Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
- Ancient Egypt, an introduction
- Ancient Egyptian chronology and historical framework
- Ancient Egyptian art
- Materials and techniques in ancient Egyptian art
- The mummification process
- Mummification and funeral rites
- Private tombs, portals to the afterlife
- Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs overview
- Creation myths and form(s) of the gods in ancient Egypt
- Egyptian deities
- Egyptian Social Organization—from the Pharaoh to the farmer (Part 1)
- Egyptian Social Organization—from the Pharaoh to the farmer (Part 2)
- Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Mortuary Texts
Ancient Egypt, an introduction
By Dr. Amy Calvert
View of the South Court after leaving the entrance colonnade, Step Pyramid of Djoser, Old Kingdom, c. 2675–2625 B.C.E., Saqqara, Egypt (photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)
Egypt’s impact on other cultures was undeniably immense. From the earliest periods of Predynastic Egypt, there is evidence of trade connections that extended as far east as the Indus Valley. These trade routes passed through the Near East, resulting in an early exchange of motifs and ideas between the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. brought even more active connections with Western Asia, including robust commercial and diplomatic relationships as well as a mutual exchange of imagery and concepts with cultures like the Assyrians and the Hittites. Lively interactions with the south contributed to dynamic cultures, such as the Kushites, who ruled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty and whose monuments displayed an innovative blend of local Nubian and pharaonic imagery.
Pyramids of Meroe, Northern Cemetery, Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (Sudan) (photo: UNESCO, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Rulers and the elite from Meroe, in modern Sudan, were buried in pyramid tombs for many centuries—with more than 200 having been identified, that country actually contains more pyramids within its borders than Egypt does. Egypt also provided some of the building blocks for the Aegean, Greek, and Roman cultures and, through them, influenced many aspects of Western tradition.
Today, Egyptian imagery, concepts, and perspectives are found everywhere; when you know what to look for, you will see them in architectural forms, on money, and in our day-to-day lives. Many cosmetic surgeons, for example, use the silhouette of Queen Nefertiti (whose name means “the beautiful one has come”) in their advertisements.
Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for more than 3,000 years and showed a stunning level of continuity. That is more than 15 times the age of the United States, and consider how often our culture shifts; as recently as 2003, there was no Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
While today we consider the Greco-Roman period to be in the distant past, it should be noted that is closer to our own time than it was to that of the construction of the pyramids of Giza. It took humans nearly 4,000 years to build something—anything—taller than the Great Pyramid. Contrast that span to modern times; we get excited when a record lasts longer than a decade.
Left: Palette of Narmer, c. 3000–2920 B.C.E. (photo: Nicolas Perrault III); right: Ramses III smiting at Medinet Habu, 1160 B.C.E. (photo: Terry Feuerborn, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Consistency and stability
Egypt’s stability is in stark contrast to the Ancient Near East of the same period, which endured an overlapping series of cultures and upheavals with amazing regularity. The earliest royal monuments, such as the Narmer Palette carved around 3100 B.C.E., display identical royal costumes and poses as those seen on later rulers, even Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors on their temples more than three millennia later.
This consistency and stability is closely linked with one of the central foundational concepts in the way ancient Egyptians saw the world around them. In their view, creation occurred when order triumphed over chaos and harnessed that amorphous power to bring the land of Egypt into existence. The perfect cosmic balance that resulted created the consistent cycles they saw in their natural world, such as the daily rising and setting of the sun and the Nile’s annual inundation. This divine order was known as ma’at—embodying truth, righteousness, justice, and cosmic law—and was eventually personified as a goddess. There was a perpetual struggle between ma’at and the chaos, known as isfet. From early in Egypt’s history, a primary role of the pharaoh was to be the champion of ma’at and preserve that cosmic order to help protect Egypt from the isfet that surrounded them. The ongoing preservation of ma’at was seen as fundamentally important and the drive to maintain that perfect cosmic balance permeated the culture on multiple levels.
