Egypt Table of Contents

The Predynastic Period and the First and Second Dynasties, 6000-2686 B.C.

During this period, when people first began to settle along the banks of the Nile (Nahr an Nil) and to evolve from hunters and gatherers to settled, subsistence agriculturalists, Egypt developed the written language, religion, and institutions that made it the world's first organized society. Through pharaonic Egypt, Africa claims to be the cradle of one of the earliest and most spectacular civilizations of antiquity.

One of the unique features of ancient Egyptian civilization was the bond between the Nile and the Egyptian people and their institutions. The Nile caused the great productivity of the soil, for it annually brought a copious deposit of rich silt from the monsoon-swept tableland of Ethiopia. Each July, the level of the Nile began to rise, and by the end of August, the flood reached its full height. At the end of October, the flood began to recede, leaving behind a fairly uniform deposit of silt as well as lagoons and streams that became natural reservoirs for fish. By April, the Nile was at its lowest level. Vegetation started to diminish, seasonal pools dried out, and game began to move south. Then in July, the Nile would rise again, and the cycle was repeated.

Because of the fall and rise of the river, one can understand why the Egyptians were the first people to believe in life after death. The rise and fall of the flood waters meant that the "death" of the land would be followed each year by the "rebirth" of the crops. Thus, rebirth was seen as a natural sequence to death. Like the sun, which "died" when it sank on the western horizon and was "reborn" in the eastern sky on the following morning, humans would also rise and live again.

Sometime during the final Paleolithic period and the Neolithic era, a revolution occurred in food production. Meat ceased to be the chief article of diet and was replaced by plants such as wheat and barley grown extensively as crops and not gathered at random in the wild. The relatively egalitarian tribal structure of the Nile Valley broke down because of the need to manage and control the new agricultural economy and the surplus it generated. Long-distance trade within Egypt, a high degree of craft specialization, and sustained contacts with southwest Asia encouraged the development of towns and a hierarchical structure with power residing in a headman who was believed to be able to control the Nile flood. The headman's power rested on his reputation as a "rainmaker king." The towns became trading centers, political centers, and cult centers. Egyptologists disagree as to when these small, autonomous communities were unified into the separate kingdoms of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt and as to when the two kingdoms were united under one king.

Nevertheless, the most important political event in ancient Egyptian history was the unification of the two lands: the Black Land of the Delta, so-called because of the darkness of its rich soil, and the Red Land of Upper Egypt, the sun-baked land of the desert. The rulers of Lower Egypt wore the red crown and had the bee as their symbol. The leaders of Upper Egypt wore the white crown and took the sedge as their emblem. After the unification of the two kingdoms, the pharaoh wore the double crown symbolizing the unity of the two lands.

The chief god of the Delta was Horus, and that of Upper Egypt was Seth. The unification of the two kingdoms resulted in combining the two myths concerning the gods. Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis and avenged the evil Seth's slaying of his father by killing Seth, thus showing the triumph of good over evil. Horus took over his father's throne and was regarded as the ancestor of the pharaohs. After unification, each pharaoh took a Horus name that indicated that he was the reincarnation of Horus. According to tradition, King Menes of Upper Egypt united the two kingdoms and established his capital at Memphis, then known as the "White Walls." Some scholars believe Menes was the Horus King Narmer, whereas others prefer to regard him as a purely legendary figure.

With the emergence of a strong, centralized government under a god-king, the country's nascent economic and political institutions became subject to royal authority. The central government, either directly or through major officials, became the employer of soldiers, retainers, bureaucrats, and artisans whose goods and services benefited the upper classes and the state gods. In the course of the Early Dynastic Period, artisans and civil servants working for the central government fashioned the highly sophisticated traditions of art and learning that thereafter constituted the basic pattern of pharaonic civilization.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress