dynamic scenes of hunting them. All these animals are not desert dwellers. The milder climate in the past is evidenced by the numerous wadis – dry river beds that once flowed into the Nile from the west and east.
By the 5th millennium BC. the influence of wet winds is weakened, a dry season sets in in North Africa, the level of groundwater goes down, the savannah is gradually turning into a desert. Meanwhile, some hunting tribes, taming animals, managed to become shepherds. The advancing dry land more and more forced these tribes to reach for the drying up tributaries of the Nile. It was along the wadi that numerous sites of tribes that were at the stage of the late Paleolithic were discovered.
The onset of the desert continued, the last Nile tributaries dried up, people were forced to approach closer and closer to the Nile itself. The Neolithic era (up to the 4th millennium BC) is associated with the emergence of shepherd tribes at the edge of the Nile Valley itself, with the acquisition of their first farming skills.
Archaeological excavations of settlements of the late Neolithic era, dating back to the 6th-4th millennium BC, show that their inhabitants already led a completely sedentary lifestyle, were engaged in agriculture (stone graters, wooden sickles with flint teeth-inserts, grains barley and two-grain wheat), cattle breeding (bones of bulls, rams, pigs were found), hunting, fishing, gathering. The inhabitants of these settlements, located, as a rule, on the edge of the valley, were still shy in front of the Nile and did not make attempts to curb the river.
With the advent of copper tools, with the entry into the Eneolithic era (copperstone age), people began a decisive attack on the Nile Valley. Over the millennia, the Nile created with its sediments higher banks than the level of the valley itself, therefore there was a natural slope from the coast to the edges of the valley, and the water after the flood did not immediately subside and spread along it by gravity. To curb the river, to make the flow of water controlled during the flood period, people strengthened the banks, erected coastal dams, poured transverse dams from the banks of the river to the foothills in order to retain water in the fields until the soil was sufficiently saturated with moisture, and suspended sludge will not settle on the fields. It also took a lot of effort to dig the drainage channels through which the remaining water in the fields was discharged into the Nile before sowing.
So in the first half of the 4th millennium BC. In ancient Egypt, a basin irrigation system was created, which became the basis of the country’s irrigation economy for many millennia, up to the first half of this century. The ancient irrigation system was closely related to the water regime of the Nile and ensured the cultivation of one crop per year, which ripened in the winter under local conditions (sowing began only in November, after the flood) and was harvested in early spring. Abundant and sustainable harvests were ensured by the fact that during the flood, the Egyptian soil annually restored its fertility, enriched with new deposits of silt, which, under the influence of solar heat, had the ability to release nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, which are so necessary for the future harvest. Consequently, the Egyptians did not have to worry about artificially maintaining the fertility of the soil, which did not need additional mineral or organic fertilizers. More importantly, the annual floods of the Nile discouraged soil salinization, which was a disaster in Mesopotamia. Therefore, in Egypt, the fertility of the land did not fall for millennia. The process of curbing the river, adapting it to the needs of people was long and covered, apparently, the entire 4th millennium BC.
Every collective of people, every tribe, who dared to descend into the Nile Valley and settle in it in the few elevated and flood-inaccessible places, immediately entered into heroic combat with nature. The gained experience and skills, purposeful organization, hard work of the whole tribe eventually brought success – a small part of the valley was mastered, a small autonomous irrigation system was created, the basis of the economic life of the collective that built it.
Probably, already in the process of the struggle for the creation of the irrigation system, serious changes took place in the social life of the tribal community, associated with a sharp change in living conditions, labor and organization of production in the specific conditions of the Nile Valley. We have almost no data about the events that took place and are forced to reconstruct them completely hypothetically.
