The Role of Egypt in Early Civilization

BY Ruth Kebede, BSc

History opens the window in to the past which enables us to examine key events that defined and shaped the present and even perhaps the future such as the medieval monolithic rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, the Obelisk of Axum in Ethiopia. It is with that intention that I chose to explore the role of Egypt in early civilization. It is also personal to me. Egyptians drink from the Blue Nile that originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also constructing the Grand Renaissance Dam which when completed will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and is expected to benefit not only Ethiopia but the whole region.

Along with Mesopotamia, Egyptian society played an early role to shape our world but unlike Mesopotamia, the great civilization of ancient Egypt didn’t have to deal with frequent invaders. The surrounding deserts protected Egypt and its civilization and preserved some of our fascination with Egypt such as the pyramids, the mummified tombs, and other artifacts.

The Old Kingdom, the period between 3200-2260 B.C.E, saw the rise of the pharaohs, who ruled Egypt with great authority and oversaw the beginning of Egyptian civilization. This period was orderly and had the semblance of a smoothly running kingdom. To explore this civilization, I would like to point to two important historical facts about early Egypt that fascinates me: the Pyramids and the process of mummification but first let me start with the Pharaohs.

The Pharaohs were kings of Egypt. They cultivated this mythical relationship with God that they often regarded themselves as Gods in flesh. They had such great authority in ancient Egypt that they build immaculate pyramids to preserve their body for use in the afterlife. In the process they mastered the techniques of mummification and the mathematics of building pyramids. Here we see the beginning of the relationship of state and religion. The pharaoh used this mythical power to rule over the vast land of Egypt and brought civilization which raises one of the fundamental questions in modern society, the debate over the role of government in peoples’ lives. Did the people of Egypt begrudge the intrusion of the Pharaohs in their ways of life? That I can’t answer but a strong mythical kingdom lead by the Pharaohs did bring about civilization to ancient Egypt. That much we can be certain and such one powerful Pharaoh was Ramses the Great who ruled Egypt between 1301-1234 B.C.E. Ramses II is acknowledged in the Old Testament as the pharaoh during the Exodus of the Hebrews. He constructed magnificent temples and statues. It is noted that he build great residence to fortify the boundaries of the land and what was known as the city of Ramses. He was so powerful that his temple at Abu Simbel had four colossal figures. The relationship of the pharaohs to God is well described in the Pyramid Texts which were discovered in 1881. These texts promoted the resurrection of the Pharaoh from the dead. There are documentations that indicate Pharaoh’s relationship to their creator. Some incantations taken from the pyramids of Pepi I, a king around 2400 B.C.E, for example shows prayers for admittance to the sky and the sky Goddess. Egyptians also believed that in death they can be judged by the God of the underworld (Osiris) on the basis of truth and moral purity. This is well described in the Book of the Dead. These texts reflect the struggles of early Egyptians to define morality through what is called negative confession.

One can infer that in early Egypt a strong and powerful kingdom was critical to establish a system of governance where the citizenry had a set of rules to abide by even if they probably had no role to shape it. I also suspect this mythical power displayed by the Pharaohs may have avoided any potential rivalry for power and helped create a stable system of governance with predictable continuity. In the process, early Egypt stumbled in to this exotic construction projects: the pyramids which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and are main tourist attractions of modern Egypt playing a significant role in its economy. How did the early Egyptians engineer the construction of the pyramids? Let’s not go anywhere but look at the Great Pyramid of Cheops which occupies 13 acres of land, 481 feet high, which is composed of 2.3 million stone bricks. These pyramids took 20 years to build and hundred thousands of people to work at it at a given time that involved harvesting stones from the Nile, moving them by way of making causeway which in itself is a magnificent work. I want to bring your attention to the architects of this massive project that withstood the test of time. Here we see mathematics, geometry applied to perfection over decades. This wasn’t only a reflection of civilization in math and architecture but also the art of social mobilization perhaps through creating this mythical relationship of authority and belief.

The contribution of Egypt to early civilization doesn’t stop with the pyramids. Let’s now explore the mummification technique that they perfected. The mummies are a treasure left to us to learn more about the people of that time. For example it was noted that the mummy of Ramses the great was well preserved and led to the clue as to his medical ailments such as acne, tuberculosis and poor circulation of the blood. It’s estimated that he lived in to his 90s, an achievement in of itself given low modern day life expectancies.

It is interesting to note how much the early Egyptians had perfected understanding of human anatomy. They have several techniques but one most frequented involved removing the brain contents through the nostril using crooked pieces of metal and having done that they use drugs to clear and rinse the reminder of the skull. They use sharp instruments such as Ethiopian stones to take out the whole contents of the abdomen and then they cleanse it with palm wine and infuse it with pounded aromatics. It doesn’t stop there; they use hydrated sodium carbonate or natron for several days to cover the entire body.These are early day scientists, or pathologists one can say. For example it is written that covering the body with hydrated sodium carbonate must not exceed seventy days. This informs us that they have experimented to come up with a formula that worked. Sixty nine days perhaps didn’t work nor did seventy one. It is also written that there were cheaper or less elaborate ways of mummification that doesn’t involve incision or disemboweling or injections in to the bowl but rather using oils made from cedar- tree. This is a reflection of a thriving scientific and business community in early Egyptian civilization where arithmetic, medicine, economics, religion and art are all blended.

In summary Egypt, like Ethiopia, has played a significant role in early civilization through their geometry and mathematical prowess which makes we Africans all proud.

1. A. Daniel Frankforter and William M. Spellman, The West: A Narrative History, Vol. I: to 1660, 3rd Edition.
2. Perry M. Rogers, Aspects of Western Civilization.Volume I: Problems and sources in History, Seventh edition.

Ruth Kebede graduated with honors from Cleveland State University.

About Tenayistilign

I am a physician trained at Jimma Institute of Health Sciences ( now Jimma University, in Jimma, Ethiopia) and Wayne State University ( Detroit, MI, USA). I teach and practice General Nephrology/Hypertension and Kidney Transplantation in the USA.
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One Response to The Role of Egypt in Early Civilization

  1. Yonathan Admassu says:

    Dear Ruth, I have always been fascinated by Egyptian civlazation. I loved reading you very well written article.

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