Read The Super Summary of World History Online

Authors: Alan Dale Daniel

Tags: #History, #Europe, #World History, #Western, #World

The Super Summary of World History (9 page)

BOOK: The Super Summary of World History
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Figure 4 Egypt & the Middle East

Egypt
played an important role in ancient history, as it is one of the earliest highly developed civilizations. Egypt was an isolated area with harsh deserts to the west and east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the wilds of Africa to the south (here we note the importance of geography again). From about 4500 BC, the civilization along the Nile developed from farming communities to the empires of Upper and Lower Egypt. Around 3100 BC, an almost mythical ruler known as
Menes
conquered Upper and Lower Egypt founding the first of twenty-two dynasties to rule over Upper and Lower Egypt for
over
2,500
years.
The United States of America has been around about two hundred fifty years. An eye blink to the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptian rulers were
Pharaohs
, and the people considered the Pharaoh a god on earth.
[9]

Egyptian history is divided into three eras:
The
Old
Kingdom
(3000 to 2150 BC
),
the
Middle
Kingdom
(1975 to1630 BC), and the
New
Kingdom
(1550 to 1070 BC). After each of these kingdoms came a phase of unrest, or conquests, termed “
intermediate
periods
” after which the Egyptians restored their old way of life.

Great buildings recall the era of ancient Egypt. During the Old Kingdom the Pharaoh Khufu ordered the Great Pyramid
[10]
at Giza constructed around 2550 BC.
[11]
Even after the end of the New Kingdom in 1070 BC Egypt went on, although its power was significantly reduced. Still, Egypt’s great building projects continued. Pharaoh Necho II (610 to 595 BC) built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea to improve trade with the east. Actually, the “canal” had a few high and dry spots that required towing the boats across land (how would you like the job of pulling boats overland). Nonetheless, it was a great time saver, otherwise the circumnavigation of Africa was required to reach the Persian Gulf.

The Egyptians maintained a
stable
society
for thousands of years, and this stability was the hallmark of their culture. As the sky and the Nile were stable so was life in Egypt. The dynasties did change, and periodically invaders came from outside their land to harass and overcome them, but the Egyptians quickly (in historical terms) re-established their control and continued their old ways of life. Their art forms reflect this stability. The Egyptians established rather unique artistic methods, and painting or carving these highly stylized depictions of people and animals resisted change for over two thousand years. This kind of stability is remarkable, and it is what allowed such a grand culture to develop and sustain itself for thousands of years.

The Egyptians enjoyed a perfect setup in the Nile River Valley. The Nile River flooded dependably, and those yearly floods deposited rich silt upon a level floodplain on which the Egyptians planted their crops yielding wonderful amounts of grain that all but guaranteed a surplus year after year. The Egyptians developed extensive canal and irrigation systems off the Nile River. In addition, the isolation protected them from invaders, and consequently allowed them to avoid a standing army (during the Old Kingdom), thereby saving funds normally spent on military protection. Instead, they spent their surpluses on civic projects. For many years the only consistent threat to Egypt’s way of life came from the south—the kingdom of Nubia(also known as Kush). The Egyptians pushed south, past the great waterfalls of the upper Nile (cataracts), and established a series of impressive forts to protect their southern borders. For thousands of years these prevented incursions that would otherwise threaten the peace of the Nile Valley. The Nile River Valley and its surrounding area offered up riches beyond farming. From the area of Syene (Assuan) came gold, granite, sandstone, and copper; from Heliopolis limestone; from Hermopolis alabaster; from the Red Sea’s western coast granite, gold and emeralds; and from Sinai copper, garnet, and turquoise. These riches (and beer) allowed Egypt to build a large trading empire.

The Egyptians liked to study the world around them, especially the sky (well, it is a desert—what else can you look at after dark?). From these studies they developed sophisticated astronomical data and ideas about the afterlife that would deeply influence their civilization and others that would follow. Christian and Hebrew sacred texts feature Egypt prominently. These sources tell us how the Hebrews became slaves in Egypt, and then—around 1200 or 1300 BC—how the prophet Moses led them east, out of Egypt to Palestine
.
[12]
During the journey to their new homeland, Yahweh (God) presented the Hebrews with the Ten Commandants at Mount Sinai. God later gave the Torah to the Hebrews. These writings found their way into the Christian Bible as the first five books of the Old Testament. These five books help form the religious foundations of the Western World.

The Egyptians developed hieroglyphics, a form of writing using pictures and symbols for whole ideas rather than individual words or letters; thus, no alphabet was developed. Since each symbol or picture stood for an idea this made hieroglyphics exceptionally difficult to decipher (much like the written Chinese language).
[13]
The Egyptians also invented a simpler, faster way to write for everyday use, and that writing style eventually traveled to the land of
Phoenicia
transforming itself into an
alphabet
. To write upon something besides stone the Egyptians invented
papyrus
, an early form of paper. A lot of their records and day-to-day events were recorded on this medium which, unfortunately for us, deteriorates rapidly. As a result, countless Egyptian records were lost over time.

The gigantic pyramids and complex burial practices leave the impression that Egypt was a land seemingly living for the dead, but this is not the entire story. The Pyramids at Giza are immense stone monuments built to house dead Pharaohs (current theory). The Pharaohs wanted their tombs’ built out of exactly cut limestone stone blocks. Within the mountainous structures the ancient architects constructed passages leading to various chambers, one of which held the Pharaoh’s sarcophagus. The pyramids, along with the colossal and mysterious underground tombs in the
Valley
of
the
Kings,
tell us of a society focused on the afterlife, and willing to expend enormous resources to ensure safe passage of the Pharaoh into the heavens; however, this safe passage into the heavens had an earthly impact.
[14]
Ancient Egyptians believed in a balance between earth and heaven, and the tombs of their Pharaohs were designed to help maintain that balance in both realms. The Pharaoh’s passage to the stars helped maintain the critical heaven-earth balance that guarded against chaos. The old reborn Pharaoh in the heavens would continue the divine order there (or “maat”), and the new Pharaoh would maintain maat on earth. In times of chaos the Egyptians thought the heaven-earth maat was disturbed.

The pyramids of the Old and New Worlds had different construction methods and vastly different functions. The
Aztec
pyramids
in the New World were massive but rubble-filled construction, and only the structure’s exterior surface had cut stone. Atop the Aztec structures were temples where bloody sacrifices took place to honor and appease the gods; thus, the Meso-American pyramids were not tombs, rather they were places of slaughter where the living encountered a horrifying end to life. Aztec society required the victim’s heart be cut out, and while still beating, held up to the sun. The Aztecs thought blood alone fed the gods and prevented them from ruining the earth. The Aztecs seem to have inherited these beliefs from their predecessors.

In Mesopotamia, the pyramids were stepped structures constructed of sun-dried brick. Called
ziggurats
, the stepped construction method allowed tall and stable structures to ascend skyward, toward the desert sun. On top of their man-made mountains the priests of Mesopotamia performed rituals to appease and honor their somewhat fickle gods, trying to keep the gods tranquil and generous toward their people. Since the ziggurats were substitute mountains for ritual purposes there was no reason to bury people in them. Strangely enough, over time the bricks melted into the desert and today they look like small mountains. Along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers the inhabitants stuck with the ziggurat structure and the mountaintop idea, but the stepped construction’s influence on early Egypt may have been important because the first Egyptian temple structures were also stepped.

Egypt’s pyramids eschewed mountain top rituals; rather, they were both a tomb for their god on earth and a passageway for the Pharaoh to the heavens. For the Egyptians the pyramid connected earth and heaven. In Egyptian pyramids the stones inside and out were closely cut—so closely cut a playing card could not be slid between them. The outside surfaces of the three great pyramids at Giza were originally smooth and faced with white limestone so each would brilliantly reflect the desert sun. Inside the pyramid the Pharaoh rested in safety until securing passage to the sky and the world beyond, thereby ensuring a tranquil life to those remaining behind in Egypt. In a sense, while the Egyptian tombs focused on the afterlife they also focused on the present, because as order was maintained among the stars so order would be maintained on earth. Some commentators say the pyramid was an eternal life machine guiding Pharaoh’s journey to the stars.

Egyptians believed in life after death and judgment after death for one’s actions in life. Nonetheless, not everyone bought off on the Pharaohs being gods or on judgment after death, because the riches of the tombs were plundered on a regular basis. The problem was so severe a new underground burial location was constructed in the Valley of the Kings. Here the Egyptians created elaborate underground tombs rivaling the pyramids for spectacular construction. The Pharaohs entombed in this valley received extra protection from patrolling guards. In the end even this failed, and pillaging of the splendid underground tombs went on. Even so, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings are every bit as amazing as the oft-visited Great Pyramids. It was here that Carter found the now famous King Tut of Egypt.

The Egyptians may have constructed the Great Pyramids to conform to the stars in Orion’s belt, and they may have seen the Nile itself mirrored in the sky by the Milky Way’s band of stars crossing near the constellation of Orion. The ancient Egyptians still veil their secrets about why they placed the Giza Pyramids as they did. Strangely, the great pyramids on the Giza plateau contain no hieroglyphics or other writings inside. In addition, large boats are buried right beside the pyramids. Written records of how and why the great burial chambers were created are nowhere to be found. Modern scholars speculate on the methods of construction, and the experimenter’s mud ramps show practical ways to accomplish the task, but such experiments are not definitive. Much smaller pyramids contain pictures of pyramid building, but they show only small pyramids under construction. We cannot be certain of anything; not how, when, or even why Egyptians’ built the Giza pyramids leaving all our “facts” in the realm of speculation.
[15]
It is human nature to brag about deeds that stun the world. The missing writings deepen the Egyptian riddles, but the finely cut stone mountains stand with us still reminding us of Egypt’s remarkable stability.

Note that Egypt overcame at least two outside invasions during the intermediate periods, and then re-established their former way of life. Compare this to the fall of Rome where the Roman world totally disappeared. Why did Egypt eventually prevail over the invaders while the Romans did not?

Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, was the location of many a mighty empire. Mesopotamia was the centerpiece of the
Fertile
Crescent
area of the ancient world. The Fertile Crescent began at the Persian Gulf, continued up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, then turned south down the coast of the eastern Mediterranean and thence to the border of Egypt, thus forming a kind of crescent (Well, it does sound better than “the fertile upside down U”). In Mesopotamia the rivers flooded irregularly so life was a bit unsettled in the food category. In addition, the area is open for invasion from all sides, again showing the importance of geography. Perhaps the gods were thought to be capricious because of the unsettled nature of existence along the narrow corridor of urbanization. Nonetheless, great empires were common on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers because the soil was fertile and previous occupants constructed sophisticated irrigation systems.
[16]

BOOK: The Super Summary of World History
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