Episode 10: The Society and Culture of Ancient Egypt
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this lecture, Benjamin contrasts the society and culture of ancient civilization with those of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, East Asia and the Americas.
Unlike other early cities, those of Egypt were really small. The majority of prehistoric Egyptians lived in villages alone the Nile River. Because early Egyptian farmers created their own irrigation systems, there was no need to create a bureaucratic state irrigation works. Likewise, owing to its geographic isolation, Egypt went through long war-free periods. Unsurprisingly this was a major factory in its long periods of economic and political stability.
Like Mesopotamia, ancient Egyptian cities produced enough food to support a thriving middle class engaged in non-farming occupations (eg pottery, textile weaving, wood working, leather working, stone cutting masonry. Women in Egypt had more power than those of Mesopotamia, Greece or Rome. Although the kingdom was a patriarchy, women were employed outside the home as scribes, priestesses, musicians, dancers and artisans). They also had legal rights. A woman in ancient Egypt could legally buy, sell and own property, institute court proceedings, borrow money, adopt children, and buy and sell slaves.
Bronze metallurgy reached Egypt and Nubia in 1700 BC (in contrast to 3200 BC in Mesopotamia). It would be largely replaced by iron metallurgy in 1300 BC.
Starting in 3500 BC, Egyptian sailing vessels engaged in trade along the Nile. From 3000 BC on, they traveled the Mediterranean trading with the Phoenicians, Minoans and Mycenaeans. Egypt imported copper and pottery from Cypress (to combine with eastern desert tin, cedar wax cylinders (for record keeping) from Mesopotamia and cedar (from the Phoenicians). It exported ebony, ivory, leopard skins, gemstones, gold and slaves (they acquired from sub-Saharan Africa) to Mediterranean cities and linen, to southern Africa.
Written language (in the form of hieroglyphics) began around 3200 BC. It initially began as pictographs but Egyptian scribes soon added new symbols for new sounds and abstract ideas.
According Benjamin, the Egyptians had hundreds of household, regional and national gods. Their pharaohs built large elaborate temples overseen by a powerful priesthood with extensive landholdings.
The most prominent Egyptian gods were
Amon – god of creation and fertility
Ra – the sun god (which came to be combined with Amon as Amon-Re) during the Middle Kingdom
Osirus – fertility god, father of Horus and Isis
Unlike the Sumerians, the Egyptians believed in an afterlife. The main reason the pharaohs and other elites had themselves mummified was to help their souls recognize their bodies in the afterlife.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.