Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land

Egypt used to be a much happier place, even while under an authoritarian government that makes Mubarak and Morsi look like progressive leaders.  This was of course when the world was young, very young.  Egyptian civilization formally begins c. 3100 BC with the 1st Dynasty and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, which means Egypt came in second to Sumer (far southern Iraq) in the “Birth of Civilization” sweep stakes.  Ironically, though both were river valley civilizations that had emerged because of generally similar factors, because of their very different local environments they were completely different in their attitudes and understanding of the universe.

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

The Nile valley, which essentially defined ancient Egypt, was a grand place to live.  The river, with its incredibly regular ebb and flood that rejuvenated the soil every year, produced a large and extremely dependable food supply.  The security of the land was for thirteen hundred years guaranteed by physical barriers – the Mediterranean to the north, Sinai and deserts to the east, the river cataracts and difficult terrain to the south and desert wastes to the west.  There was virtually no weather, and excepting the rhythms of day and night, the rotating stars and the rise and fall of the Nile, the land was unchanging.  It was the Beloved Land.

The result of this environment was perhaps the most positive view of the world ever entertained by a society.  The universe was inherently good and just, a status guaranteed by the gods of the Two Lands.  Indeed, the harmony and order of the land was further secured by the presence of heaven on earth in the form of the Pharaoh, the continually reincarnated Horus.  The head of state was quite literally a god, and the state itself was a part of nature.  Life was so good that except for the god-king the afterlife was seen simply as a continuation of the one on earth.  Heaven and earth were so tightly bound that they were seen as a whole, and the peasant working his fields shared an essence common to both his animals and the gods.

And this never changed.  There were only three inescapable, non-periodic changes in the Egyptian universe: creation and the birth and death of an individual; all other non-reoccurring change was either so trivial or so slow that it could be ignored.  The exact Egyptian understanding of birth is unclear, but it could be minimized as a natural extension of the mother.  Death was tougher since there was a quite obvious change when the individual died, but this was explained as a sort of shift rather than an absolute change.  The essence of the person simply shifted to the afterlife, where in a world identical to the one he had left he would carry on with his business, be it farming, trading, building, administering or whatever.  That bodies buried in the desert fringe naturally mummified instead of rotting helped support this belief.

Creation was thus left as the one non-periodic change of any significance.  Consequently, as the universe was at the moment of creation, so it would be for all time.  And unlike the creation myths of the Asian and Aegean societies the Egyptian account involved no struggle.  It began, as in the Sumero-Babylonia system, with a watery chaos (these are hydraulic societies, after all), but the world was created peacefully, Ptah (or Atum) spitting out or ejaculating the first gods, who then continued the process through sexual reproduction.  In the universal mythic thought of the pre-Greek world these deities, though envisioned in human form, were actually manifestations of the natural phenomena with which they were associated, and thus the world was created.

By way of contrast, the Sumero-Babylonian account of creation involved struggle, as Enlil (or Marduk) battled and defeated Tiamat, the personification of chaos, and thus established the ordered world.  But unlike the permanent Egyptian cosmos the Sumero-Babylonian world required constant attention, lest it collapse back into chaos.  The difference was the environment.  The Tigris and Euphrates were wild rivers, which could flood or dry up the fields, and there were violent storms and periodic droughts.  The Sumerian city-states were constantly at war with one another, and barbarians from the Syrian deserts and Zagros mountains plundered the land.  Life was very uncertain, and disaster, natural and human, constantly threatened.  The afterlife consisted of a grim underworld, to which everyone went.  Pessimism reigned in the lands of the two rivers.

The negative result of the secure and unchanging life of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 3100-1800 BC) was an unchanging culture.  Because of the focus on the eternal, the canons of Egyptian art and to a lesser degree literature were frozen at the beginning of her history, and a statue of the Pharaoh from the early second millennium is virtually identical to one from the late first millennium.  From the 1st Dynasty to the 18th Egypt essentially produced nothing new.  Creativity and progress require a certain level of struggle and tension, and Egypt was simply too content.

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

When her splendid isolation came to end with the Hyksos invasion and domination of the delta c. 1800 BC, Egypt was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden intrusion and rule of non-Egyptians and the arrival of new ideas.  The collapse and troubles of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2050 BC) were an internal affair and could be accommodated by the traditional culture, while the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1550 BC), initiated by the arrival of the Hyksos could not.  The kings of the 18th Dynasty drove out the invaders and restored a united Egypt, but it would never be the same.  The experience of the Hyksos seriously injured the self-confidence and optimism of the older days.

And Egypt was allowed no rest, as the impulse that drove out the Hyksos carried her into Syria-Palestine, where she stayed (New Kingdom or Empire c. 1550-1085 BC) and began a long struggle with the Hittite Empire in Anatolia.  New ideas and peoples poured into the Two Lands, preventing any return to the old ways and attitudes.  Tending to its Asian empire, the New Kingdom was too involved in the world, too nervous for eternity.  The god-king, leading the armies north, was no longer the distant majestic figure of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but more human – and ephemeral.  The increasingly weak kings of the 20th Dynasty fell more and more under the growing power of the Temple of Amon-Re, as Egypt began the slide into impotence and ultimately foreign domination.  In the wisdom literature of the New Kingdom: silence and submission emerge as the leading virtues of the wise man.  Insecurity and outright fear enter Egyptian religion, and the once virtually automatic passage into the next world becomes a trial.  A good heart is no longer enough; the deceased must be armed with special prayers and magic, like the Book of the Dead, to overcome the new obstacles.

Ramses today

Ramses today

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

By the beginning of the first millennium Egypt had disintegrated into a collection of independent principalities, and in the seventh century the Assyrians, the “wolf in the fold,” captured the Beloved Land.  The ancient culture of the society lived on, but under a succession of imperial rulers: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.  The three thousand year old religious beliefs could survive in the polytheist societies of Egypt’s conquerors, but in late antiquity Christianity began to seriously erode them, at least in the urban areas.  The final extinction of ancient Egypt, however, did not come until the seventh century AD, when the Arabs arrived with their particularly nasty version of the No Fun God and created modern Egypt.

Until the arrival of serious tourism Muslim Egypt has had very little regard for its glorious past, stripping away the finer stone of the ancient monuments to build mosques, as the Christians were doing in Europe.  The last two centuries have seen a rebirth of interest in the Beloved Land, but even now extremists want to destroy the remaining art in the name of their primitive aniconic god.  All things considered, better to live under the Temple of Amon-Re than the Muslim Brotherhood.

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