Let’s get ready for some culture shock
Looking back on my blog posts so far, I’ve realized that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Ancient Egypt and not a lot of time contextualizing it. Meaning, if you’ve read everything so far, you probably know quite a bit about what Ancient Egypt was like, and not as much about what made it different from the rest of the surrounding world.
On that note, I thought it would be good to talk a little bit about what nearby Canaan was like during the time period. This will give you a pretty good idea of why Egypt was considered a pretty marvelous place.
Please note that Egypt was not the only “marvelous” place in the world at the time. Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and environs), which I’ve mentioned before, was another large power center. Further afield, the Indus Valley Civilization in what is now Pakistan and India was going strong. Closer to the modern Middle East, the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete is now considered the first advanced civilization in Europe and was an important player during this time.
But, I mean, that’s kind of it. At this time, Ancient China is still in a quasi-mythical state of which we’re not even sure of the historicity, and even the Mesoamerican Olmecs won’t be around for another couple hundred years.
So, you can imagine that anyone living even vaguely near one of the few advanced centers of civilization would have heard all sorts of fabulous tales of all the wonders to be found therein.
You can also imagine that anyone who actually traveled to one of those advanced centers of civilization would be very much blown away.
So, given the fact that the story of Joseph definitely has a character going from a rather unadvanced area to one of the most advanced areas in the world at the time, you can imagine that I had a lot of fun playing with the idea of culture shock as I wrote my story.
Back to Canaan, then. What was it actually like in 1800 BC?
Canaan was culturally under the influence of Mesopotamia more than Egypt. The languages belong to the same wider family and, while we don’t have evidence of a script native to Canaan until centuries later, we do know that the Mesopotamian cuneiform script was used throughout the Near East (excluding Egypt) for record-keeping.
But, unlike Mesopotamia, Canaan had no giant population centers. There were cities, here and there, but they were not the sprawling, comparative metropolises of places like Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Canaan does have a claim to fame in that one of its cities, Jericho, has the distinction of being one of the oldest (if not the oldest) continuously inhabited settlements in the world, starting possibly as far back as 9,000 BC. Canaan may not have been as well-developed, but it had street cred.
Canaan’s religious systems (aside from being the incubation area for the Jewish faith) were also influenced far more by Mesopotamian religion than that of Egypt, though this would change in the following centuries. A quick survey of the religious practices of Canaan turns up Mesopotamian deity names like Astarte (the goddess of fertility and war) and Dumuzid (Astarte’s dead husband that she killed – long story). Both are mentioned in the Bible under the alternate names Ashteroth and Tammuz.
In regards to cultural homogeneity, Egypt had the world pretty well beat, as I have discussed before. Mesopotamia had multiple cultures that would fall under varying leadership depending on which people group was in power at the time.
Canaan, on the other hand, was fractured into city states while at the same time incubating the beginnings of several distinct cultures. Cities had a “king” (the Pharaoh in Egypt would have laughed), who ruled over an individual city and the surrounding lands or villages. Plenty of land beyond that, we can assume, was little more than no-man’s-land.
This lasted for a while, but we have record that before 2000 BC, many cities were abandoned and the area returned to a very nomadic and agrarian lifestyle, with people living as they had in centuries prior. It took some time before people began moving back into cities again. This speaks to the instability of the region – it didn’t have the trade and social supports to maintain a constant urban civilization.
You can imagine, then, the sheer culture shock that would ensue if someone living in Canaan (i.e., Joseph) encountered the cultural monolith that was Egypt. The sprawling Egyptian city of Memphis, for example, had been a cultural epicenter for 500 years and more by 1800 BC. Egypt had police, Nile River merchants, courts of law, and a complex governmental, military, and religious hierarchy. Canaan was a true backwater in comparison.
The story is made all the more interesting (from a writing perspective, at least!) by the fact that the majority of Canaan’s outside influence was from Mesopotamia at the time, not Egypt. Therefore, the language, religion, and writing systems of Egypt would have been much more foreign than anything a traveler from Canaan would have found in Mesopotamia.
I hope you can see the sheer fun this gave me as a writer (and I hope I don’t sound like a sadist, hah!). Confusion and conflict breed a good story, after all.
I hope to be able to share it with you in the future!
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