A vast amount of Egyptian imagery, especially royal imagery that was governed by decorum (a sense of what was ‘appropriate’), remained extraordinarily consistent throughout its history. This is why, especially to the untrained eye, their art appears extremely static—and in terms of symbols, gestures, and the way the body is rendered, it was. It was intentional, as the consistency was the whole point. The Egyptians were well aware of their consistency, which they viewed as stability, divine balance, and clear evidence of ma’at and the correctness of their culture.
This consistency was also closely related to a fundamental belief that depictions had an impact beyond the image itself—tomb scenes of the deceased receiving food or temple scenes of the king performing perfect rituals for the gods were functionally causing those things to occur in the divine realm. If the image of the bread loaf was omitted from the deceased’s table, they had no bread in the afterlife; if the king was depicted with the incorrect ritual implement, the ritual was incorrect and could have dire consequences. This belief led to active resistance to change in codified depictions.
New Kingdom graffiti inside Step Pyramid complex (photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)
The earliest recorded “tourist graffiti” on the planet came from a visitor from the time of Ramses II, who left their appreciative mark at the already 1300-year-old site of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the earliest of the massive royal stone monuments. They were understandably impressed by the works of their ancestors and wrote of their desire to continue that ancient legacy.
Ancient Egypt map (underlying map © Google)
Egypt is a land of duality and cycles, both in topography and culture. The geography is almost entirely rugged, barren desert, except for an explosion of green that straddles either side of the Nile as it flows the length of the country. The river emerges from far to the south, deep in Africa, and empties into the Mediterranean sea in the north after spreading from a single channel into a fan-shaped system, known as a delta, in its northernmost section. The river valley is flanked by imposing cliffs of limestone and sandstone, with deposits of other, harder stones like granite and granodiorite being found in the area of Aswan to the south.
One of the reasons for the overall stability of Egyptian culture was that it was largely isolated by virtue of its geography. With high cliffs and expansive deserts bordering the east and west, the sea at the north, and a series of huge rapids in the Nile to the south (known as cataracts), the stretch of the river valley that gave rise to dynastic Egypt was quite closed off from the outside. Egypt was undoubtedly the “gift of the Nile,” as the Greek historian Herodotus famously wrote. The influence of this river on Egyptian culture and development cannot be overstated without its presence, the civilization would have been entirely different. The Nile provided not only a constant source of life-giving water, but created the fertile lands that fed the growth of this unique (and uniquely resilient) culture.
View from the Nile River looking towards the Valley of Kings, showing the sharp delineation between the lush fertile land and the barren desert. (photo: Norman Walsh, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Each year, fed by melting snow in the far-off headlands deep in Africa, the Nile overflowed its banks in an annual flood that covered the ground with rich, black silt and produced incredibly fertile fields. The Egyptians referred to this area as Kemet, the “Black Lands,” and contrasted this dense, dark soil against the Deshret, the “Red Lands” of the sterile desert; the line between these zones was (and in most cases still is) a literal line. The visual effect is stark, appearing almost artificial in its precision.
Time—cyclical and linear
The annual inundation of the Nile was also a reliable and measurable cycle that helped form their concept of the passage of time. In fact, the calendar we use today in the west is derived from one developed by the ancient Egyptians. They divided the year into 3 seasons: akhet (“inundation”), peret (“growing/emergence”), and shemw (“harvest”); each season was divided into four 30-day months.
Although this annual cycle, paired with the daily solar cycle that is so evident in the desert, led to a powerful drive to see the universe in terms of cyclical time, this idea existed simultaneously with the reality of linear time. These two concepts—the cyclical and the linear—came to be associated with two of their primary deities: Osiris, the eternal lord of the dead, and Ra, the sun god who was reborn with each dawn.
Bronze figure of Isis nursing Horus, c. 4th century–3rd century B.C.E., bronze, 23.6 cm high, Egypt (British Museum)
The pharaoh—not just a king
Rulers in Egypt were complex intermediaries that straddled the terrestrial and divine realms. They were, obviously, living humans, but upon accession to the throne, they also embodied the eternal office of kingship itself. The ka, or spirit, of kingship was often depicted as a separate entity standing behind the human ruler. This divine aspect of the office of kingship was what gave authority to the individual person who was the king. The living king was associated with the god Horus, the powerful, virile falcon-headed god who was believed to bestow the throne to the first human king.
Horus’s immensely important father, Osiris, was the lord of the underworld. One of the original divine rulers of Egypt, this deity embodied the promise of regeneration. Cruelly murdered by his brother Seth, the god of the chaotic desert, Osiris was revived through the potent magic of his wife Isis. Through her knowledge and skill, Osiris was able to sire the miraculous Horus, who avenged his father and threw his criminal uncle off the throne to take his rightful place.
Osiris became ruler of the realm of the dead, the eternal source of regeneration in the afterlife. Deceased kings were identified with this god, creating a cycle where the dead king fused with the divine ruler of the dead, and his successor “defeated” death to take his place on the throne as Horus.
The development of ancient Egypt
The civilization of Egypt obviously did not spring fully formed from the Nile mud; although the massive pyramids at Giza may appear to the uninitiated to have appeared out of nowhere, they were founded on thousands of years of cultural and technological development and experimentation.
Read a Reframing Art History chapter on the world of ancient Egypt.
Read a Reframing Art History chapter about Ancient Egyptian religious life and afterlife.
Essay by Dr. Amy Calvert
Want to join the conversation?
- Are there any names for any of the Predynastic cultures of Egypt?(4 votes)
- The Naqada I culture is active ca. 4000-3500 BCE, Naqada II ca. 3500-3200 BCE, Naqada III ca. 3200-3150 BCE. The latter phase is usually labeled as "Dynasty 0" or "Protodynastic", giving way to the First Dynasty when Narmer was king (see the Narmer palette). The Protodynastic phase(s) was one of growing political unification, and nascent state formation processes.(13 votes)
- Wasn't Narmer the 1st Egyptian pharaoh?(4 votes)
- Yes and no. Narmer is deemed the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty and is credited with unifying Upper and Lower Egypt. We can identify a series of earlier rulers belonging to the Predynastic period and assigned to "Dynasty 0".(8 votes)
- On paragraph 11, Isn't the sun god named Ra not Re?(5 votes)
- Vowels in hieroglyphics are tricky and many names can be found translated in multiple ways, depending on the date and source (eg. from a German scholar or an English scholar). I have seen the name Akhenaten written in about 6 different ways in the academic literature.(3 votes)
- how did Egypt gets it's name?(5 votes)
- How was the murder and resurrection of Osiris? There are multiple versions of it or only one?(4 votes)
- What exactly was the Egyptian view on the Afterlife?(2 votes)
- The Egyptians afterlife was very complex. Beliefs varied as time progressed, and many different views could be prevalent at one time. The common feature was a belief in the importance of the preservation of the body, and the ability to take worldly possessions into the afterlife.(4 votes)
- How did Ancient Greece and Rome come to find the Egyptian
Structures to begin with?By invasion or did they just stray across the path of an Egyptian building and took notes?(2 votes)
- First of all, there were active trade routes across the Mediterrenean sea, which fueled cultural exchanges, especially between Greece and Egypt. Then Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and later on the Romans conquerd Greece and Egypt, and were greatly influenced by these older cultures (Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit).(3 votes)
- What is the Egyptian Art?(1 vote)
- I'm not sure that I understand your question. Please read the next essay, "Egyptian Art" - that might help clarify.(3 votes)
- osiris became ruler of the realm of the dead(2 votes)
- what does per aA mean in the first paragraph of early development?(3 votes)
- first of all, per a A is the pronunciation of the original symbols used. I have no way of showing you the symbols.
per = house aA = great, big It means "Great House" or "Big House",and this refers to the pharaoh rather than the royal estate. The same way the "White House" can refer to the President of the United States.(3 votes)