Why does Egypt sit so clearly in our cultural consciousness?
Okay. So after winning the poll (by a nose), you’re getting a multi-part ”Brief Overview of Ancient Egypt”.
I include the word brief despite also saying “multi-part” because we’re talking about 4,000 years of history here and despite whatever I can say about it, I don’t dare pretend that I can provide you with even a fraction of the information available on this fascinating ancient civilization. What I can provide you with is some interesting tidbits I discovered during my research, and I think you’ll come out of it with a better understanding of this culture that is pretty revered by Western Civilization, almost on par with Greece and Rome.
Interestingly, despite this reverence, we here in the US don’t really come out of the school system with any great knowledge of Ancient Egypt. We all know that there were mummies and pyramids, and King Tut and hieroglyphs. Cleopatra and the Nile River. Before I started my research, I didn’t know much more than that myself.
Now, to be fair to us all, despite all our overall greater reverence of Greece and Rome in Western cultures, I bet you can’t name one Greek king (besides Alexander the Great, who wasn’t technically Greek). You may know the name of the river that runs though Rome, or one or two Roman Emperors. But if we’re talking ancient civilizations, despite the impact of Greece on mathematics, science, philosophy, and government systems, and the impact on Rome on Christianity and Europe as a continent, the average US Citizen could probably list out more factoids on Egypt than any other ancient civilization.
Why is this? Why does the thought of Egypt invite so much intrigue and interest as to supersede Greece and Rome?
Well, firstly I guess we have to thank the mummies and whoever it was who had the idea to make them chase people around in movies.
But after that, I think we have to thank – say it with me now – long term cultural homogeneity.
Meaning, unlike Greece, Rome, and even Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt’s cultural “fingerprint” remained almost unchanged for thousands of years, at least as it appeared to outsiders.
This is important, so I’ll back up.
Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome were all important civilizations for hundreds, even thousands of years. But within those years, those civilizations changed writing systems, languages, religions, ruling cultures, governmental systems – nothing was safe from an overhaul, forced or otherwise.
Egypt, while it had its times of upheaval, in the long run, dramatically changed none of these things. So it looms large in the writings of other cultures through the centuries, in the archaeological discoveries in Africa and the Middle East, in the historical record itself. Egypt stands. Egypt remains. Egypt is.
I’ll put it into perspective. I think we’ve all heard of Cleopatra. You may have even heard her described as the last Egyptian Pharaoh (she was actually at least half-Greek, but we can talk about that another time).
Cleopatra died in 30 BC.
The Great Pyramid of Giza near modern Cairo was built around 2570 BC.
Cleopatra lived closer in time to us than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid.
Think about that.
In the millennia leading up to Cleopatra, we are talking about over 2,500 years of a culture that, while it might change in its “smaller” particulars, never changes the face it shows to the outside world. What other culture on earth can say this?
It is no wonder that Egypt looms large in our cultural consciousness!
To leave off for today, I’ll provide you with the standard timeline historians use to demarcate the eras of this extraordinarily long-lived society. Over the next few blog posts, you’ll learn a little bit about each period – you might even learn to spot inconsistencies in movies set in Egypt, which is one of the most fun things I’ve found I’ve been able to do since researching. It’s not as hard as you think!
2686-2181 BC – Old Kingdom (This is when the Pyramids at Giza were built. Those things are OLD.)
2181-2055 BC – 1st Intermediate Period (Any time you see the phrase “intermediate period”, think “upheaval”.)
2055-1650 BC – Middle Kingdom (I set my story during this somewhat overlooked era. More on why in the future.)
1650-1550 BC – 2nd Intermediate Period
1550-1069 BC – New Kingdom (This is when good old King Tut was around. Please observe how far removed in time he is from the Pyramids at Giza!)
1069-664 BC – 3rd Intermediate Period
664-332 BC – Late Period (After which Alexander the Great arrives, sets up a Greek government, and the at-least-part-Greek Cleopatra comes along.)
Again, take a look at the crazy timespan of this civilization!
In the next couple posts I’ll give you a quick rundown of these eras, focusing on pointing out how things changed between them. Maybe you’ll be finding inconsistencies in movies yourself soon!
Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .