An Experiment

Thousands of years before the city of Rome was ringed with its six miles of stone wall, other peoples in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa were building civilizations. New techniques of excavation, identification and preservation, subsidized by an increasingly affluent human society, and developed during the past two centuries of archeological research have provided the needed means and manpower. The result is an imposing number of long buried building sites with their accompanying artifacts. Still more important are the records written in long forgotten languages on stone, clay tablets, metal, wood and paper. These remnants and records, left by extinguished civilizations, do not tell us all we wish to know, but they do provide the materials which enable us to reconstruct, at least in part, the lives of our civilized predecessors.
Extensive in time and massive in the volume of their architecture are the remains of Egyptian civilization. The earliest of these fragments date back for more than six thousand years.
The seat of Egyptian civilization was the Nile Valley and its estuary built out into the Mediterranean Sea from the debris of disintegrating African mountains. Annual floods left their silt deposits to deepen the soil along the lower reaches of the river. River water, impounded for the purpose, provided the means of irrigating an all but rainless desert countryside. Skillful engineering drained the swamps, adding to the cultivable area of a narrow valley cut by the river through jagged barren hills. Deserts on both sides of the Nile protected the valley against aggressors and migrants. Within this sanctuary the Egyptians built a civilization that lasted, with a minor break, for some 3,000 years.
Egyptian temples and tombs carry records chiseled and painted on hard stone, which throw light on the life and times of upper-class Egyptians, including emperors, provincial governors, courtiers, generals, merchants, provincial organizers. In a humid, temperate climate these stone-cut and painted records would have been eroded, overgrown and obliterated long ago. In the dry desert air of North Africa they have preserved their identity through the centuries.
Since the Egyptians had a few draft animals, and little if any power-driven machinery, energy needed to build massive stone temples, tombs and other public structures must have been supplied by the forced labor of Egyptians, their serfs and slaves.
Egypt‘s history dawns on a well-organized society: The Old Kingdom, based on the productivity of the narrow, lush Nile Valley. The products of the Valley were sufficient to maintain a large population of cultivators: some slave, some forced labor, about which we have little knowledge; a bureaucracy, headed by a supreme ruler whose declared divinity was one of the chief stabilizing forces of the society. Between its agricultural base and its ruling monarch, the Old Kingdom had a substantial middle class which procured the wood, stone, metals and other materials needed in construction; a corps of engineers, technicians and skilled workers, and a substantial mass of humanity which provided the energy needed to erect the temples, monuments and other remains which testify to the political, economic, and cultural competence of the ruling elements and the technical skills present in the Old Kingdom.
Foremost among the factors responsible for the success of the Old Kingdom was the close partnership between the “lords temporal” and the “lords spiritual”—the state and the church. The state consisted of a highly centralized monarchy ruled by a Pharoah who personified temporal authority. This authority was strengthened because it represented a consensus of the many gods recognized and worshiped by the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom. The monarch was also looked upon as an embodiment of divinity. Some Egyptian pharoahs had been priests who became rulers. Others had been rulers who became priests. The two aspects of public life—political and religious—were closely interrelated.
In theory the land of Egypt was the property of the Pharoah. Foreign trade was a state monopoly. In practice the ownership and use of land were shared with the temples and with those members of the nobility closest to the ruling monarch. Hence there were state lands and state income and temple lands and temple income. The use of state lands was alloted to favorites. Each temple had land which it used for its own purposes.
Political power in the Old Kingdom was a tight monopoly held by the ruling dynasty of the period. During preceding epochs it seems likely that rival groups or factions had gone through a period of power-survival struggle which eliminated one rival after another until economic ownership and political authority were both vested in the same ruling oligarchs. This struggle for consolidation apparently reached its climax when Menes, a pharoah who began his rule about 3,400 B.C., in the south of Egypt, invaded and conquered the Delta and merged the two kingdoms, South and North, into one nation which preserved its identity and its sovereignty until the Persian Conquest of 525 B.C.
The unification of the northern kingdom with the South seems to have been a slow process, interrupted by insurrections and rebellions in the Delta and in Lybia. Inscriptions report the suppression of these insurrections and give the number of war-captives brought to the south as slaves. In one instance the captives numbered 120,000 in addition to 1,420 small cattle and 400,000 large cattle.
