Monday, October 20, 2014

4000-30 B.C.: 'Black Land' creates mighty civilization, part 4

Herodotus was a Greek historian
who traveledthe world hoping to record its history.
He likewise traveled to Egypt,
recording all he could learn about the Great Nation.
(Read "Black Land" Part 1 here)

Despite their hard work, the Greek historian Herodotus went to Egypt and found the people to be exceptionally healthy.  Herodotus wrote:
Of the Egyptians themselves, those who dwell in the part of Egypt which is sown for crops practise memory more than any other men and are the most learned in history by far of all those of whom I have had experience: and their manner of life is as follows: -- For three successive days in each month they purge, hunting after health with emetics and clysters, and they think that all the diseases which exist are produced in men by the food on which they live: for the Egyptians are from other causes also the most healthy of all men next after the Libyans (in my opinion on account of the seasons, because the seasons do not change, for by the changes of things generally, and especially of the seasons, diseases are most apt to be produced in men). (Herodotus, page 41)
Many historians, Sigerist included, wondered why Herodutus would speculate this when evidence from mummies and writings suggest that there were various diseases caused by parasites, and also arthritis of joints and hardened arteries.  So based in light of this evidence, how could Herototus have come to the conclusion that the Egyptians were so healthy.

Sigerist speculates, however,  that perhaps the reason for this observation was that "the people we see in the streets of the city or on the fields of the farm are the peole in good health, while the weak and the sick are in the house."  (Sigerist, page 223)

Sigerist suggests Herodutus may also have had a different perception of disease as compared to the Egyptians, and notes:
Herodotus was a native of Halicarnassus in Caria, which, like the whole coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands, was infested with malaria in the fifth century B.C. When he traveled in Egypt, he must have been struck by the absensce or at least rarity of intermittent fevers, and this must have been an important factor in his favorable judgement about health conditions." (Sigerist, page 224)
It would have been nice if the commoners of ancient Egypt were better educated and had the ability to write, because then, perhaps, we would could get a more accurate picture of what it was like to live in ancient Egypt.  As it is, however, most of what we know is by observing scrolls that pretty much contained esoteric wisdom meant only for a select few, and from other artifacts left behind.

It is from these scrolls, and from the mummified remains of kings and the possessions meant to go with them in the after life that people learned what life was like back then.  And, unfortunately, most of these objects were created by and for members of the aristocracy, or the select few who were educated and privileged to enjoy the results of the labors of the other 90 percent.

What is known of the peasants, the serfs, was pretty much obtained by whatever was left of where they left and worked, which is mainly in ruins.  So what was life really like for the Egyptians, the majority of them who did the work?  What was it like if you were a slave ordered to work on the pyramids, and you suddenly became short of breath?  What would you do? What could you do?

What is known is that Egyptians had a language, and they learned how to write. This was a necessitated, probably, by the need to keep track of the level of the rivers, and perhaps to keep track of how much food each person made, and how much they should be paid. But only scribes could write, and only a few member of the aristocracy could read.

They created Hieroglyphics, a form of writing that used pictures to represent ideas.  It was similar to the Sumerian Cuneiform, although since the Egyptians were isolated, no other societies learned to use this language, and when the Egyptians died out, so too did their language.  Modern people had no way of interpreting this language until Napoleons soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799 that had materials written in ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian.

While they may originally have written on clay tablets as was done in Sumeria, they eventually learned to make paper out of the papyrus tree.  As you may have guessed, the term paper comes from the term papyrus.  This allowed the Egyptians to write down information such as cooking recipes, medicine recipes, and building formulas on scrolls, and so any learned person could carry this with them.  Not many people knew how to write, however, and this made such a person who knew how --the scribes, the literati -- very powerful. As the old saying goes: knowledge is power.

The few who were in charge of running Egypt needed someone to make sure the gods were happy, and that the laborers these gods created did the work of the gods.  So they chose a person from among them to be their king.  Initially there were two kings in Egypt, with the people and territories they were responsible for being determined by the great Nile River the gods created.

The Nile divided Egypt into a southern and a northern region.  Sometime around 4,000 B.C. the people of southern Egypt united and formed Upper Egypt, and the people of northern Egypt came together and formed Lower Egypt.  These were the first two civilizations of Egypt, and whether they formed before, after, or about the same time as the Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia is anyone's guess.

Around 3100 B.C. a very powerful ruler had gained the reins of the throne of Upper Egypt, and he had a dream that all of Egypt should be united.  He gathered a mighty army, invaded the cities of upper Egypt, and this united the two.  In this way, it was King Menes who created the mighty Egyptian Empire.  The following is how things transpired in Egypt from this point on:

