Your Guide to Ancient Egypt (Part 2)

What changed and what didn’t over the centuries

Okay folks, it’s go time. Let’s dive into this oft-referenced and oft-misrepresented ancient society.

So one of the first things you need to know is that Ancient Egyptians divided their country into two areas. Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Now, this is not a reference to north and south, it’s a reference to the way the Nile (the center of all Egyptian life) flows. It flows from south to north. So Upper Egypt is southwards, nearer the headwaters, and Lower Egypt is northwards, nearer the Mediterranean Sea.

A lot of historians set the beginning of Egypt as the moment when the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified, around 3100 BC.  But the “Old Kingdom”, the first era we laypeople really associate with Ancient Egypt, started around 2686 BC.

Highlights of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC)

PYRAMIDS – Yes, pyramids. These guys loved their pyramids and spent centuries trying to get them to stand up. I have some examples here. They were not always successful at the beginning!

THOSE WHITE SKIRTS – You know how in every movie set in Ancient Egypt, all the dudes are wearing those white skirts (the Egyptian term was shendyt)? Clothes are a fun way to check a movie’s production design for historical accuracy. In the Old Kingdom, the shendyt was knee-length, which is probably what you were envisioning in your head. If they’re wearing that length and the movie is set any later in time, the costume designer got it wrong, since the style later changed.

IMHOTEP – If you’ve ever seen The Mummy (the one with Brendan Fraser, I can’t speak for the Tom Cruise travesty that came out recently, haven’t seen it), you probably have memories of guys walking around chanting “Imhotep” – the name of the titular mummy. In the movie, he was a high-ranking official who got in trouble. In real life, he was a high-ranking official who didn’t get in trouble. He was an architect and was later said to be a physician and man of great wisdom – so much so that he was deified long after his death, despite there being no real record of him having any skills in these areas!

The First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BC)

Honestly, you could take the word “Intermediate” out and put the word “Boring” in and it wouldn’t make any difference to me. This is why I’m not a historian.

Basically, any “Intermediate Period” is a time of disunion and upheaval. There were several factors that made Egypt fall apart during this time, but I’ll mention two. The first reason is that the Nile flooding cycle went haywire. This is important because the Nile is a Really Nice River that floods on a lovely timetable (most of the time), to water all the fields. This was an advantage that Egypt had over all the other ancient civilizations, that had Really Not Nice Rivers that flooded more randomly. This is one of the reasons Ancient Egypt lasted so long. When the Nile flooding cycle breaks down, chaos ensues.

The second reason is that Ancient Egypt had gotten advanced enough to have what are called nomes and nomarchs. I mention this because it is important in my story. A nome is like a province, and a nomarch is like a provincial governor. During the First Intermediate Period, the nomarchs got way too much power, to the point where they had armies of their own and started marching their guys all over the kingdom to fight other nomarchs.

Highlights of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC)

We have arrived! Here is my sweet spot, where I set my story.

MORE PYRAMIDS – Yes, they kept on building these things, but none of them are intact. (That’s right, every intact pyramid we have today is from the Old Kingdom).

RELIGION – In the Middle Kingdom, the populace became more and more concerned about their comfort in the afterlife, maybe because of the chaos of the First Intermediate Period. As Egyptians focused more on death and what awaited them in the beyond, the general populace took a greater interest in burial traditions. Osiris, the god of the dead, became a very popular deity.

THOSE WHITE SKIRTS – The shendyt lengthened to mid-calf and stayed that way after this time period. Watch those costume designers carefully!

Pectoral and necklace of Princess Sithathoriunet. Image courtesy of The Met.

BOMB JEWELRY-MAKING SKILLS – So go back to the image in your head of the Ancient Egyptian guy and his white skirt. If he’s wearing a solid gold collar around his neck and solid gold cuff bracelets (typical Hollywood imagery) you’ve got the wrong time period (hint: that’s New Kingdom). The Middle Kingdom has some of the most delicate jewelry work in the ancient world. A lot of it was beadwork and when gold was used, it wasn’t in huge plates. Take a look at this lovely example, worn by a real-life person who is also a character in my story!

THE MYSTERIOUS IJTAWY – Archeologists and historians know the general location of this Middle Kingdom capital. There’s even evidence in satellite imagery of where it once was. They just haven’t excavated yet.

Whew! I think I’ve given you enough information for today! Join me next time when we finish the timeline. In the post after that, we’ll talk a bit about Hieroglyphs, The Writing System That Drove 19th Century Europe Up The Wall.

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 .

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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