In all likelihood, at this time there was a neighboring land community (in the historical period of Pharaonic Egypt, no clear traces of the existence of a rural community were found). The traditional functions of tribal leaders and priests also underwent changes – they were entrusted with the responsibility for organizing and managing a complex irrigation economy. Thus, economic levers of government were concentrated in the hands of the leaders and their inner circle. This inevitably should have led to the beginning of property stratification. The economically dominant group needed to create means to preserve the position in society that had developed in its favor, and such means of political domination over the overwhelming majority of members of the community, apparently, were already created at that time, which, naturally, from the very beginning should have left a certain imprint on the character the community itself. Thus, in the conditions of the creation of irrigation systems, a kind of community of people arises within the framework of a local irrigation economy, which is inherent in both the features of a neighboring land community and the features of a primary state formation. Traditionally, we call such public organizations by the Greek term nom .
Each independent nom had a territory that was bounded by the local irrigation system, and was a single economic entity, having its own administrative center – a walled city, the seat of the ruler of the nome and his entourage, there was also a temple of the local deity (it should be noted that this reconstruction made on the basis of later data – archaeologically pre-dynastic cities are practically unknown to us).
By the time the unified Egyptian state was formed, there were about forty such nomes. In the conditions of the narrow Upper Egyptian valley, each nome, located on the left or right bank of the Nile, came into contact with its southern and northern neighbors, while the nomes of Lower Egypt were often still isolated from each other by swamps.
The sources that have come down to us do not make it possible to sufficiently trace the history of the nomes to the emergence of united Egypt, which they became part of as local administrative and economic units, but retaining their identity and tendency to isolation over the centuries. Flat slate tablets covered with symbolic relief images of internecine wars have survived from those distant times. We see bloody battles on land and river, processions of prisoners tied with ropes, the hijacking of numerous herds of cattle, sheep, goats. In this long and bitter struggle, the strong nomes conquered their weaker neighbors. As a result of this struggle, both in Upper and Lower Egypt, large associations of nomes appeared, headed by the ruler of the strongest nome-winner. Of course, the peaceful annexation of individual nomes to their stronger neighbors is not excluded. In the end, somewhere in the second half of the 4th millennium BC. the nomes of the South and North of the country united into the Upper Egyptian and Lower Egyptian kingdoms. One of the southernmost nomes of Upper (Southern) Egypt with its center in Hierakonpolis united the Upper Egyptian nomes.
The following digression should be made here. Due to the fact that the ancient Egyptian writing (in contrast to the Mesopotamian cuneiform) does not convey vowels, scientists have to reconstruct the true ancient sounding of Egyptian words and proper names indirectly, mainly from the data that came through other writing systems about the later sounding of Egyptian proper names (II -I millennium BC). These reconstructions are still very unreliable; most Egyptologists continue to use conditional, knowingly inaccurate readings. These conditional readings give most of the Egyptian proper names in various books. Some names are given in the ancient Greek transcriptions that have come down to us, and some cities were left with the names that the Greeks gave them in the era of late antiquity, for example Memphis (in the conditional Egyptological reading of Men-nefer), Thebes (in the conditional Egyptological reading of Wasset), Butoh, Hierakonpolis, Heliopolis.
One of the nomes of the west of the Delta with the center in Butoh became the unifier of the North. The kings of the Upper Pshetsk kingdom wore a white headdress on their heads, the kings of the Lower Egyptian kingdom wore a red crown. With the creation of a unified Egypt, the double red and white crown of these kingdoms became a symbol of royal power until the end of ancient Egyptian history.
The history of these kingdoms is practically unknown; only a few dozen names, mostly Upper Egyptian, have survived to us. We also know little about the centuries-old bitter struggle of these kingdoms for hegemony in Egypt, in which the united and economically strong Upper Egypt won. It is believed that this happened at the end of the 4th millennium BC, but the earliest Egyptian chronology is still very unreliable.
With the help of individual nomes, and even larger associations, it was extremely difficult to maintain the entire irrigation economy of the country at the proper level, which consisted of small, unconnected or weakly connected irrigation systems. The merger of several nomes, and then the whole of Egypt into a single whole (achieved as a result of long, bloody wars) made it possible to improve irrigation systems, constantly and orderly repair them, expand canals and strengthen dams, jointly fight for the development of the swampy Delta and, in general, rationally use water Nile. Absolutely necessary for the further development of Egypt, these measures could be carried out only by the joint efforts of the whole country after the creation of a single centralized administrative administration.
Nature itself, as it were, made sure that Upper and Lower Egypt complemented each other economically. While the narrow Upper Egyptian valley was almost entirely used for arable land, and the areas for grazing livestock here were very limited, in the spacious Delta, large areas of land reclaimed from swamps could also be used as pastures. It was not without reason that there was a later confirmed practice of delivering Upper Egyptian cattle at a certain time of the year to the pastures of Lower Egypt, which became the center of Egyptian cattle breeding. Here, in the North, most of the Egyptian gardens and vineyards were located.
So by the end of the 4th millennium BC. the long so-called pre-dynastic period of Egyptian history, which lasted from the time of the appearance of the first agricultural cultures near the Nile Valley, to the achievement of state unity by the country, came to an end. It was in the pre-dynastic period that the foundation of the state was laid, the economic basis of which was the irrigation system of agriculture on the scale of the entire valley. By the end of the pre-dynastic period, the emergence of Egyptian writing, apparently originally brought about by the economic needs of the nascent state, also belongs. From this time begins the history of dynastic Egypt.
The people who mastered the Nile Valley and created a great original civilization in such a deep antiquity spoke the Egyptian language, which is now dead. The first written records in this language date back to the end of the pre-dynastic era, the last hieroglyphic inscription dates back to the 4th century. AD. It should be said that the late Egyptian (Coptic) language existed in Egypt along with Arabic in the Middle Ages, and in some areas survived until the beginning of modern times.
The old Egyptian language belonged to one of the African groups of the Afrasian, or Semitic-Hamitic, languages. However, a lot of indirect evidence suggests that the tribes that settled in the Nile Valley were not ethnically united and differed in their dialects. Naturally, over the course of many thousands of years of existence, ethnic heterogeneity was gradually smoothed out.
We know very well what the Egyptians of the dynastic period looked like. Many painted flat reliefs present them to us as people of medium height, broad-shouldered, slender, with black straight hair (often a wig). In accordance with tradition, the images of Egyptians – men are always painted in brick color, women – in yellowish. There are also numerous images of representatives of tribes and peoples with whom the inhabitants of the Nile Valley most often had to come across. We see:
Periodization of the history of dynastic Egypt from the semi-legendary king Menes to Alexander the Great, from about the XXX century. BC. until the end of the 4th century. BC, is closely related to the Manetho tradition. Manefon , a priest who lived in Egypt shortly after the campaigns of Alexander the Great, wrote a two-volume History of Egypt in Greek. Unfortunately, only excerpts from his work have survived, the earliest of which are found in the works of historians of the 1st century. AD But what has come down to us, often in a distorted form, is extremely important, since these are excerpts from the book of a person who described the great history of his country, based on well-accessible and already irretrievably lost original Egyptian documents.
Manetho divides the entire history of dynastic Egypt into three large periods – the Ancient, Middle and New Kingdoms. Each of the named kingdoms is divided into dynasties, ten for each kingdom, for a total of thirty dynasties. And if the Manetonian division of Egyptian history into three large periods actually reflects certain qualitative stages in the development of the country, then such a uniform distribution of dynasties by kingdoms seems conditional, and these dynasties themselves, as you can see, are very conditional formations.
Basically, the Manetho dynasty includes representatives of one reigning house, but quite often, apparently, it can contain several unrelated ruling houses, and once two royal brothers are attributed to two different dynasties. Despite this, science still adheres to the Manetonian dynastic tradition for convenience. Corrections were made to the stage periodization of the history of ancient Egypt – the first two Manetho dynasties were allocated to the Early Kingdom, and the last, starting from the XXI dynasty, to the Late Kingdom.
The Early Kingdom is the time of the reign of the I and II Manetho dynasties in Egypt, covering more than two hundred years in the history of dynastic Egypt (c. 3000-2800 BC).
Manetho considers the unifier of Egypt to be a king named Menes (Mina), the founder of the 1st dynasty. He can probably be identified with the king, who in the ancient Egyptian chronicle bears the throne name Hor-Aha (“Choir Fighter” ). However, he was not the first Upper Egyptian ruler to claim power in all of Egypt. The so-called palette of Narmer, one of the pre-dynastic rulers of Upper Egypt, found during the excavations of Hierakonpolis, tells in symbolic form about the victory of this king over the inhabitants of Lower Egypt. Narmer is represented on this relief tablet, during his triumph, crowned with the united crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Apparently, some of Narmer’s predecessors also claimed dominion over all of Egypt, while Menes headed the list of Egyptian kings, which has come down to us thanks to the work of Manetho, probably because it was with him that a strong chronicle tradition began in Egypt. But even under Menes, as well as under his predecessors and followers, the achieved unity of the country was not yet final. The conquered Lower Egypt did not want to admit defeat for a long time, and bloody military clashes took place there throughout almost the entire Early Kingdom.
The kings of the first two dynasties were most likely from the Upper Egyptian nome of Thinis, located in the middle of Upper Egypt. In Tinis, in the vicinity of Abydos, which in the future became famous as the center of veneration of the god of the dead Osiris, the tombs of the kings of the Early Kingdom – Jer, Semerkhet, Kaa and others were discovered during excavations. In the names of these kings, as well as in the name of the king Hor-Aha, the god in the form of a falcon was mentioned – Hor, the patron saint of most of the kings of the Early Kingdom.
The level of development of the productive forces of the then society can be judged by the instruments of production that have come down to us in abundance from early dynastic burials. These are primarily copper products – flat working axes, knives, adzes, harpoons, fish hooks, pitchforks, tips of wooden hoes; in addition, battle axes with rounded blades, daggers, bowls and vessels of various shapes.
But along with copper, many stone, especially flint tools and household items for various purposes were found. The burials also contained wooden tools, ivory products, ornaments from Egyptian faience (Egyptian faience is a special plastic mass that hardened during firing and acquired a vitreous surface, usually blue in color), various ceramic dishes made without the use of a potter’s wheel. In construction, mostly unfired brick and wood were used. The use of stone in construction was still very limited and was of an auxiliary nature (lintels, etc.).
So, Egypt of the Early Kingdom period lived in the Copper-Stone Age. But the country’s irrigation system was already created and constantly improved and expanded, which made it possible to take advantage of the natural conditions of the Nile Valley. All this contributed to the fact that at a still low technical level, a huge increase in labor productivity was achieved, primarily in agriculture, a surplus product appeared, therefore, the possibility of its appropriation arose with all the ensuing consequences.
The rapid progress of the country was also facilitated by the fact that the Egyptians found almost everything they needed for themselves either in the valley itself or in its immediate vicinity. Everywhere there were various types of stone, including soft, easy-to-work limestone. The acacia groves, which were still extensive at this time, provided timber for construction, some types of wood were delivered from Lebanon by sea, others were obtained from Central Africa. Thickets papyrus , which was widely used by the Egyptians both for the production of a kind of “paper” and for weaving papyrus vessels used in fishing and hunting waterfowl in the quiet backwaters of the Delta, were also an inexhaustible source of raw materials. Young shoots of papyrus were used for food. The Nile was famous for its abundance of fish, the staple non-vegetable food of ordinary Egyptians.
Copper, as in pre-dynastic times, the Egyptians mined in the mines of the Sinai Peninsula, gold – east of the valley, in the desert, and later – in the south, in Nile Ethiopia. There were also many imported minerals .
Of the cereals grown in Egypt during the Early, as well as the Old Kingdom, barley was the main crop, which over time began to be partially replaced by two-grain wheat. This type of wheat, otherwise emmer or spelled, is one of the oldest cultivated cereals, which was almost replaced later by more productive types of wheat. Cattle breeding was widely developed. Monuments testify to the existence of various breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs. Horticulture, horticulture, and viticulture are developing (especially intensively in the Delta). The canvases that have come down to us from the burials of that time testify to the development of flax growing and weaving. The Egyptians were also engaged in fishing, breeding waterfowl, and hunting.