Using these war captives to supplement the home supply of forced and free labor, successive dynasties built temples, palaces and tombs; constructed new cities; drained and irrigated land; sent expeditions to the Sinai peninsula to mine copper. Such enterprises indicate a considerable economic surplus above that required to take care of a growing population: the high degree of organization required to plan and assemble such enterprises, and the considerable engineering and technological capacity necessary for their execution.
Chief among the binding forces holding together the extensive apparatus known as the Old Kingdom was religion, with its gods, its temples and their generous endowments. Each locality consolidated into the Old Kingdom had its gods and their places for worship. In addition to these local religious centers there was an hierarchy of national deities, their temples, temple lands and endowments. The ruling monarch, who was official servitor of the national gods, interpreting their will and adding to the endowments of the temples, was the embodiment of secular and of religious authority.
Egyptians of the period believed that death was not an end, but a transition. They also believed that those who passed through the death process would have many of the needs and wants associated with life on the Earth. Furthermore they believed that in the course of their future existence those who had died would again inhabit the bodies that they had during their previous existences on Earth. Following out these beliefs the Egyptians put into their tombs a full assortment of the food, clothing, implements and instruments which they had used during their Earth life. They also embalmed the bodies of their dead with the utmost care and buried them in carefully hidden tombs where they would be found by their former users and occupied for the Day of Judgment.
Holding such views, preparation for the phase of life subsequent to death was a chief object of the early Egyptian rulers and their subjects. One of the preoccupations of each new occupant of the throne was the selection of his burial place. Early in his reign he began the construction of suitable quarters for the reception of his embalmed body. The great pyramids were such tombs. Other monarchs constructed rock-hewn chambers for the reception of their bodies. In these chambers in addition to a room for a sarcophagus were associated rooms in which every imaginable need of the dead was stored: food, clothing, furniture, jewelry, weapons.
Adjacent to the royal tomb favored nobles received permission to build their own tombs, similarly equipped but on a smaller, less grandiose scale than that of the pharaoh. By this means the courtiers who had attended the pharaoh in his life-time would be at hand to perform similar services in the after death existence.
Construction and maintenance of temples and tombs absorbed a considerable part of Egypt‘s economic surplus. These drains on the economy grew more extensive as the country became more populous and more productive. Thanks to the lack of rain in and near the Nile Valley and despite the depleting activities of persistent vandalism these constructs have stood for thirty centuries as monuments to one of the most extensive and elaborate civilizations known to historians. Despite the absence of detailed records, Egyptian achievements under the Old Kingdom indicate an abundance of food, wood, metal and other resources far in excess of survival requirements; a population sufficiently extensive to produce the necessaries of existence and a surplus which made it possible for the lords temporal and spiritual to erect such astonishing and enduring monuments; high levels of technical skills among woodsmen, quarrymen and building crews; the transport facilities by land and water required to assemble the materials, equipment and man power; the foresight, planning, timing and over-all management involved in such constructs as the pyramids, temples and tombs which have withstood the wear and tear of thousands of years; the willingness and capacity of professionals, technicians, skilled workers, and the masses of free and slave labor to co-exist and co-operate over the long periods required for the completion of such extensive structural projects; the utilization of an extensive economic surplus not primarily for personal mass or middle-class consumption but to enhance the power and glory of a tiny minority, its handymen and other dependents; and a considerable middle class of merchants, managers and technicians.
Speaking sociologically, the structure of Egyptian society from sometime before 3,400 B.C., to 525 B.C., passed through four distinct phases or stages. During the first phase, the Nile Valley, which had been separated by tribal and/or geographical boundaries into a large number of more or less independent units, was consolidated, integrated and organized into a single kingdom. This working, functioning area (the land of Egypt) could provide for most of its basic needs from within its own borders. In a sense it was a self-sufficient, workable, liveable area. Egypt was populous, rich, well organized, with a surplus of wealth, productivity and man-power that could be used outside of its own frontiers. Some of the surplus was used outside—to the south, into Central Africa, to the west into North Africa, to the north into Eastern Europe and Western Asia, inaugurating the second phase of Egyptian development. During this second phase Egyptian wealth, population and technology, spilling over its frontiers onto foreign lands, established and maintained relations with foreign territory on a basis that yielded a yearly “tribute,” paid by foreigners into the Egyptian treasury. The land of Egypt thus surrounded itself with a cluster of dependencies, converting what had been an independent state or independent states into a functioning empire.
The land of Egypt was the nucleus of the Egyptian Empire—center of wealth and power with its associates and its dependencies. The empire was held together by a legal authority using armed force where necessary to assert or preserve its identity and unity.
Expansion, the third phase of Egyptian development, involved the export of culture traits and artifacts beyond national frontiers, extending the cultural influence of Egypt into non-Egyptian lands inhabited by Egypt‘s neighbors. Merchants, tourists, travelers, explorers and military adventurers carried the name and fame of Egypt into other centers of civilization and into the hinterland of barbarism that surrounded the civilizations of that period.
Thus the land of Egypt expanded into the Egyptian Empire and the culture of Egypt (its language, its ideas, its artifacts, its institutions) expanded far beyond the boundaries of Egyptian political authority and established Egyptian civilization in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe.
The era of Egyptian civilization was divided into two periods by an invasion of the Hyksos, nomadic leaders who moved into Egypt, ruled it for a period and later were expelled and replaced by a new Egyptian dynasty.
The fourth period of Egypt‘s experiment with civilization was that of decline. From a position of political supremacy and cultural ascendancy Egyptian influence weakened politically, economically, ideologically and culturally until the year of the Persian Conquest, 525 B.C., when Egypt became a conquered, occupied, provincial and in some ways a colonial territory.
Egyptian civilization can be summed up in three sentences. It covered the greatest time span of any civilization known to history. Its monuments are the most massive. Its records, chiefly in stone, picture massed humans directed for at least thirty centuries toward providing a satisfying and rewarding after-life for a tiny favored minority of its population. To achieve this result, the natural resources of three adjacent continents were combined and concentrated into the Nile Valley through an effective imperial apparatus that enabled the Egyptians to exploit the resources and peoples of adjacent Africa, Asia and Europe for the enrichment and empowerment of the rulers of Egypt and its dependencies. The disintegration and collapse of Egyptian civilization occupied only a small fraction of the time devoted to its upbuilding and supremacy.
Before, during and after Egyptians played their long and distinguished parts in the recorded history of civilization, the continent of Asia was producing a series of civilization in four areas: first at the crossroads joining Africa and Europe to Asia; then in Western Asia (Asia Minor); in Central Asia, especially in India and Indonesia and finally in China and the Far East.
Experiments with civilization during the past six thousand years have centered in the Eurasian land mass, including the North African littoral of the Mediterranean Sea. Within this area of potential or actual civilization, until very recent times, the centers of civilization have been widely separated geographically and temporally. Occasionally they have been unified and integrated by some unusual up-thrust like that of the Egyptian, the Chinese or the Roman civilizations. In the intervals between these up-thrusts various centers of civilization have maintained a large degree of autonomy and isolation. Only in the past five centuries have communication, transportation, trade and tourism created the basis for an experiment in organizing and coordination of a planet-wide experiment in civilization.
Nature offered humankind two logical areas for the establishment of civilizations. One was the cross-roads of migration, trade and travel by land to and from Asia, Africa and Europe. The other was the Mediterranean with its possibility of relatively safe and easy water-migration, trade and travel between the three continents making up its littoral. Both possibilities were brought together in the Eastern Mediterranean with its multitude of islands, its broken coastline, and its many safe harbors.
The Phoenicians developed their far-flung trading activities around the Mediterranean as a waterway, and the tri-continental crossroads as a logical center for a civilization built around business enterprise.
Aegean civilization occupied the eastern Mediterranean for approximately two thousand years. Its nucleus was the island of Crete. Its influence extended far beyond its island base into southern Europe, western Asia and North Africa. Experiments with civilization on and near the Indian sub-continent centered around the Indonesian archipelago and the rich, semi-tropical and tropical valleys of the Ganges, the Indus, the Gadari, the Irra-waddy and the Mekong. Although they were contiguous geographically and extended over a time span of approximately two thousand years they were aggregates rather than monolithic civilizations, retaining their localisms and avoiding any strong central authority.
Beginnings of civilization have been made outside the Asian-European-African triangle centering around the Mediterranean Sea and the band of South Asia extending from Mesopotamia through India and Indonesia to China. They include the high Andes, Mexico and Central America and parts of black Africa. In no one of these cases did the beginnings reach the stability and universality that characterized the Eurasian-African civilizations.
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