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Some Interesting Facts about
the Ancient Egyptian Civilization

This page was last updated: February 05, 2003


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These facts have been assembled from occasional recollections and in view of historical linking of existing evidences – some are verified by archaeologists’ findings and some are in fact my assumptions!

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1. What was the general character of the Egyptian arts?

2. Why are the tombs of the Pharaohs on the west bank of the Nile?

3. (a) Remember Imhotep, the Mummy from the Mummy? Who was he really?

(b) How far were the Egyptians in regards of medicine?

4. The first ruling queen of the ancient world, Hatshepsut.

5. (a) What are the Wisdom Texts of the Ancient Egyptian Literature?

(b) The influence of Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Texts on later religions.

(c) Were Alibaba and Sinbad Egyptian?!

6. How come we don't see any palaces or living quarters remaining standing in Egypt, but only the Tombs and Temples?

7. How was the later age architecture influenced by the Egyptian?

8. Influence of the Egyptian Sculpture on the Greek.

9. Do Egyptian texts say about the common people, rather than the achievements of the Pharaohs?

10. The astronomical expertise of the Egyptians.

 


 

 

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The Egyptian arts – architecture and decorative paintings – were profoundly based on the politico-religious character of the nation itself. Great monuments were built with ardent passion to satisfy the needs of magnifying the divinity of the great Pharaoh and also of glorifying the several gods – which actually represented the clergy of the different holy cities. These religiously and politically important cities saw great advancement in architecture and art.

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The Pharaohs' Tombs were built in the delta and along the valley of the river Nile. Some monuments had religiously positioned locations on the east or west side of the Nile – for example, all the Pharaonic burial grounds were constructed on the west bank of the Nile, according to the belief that the sun god Ra, after traversing the mortal world, enters the realm of the dead in the western direction. Nile was thought to be a tributary of the ancient legendary river Nun, the one that separates the world of the dead from the mortal world.

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Imhotep was the high priest of the great Pharaoh Djoser and was the one to oversee the construction of the first pyramid – the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Aside from his position in religion and architecture, he was also a renowned physician. He had written several medical treatises, which were, as should be expected, were not probably free from religious influences and included the chanting of spells for the healing of the diseased. Scrolls of papyri have been discovered, thought to be inspired or initiated by the medical talents of Imhotep, that are extremely out-of-time, with the anatomy of the human body described like the famous 19th century Gray’s anatomy – describing the organs and limbs of the human body going consecutively from the upper part to the lower. But it should be remembered that although the ancient Egyptian physicians achieved a great deal of knowledge about the human body, they lacked the knowledge of the functions and workings of the organs – for example, they thought the brain to be completely unimportant for the human body. Well, that’s yet a matter of research, because after some excavations around the Great Pyramid of Giza, archaeologists found a village of the ancient builders of the monstrous monument. They were not slaves, as was said by Herodotus, rather they were paid workers and even had their medical expenses carried out by the state. In this village was found a skull of a man that has a fracture on his head – no, not from any accidents during action. After some testing, it is found that probably the man had a tumor in his brain and was suffering tremendously from the pressure that it exerted on the skull. That fracture was probably done by an ancient Egyptian doctor – who can say, probably by a disciple of Imhotep – to relieve the pressure and minimize the pain of the patient.

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Hatshepsut (1498-1483 BC) was the first queen of Egypt (who ruled as a Pharaoh) and probably the first truly ruling woman in the history of human civilization. She declared herself as the Pharaoh or the King and made for herself a masculine image of power for the sake of administration and the unity of the country. After her husband Thutmose II died, she came to power as regent of the young Thutmose III and eventually declared herself Pharaoh. With her trusty vizier, she managed to fend off all political and religious repercussions. It is also suspected that she might have had physical relationship with this vizier. She constructed a great temple at Thebes (Deir-el-Bahri) that can contend with any modern architecture. Architecture and art flourished greatly. Although it was thought that she refrained from expanding the boundaries of the New Kingdom, that thought has been curbed as evidences have been found of her conquests in Nubia and commercial missions/fleets sent to Somalia (the land of Punt as the Egyptians called it). After her death, her son Thutmose III came to power and made tremendous expansions on the boundaries. He is renowned as the Napoleon of Ancient Egypt. But the name of Hatshepsut and her images were obliterated during this period and replaced by the name or image of Thutmose, probably due to the new Pharaoh’s feeling of indignation that a woman became Pharaoh against ancient traditions or due to the fear that this history may repeat itself again and obtain an unfriendly view from commoners and the priests.