The creation and consolidation of a single state is a complex and lengthy process, stretching out almost for the entire period of the Early Kingdom. The unification of Egypt, of course, could not fail to make significant changes in the structure of governing the country, governing the huge irrigation system of Egypt, the concern for expansion, improvement, the normal functioning of which lay with the tsarist administration.
The period of the Early Kingdom is the time of the formation of the general Egyptian state apparatus. The inscriptions of the I and II dynasties are replete with the names of many departments and positions that existed earlier or for the first time arising in connection with the complication of economic and administrative management, both in the center and in the nomes, throughout the entire Early Kingdom. These changes are connected, apparently, with the search for optimal forms of management, as well as accounting and distribution of produced material values.
Our knowledge of the social relations of the Egyptians during the Early Kingdom is very scarce and fragmentary. It is known that there was a large diversified royal economy , which included arable land and pastures, vineyards and orchards, food department, craft workshops and shipyards. Imprints of the seals of the royal economy of the 1st and 2nd dynasties have come down to us not only from the royal tombs, but also from the burials of the then nobles and numerous minor officials, who, apparently, received allowance from the royal economy.
It is natural to assume that in addition to the tsarist economy – the “king’s house” and the “queen’s house” – there should have been non-royal households. However, there is practically no information about them. But judging by the luxurious burials of the nobility for that time, not much different from the royal burials, this nobility, originating from the nomes and closely associated with them, retained great economic independence and probably still had significant inherited farms . We have no information about the people who worked in the royal economy and in the farms of the nobility, and the methods of exploiting the people involved in these farms, they will appear in a later period, already in the era of the Old Kingdom. An analysis of burials from the period of the I and II dynasties only allows us to draw a conclusion about a sharp property inequality in Egypt already at this early period of its social development: along with the rich burials of the nobility, more modest burials of people are known who probably occupied a certain position in the Egyptian administrative and economic apparatus. in the farms of the king and nobles. Very poor burials (just shallow pits at the edge of the desert) of the lower strata of Egyptian society were also discovered.
We also know little about the historical events of those distant centuries. The kings of the first two dynasties waged constant wars with the Libyan pastoralist tribes, capturing a lot of cattle, bringing prisoners to Egypt. The Egyptian army also appeared in the Sinai mountains, protecting the copper mines from the raids of the Near Asian shepherd tribes. The Egyptians also penetrate the first Nile rapids, into Nubia. But most of all information has come down to us about military clashes in Lower Egypt: the struggle with the rebellious and rebellious North continues until the end of the II dynasty.
Menes is also credited with the founding of the “White Walls” ( Memphis ) – a city that arose on the left bank of the Nile on the eve of Lower Egypt at the junction of its with Upper Egypt, – a fortress and stronghold of the southerners’ domination over the Delta. The internecine wars in the North ended with the final victory of the South under the king of the II Dynasty Hasekhemui , who brutally suppressed the last uprising in the Delta. Symbolically depicting his victory over Lower Egypt at the foot of his two statues, he brings to them the figures of the enemies who fell in this last battle – about 50 thousand northerners.
During the period of the Early Kingdom, some kind of intradynastic struggle also takes place, the external expression of which was the replacement in the throne of the name of the king of the god Horus, the divine patron of the kings of the Early Kingdom, by the god Seth – the eternal enemy of Horus. Then a temporary compromise was reached, and the names of Horus and Seth coexist in the throne name of one of the kings of the II dynasty. But later, Horus wins a complete victory over his opponent, and Seth is expelled from the throne royal name.
The defeat of the North and the end of dynastic strife led to the end of the II dynasty to the final unification of the country, which opened a new era in the history of Egypt – the era of the Old Kingdom. Memphis becomes the capital of a unified state. According to the most widespread opinion, one of the names of this city – Het-ka-Ptah, which means “Manor of the twin of Ptah” – the main god of the capital, – and ascends the Greek Ayguptos and our name of the country – Egypt. On our own behalf, we add, double (ka) – according to the ideas of the Egyptians, an exact copy of man and God, closely related to the images and living almost forever. The idea of a double gave rise to a huge number of wall and statue images in temples and tombs, which are the most important source for studying various aspects of the life of ancient Egypt.
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