Ancient Egypt*
The Old Kingdom: 3000-2600 B.C.
Protodynastic Age
Dynasties I and II
King Menes (Narmer) made Memphis capital of Egypt, he had 42 nomarchs rule sections of land on his behalf, and these nomarchs made sure the people followed the commands of the ruler. They invented a system of irrigation to control the Nile waters and irrigate the land. They grew two crops every year. The first pyramids are built. Floods resulted in droughts and fasmine to end kingdom.(Martell, pages 30-31) Egyptian alphabet invented from pictoral signs, and invention of ability to make scrolls of papyrus.  Reeds were dipped in mixture of water, gum, and soot, and were used as first pens. (Sigerist, page 227)
The Pyramid Age: 2600-2200
Part of Old Kington
Dynasties III to VI
This was when the most pyramids were built. People discovered material and equipment needed to built great monuments, and the first great Pyramid is built at Sakkara for King Zoser of the Dynasty III.  Many later pyramids and structures were built, including the Sphynx, pyramids at Giza, etc.  These still awe people to this day. (Sigerist, pages 227-8)
First Intermediate Period: 2200-2000 B.C.
Dynasties VI to end of XI
Central power weakened and various cities claimed independence.  Upper and Lower Egypt became independent, and the Egypt was open to “civil strife and to foreign invasion from Asia… the kings of Thebes and Heracleopolis contended for power. Anarchy was rampant at times and deep pessimism is reflected in the literature of the period.”  (Sigerist, page 229)
The Middle Kingdom: 2000- 1640 B.C.
 “Classical Age of Egypt”
Dynasties XI to XIII
Hyksos from Canaan Invade Egypt: 1640 B.C
King Mentuhotep II reunited Egypt from his capital of Thebes. The capital was later moved to El Lisht.  They conquered Nubia to control trade along the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Peace brought time to think, and this resulted in a flourishing of arts, crafts, and literature. Hyksos introduce chariots, bronze weapons, and methods of spinning and weaving. More Pyramids built. (Martell, pages 32-33) During this time medicine flourished. (Sigerist, page 229)
Later Intermediary Period: 1640-1580
Dynasties XIII to XVIII
Ebers Papyrus Transcribed: 1600 B.C.
Edwin Smith Papyrus Transcribed
Amhose ascends to throne in 1580 B.C.

Kings once again lost control of Egypt and the Empire broke down.  Once again the two kingdoms separated, and this made it easy for the Semetic Hyksos to invade the land and take over control of Egypt.  Their god was Baal, and he ruled with the Egyptian Seth. (Sigerist, page 231)
The New Kingdom:  1580-1070 B.C.
Dynasties XVIII to XX
King Tut died: 1350 B.C.
Ramses II enslaved Hebrews: 1300 B.C. 
Bronze age coming to end, meant Egyptian weapons must be updated or they would be easily defeated.  Iron weapons used to defeat them. The once mighty Egyptian Empire was ending. 
King Ahmose defeated Hyksos and reunited Egypt, and this created the “Golden Age of Egypt.” They conquered Palestine, Syria, and all land of Euphrates River.  Egypt became very wealthy. Pharoah tombs now carved into cliffs of the Valley of the Kings instead of building great Pyramids. Thebes became capital again. (Martell, pages 34-35. Ramses XI was the last King (Pharaoh)
Decline of Egypt: 1070-30 B.C.
Dynasties XXI-XXX
Assyria conquered Egypt: 671 B.C. 
Egyptians regained control: 656 B.C. 
Persians conquered Egypt: 525 B.C. 
Alexander the Great happened: 332 B.C. 
Ptolemies rule Egypt until about 30 B.C. 
Civil wars with Libyans and Nubians lead to end of New Kingdom.  Priests took over for the pharaohs.  The new Pharaohs were Lybian and Nubian. Metal work flourished. Assyrians invaded Egypt with their iron weapons. In 656 Greeks helped Egyptians regain control of their land. In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great forms Alexandria. 
(Martell, pages 36-37)

So it was civilization here in Egypt, as in Mesopotamia, that set the stage for a revolution of inventions and discoveries that would make life more bearable for all people.  Among these was the discovery of various herbs and plants that had medicinal and poisonous qualities, and this gave rise to medicine and a profession of physicians among the priesthood.

Egypt alone is famous for many things, yet perhaps among the most important, at least as far as our history is concerned, is the inventions of chemistry and medicine.  Egyptians, thus, are known as the inventors of medicine. They are the people who introduced medicine to the Greeks, who, it is said, introduced it to the rest of the civilized world.

*Please note that the dates listed here are estimates and may vary from one reference to the next. Some authors break these categories down even further, and some simplify them.  I figured the breakdown done here will suffice for our purposes.  For a further breakdown you can check out Michael Stecker's website:

  1. Sigerist, Henry E, "A History of Medicine," 1951, New York, Oxford University Press
  2. Herodotus, "An Account of Egypt," translated by G.C. Macaulay, 2008, Maryland, ARC Manor
  3. Martell, Hazel Mary, "Kingfisher Book of The Ancient World: from the ice age to the fall of Rome," 1995, New York, Larousse Kingfisher Chambers Inc. 
  4. "Egyptian Calendar,", Wikepedia, accessed 4/17/13
  5. Shuter, Jane, "Life in Ancient times: How the Ancient Egyptians Lived," 2011, China, Gareth Stevens Publishing
  6. Kobasa, Paul A., editor, "Early Peoples: Ancient Egyptians," 2009, Michigan, World Book, Inc. 
  7. Donn, Lynn and Don, writers, Kerry Gordonson, editor"Ancient Egypt," 2004, California, Social Studies School Service
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