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Wisdom Texts were written in Ancient Egypt to feed morals and advices into the people by way of narration. Sometimes these were ordered to be written by the Pharaoh to boost the morals of the government officials. The most famous of these are 'The Maxims of Ptahhotep' and 'The Eloquent Peasant'. The ‘Maxims of Ptahhotep’ were written by the 2500 BC vizier Ptahhotep. In this aesthetic and moral work, Ptahhotep passes on his advices to his son in forty verses. This, along with other literary works of ancient Egypt, may be thought of as one of the many sources of the literatures of later religions. For example, the Verses of Aten written during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton can be compared with the Psalms of David of the Old Testament. Even the verses of these two works match almost word by word. Through the Maxims, Ptahhotep advises his son to be kind, forgiving and moral. Almost half of these order the son to acquire knowledge and morality. Ptahhotep even advises his son to sacrifice all worldly pleasures and happiness for the sake of truth and morality. The Memphite Drama written probably around 4000 BC is the basis of Akhenaton’s monotheistic religion that emerged 2000 years later and is probably directly or indirectly one of the origins of the later Monotheistic religion of the Hebrews. Again, many legends of the Arabian Nights can also be traced to Ancient Egyptian legends and true stories. For example, the legends of Sinbad the sailor can be rooted back to an Ancient Egyptian story of a young sailor who suffered from a shipwreck and traveled many strange lands and finally returned to Egypt. There is another legend concerning two brothers and this one can be compared with the story of Joseph of the Old Testament. The story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves has some of the ideas lent from the history of the wars waged by Egypt to conquer the Syrians and the Hebrews. A General under Thutmose III had the ingenious idea of stealing into a caravan to enter the great Hebrew city of Joppa (Jaffa) and conquer it. The evidence is found from letters written to Thutmose III that were found conserved in the rooms of his great tomb.

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The Egyptians were very advanced in architecture, because along with a great theoretical knowledge of geometry, they also procured the knowledge of engineering. They used ingenious techniques to build great stone monuments, including the pyramids. But stone was not used as the component of their residences or they did not pay even much attention to their living places. Rather they used stone and their technology abundantly to build great temples, tombs and monuments glorifying the power of the Pharaoh, the state and the gods. It is these monuments that survived the attacks of time.

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The building of pyramids was abandoned after the Old Kingdom. During the Middle Kingdom, great monstrous temples were constructed abundantly. Among these, the most famous are the temples of Karnak at Luxor. There now stand huge columns made of mud-bricks. These columns are immensely decorated. The Hypostyle Hall of Karnak can be compared with later Byzantine and Christian Cathedral Halls. Also later Byzantine and Roman Cathedrals employed clerestory windows, the earliest example of which we can find at the Clerestory Hall in the valley-temple of Khafre at Giza, and also at the Great Hall at Karnak.

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Sculpture also became prominent along with the advancement of architecture. The fact is that the entrance Pylons and the walls of the temples and tombs were decorated with sculptures. Later on, unique and freestanding sculptures of the Pharaohs and even the different working classes (for example, a well-detailed seated statue of a scribe) began to be made. But the figures from ancient times to later, lacked dynamism. The forms were not freed from the rigid traditional frames. Pharaohs were portrayed as muscular omnipotent. Art and paintings did break away a bit from their original form of drawing in profiles, and achieved some dynamism. But the face was most of the time drawn in profile and the eye was fully exposed to the viewer. It is thought that this was done for religious reasons – that the eye of the Pharaoh must not be fully covered because it is the Eye of Horus. Later on, Mycenaeans, predecessors of the Greeks, borrowed sculpture forms from Egypt and gave dynamism to them.

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Egyptian Literature was deeply centered around religious legends and maxims. But papyri have been found containing the different folklores that speak mostly of the general people of the Nile delta.

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Egyptian astronomy was greatly advanced and they had invented the Sothic cycle based on the star Sirius or Sothis and they had a solar calendar, which is thought to have been invented around 4000 BC. The entrances to their tombs and pyramids are also oriented with certain stars. Yet their belief about the Earth itself was not so much different from the other civilizations. For example, they thought that the earth is beneath the belly of a sacred cow and the belly of that cow is the sky in which the Sun-god Ra traverses.

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