The waters of the Nile came from annual rains in the tropics to the south of Egypt. The Nile rose in early July, and in October it receded, leaving little water and a layer of black, fertile soil — inspiring people there to call the area the Black Land. Where the soil retained enough moisture, people could grow crops. But for farming to thrive along the Nile, a system of controlling its waters was necessary. To increase their ability to plant, people along the Nile trapped waters when the river rose, and they lined their water basins with clay to prevent the water from sinking into the soil so there would be water to use when the river dried again. From sometime around 3500 BCE the Egyptians began building a system of dikes and sluices, and around this time Egypt began growing food in greater abundance than elsewhere in Africa. They grew wheat, barley, beans, lettuce, peas, radishes, onions, olives, dates and figs, and they raised cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The construction would continue for more than a millennium so that by 2000 BCE both sides of the Nile would be a checkerboard of water basins, sluices and canals, with water being drawn from basins upstream whenever water was insufficient downstream.
As a desert, Egypt had no violent storms. Egypt had no great floods — nor myth of a great flood. Nor did the Egyptians have the problem with accumulation of salt which periodically ruined Sumerian farms. And living in a desert, Egyptians had little to fear from wild animals. People along the Nile worked with more cheer and confidence than did the people in Sumer. The abundance of food along the Nile allowed a rise in population greater than elsewhere in Africa, and, along the Nile, small villages with rectangular houses of dried mud grew into towns.
The abundance of food and population growth needed for civilization had occurred along the Nile. As in Sumer, enough food was produced to support a variety of non-farmers: traders, merchants, craftsmen, priests, scribes and soldiers. And having the same basic nature as the people of Sumer, people held land as personal property. Some farmers were more successful than others and grew richer. Class divisions arose, as did local governments. Irrigation systems and grain storage had to be maintained, property divisions had to be maintained and disputes mitigated. Large landowners formed aristocracies and allied themselves with kings, or chose who would be king, while most people remained small farmers and were expected to give a share of their crops to their king as taxes and to give free labor for community projects.
Communities came into conflict and warred against each other. Local kings vied with each other for wider power and control. And by 3200 BCE, people along the northern 600 miles (960 kilometers) of the Nile had amalgamated into a northern and a southern kingdom. The two kingdoms remained antagonistic toward each other, and in what was most likely a series of wars across generations during the 2900s, one of the kingdoms conquered the other. The conquering king, according to legend, was Menes — the first king of all Egypt.
With the unification of Egypt came a new era of peace and security along the Nile. Along with unity, peace was also served too by natural barriers against wandering tribes: the Mediterranean Sea in the north, vast deserts to the east and west, and a great mountain range to the south. Peace benefited Egypt’s economy. Egypt’s new dynasty of kings provided work for an increasing number of craftsmen. Carpentry increased, aided by the use of copper tools. Brick and stone of fine quality were drawn from nearby quarries and used in building.
Egypt’s trade expanded. Tradesmen went north by sea along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, to the Mountains of Lebanon, from which they imported timber. They traveled south along the Red Sea to the coast just east of the Ethiopian Highlands, south to the coast of eastern-most Africa, and to the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. They found ivory, rare animals, sweets and the incense that they were to burn in their temples. They traveled south along the Nile into Nubia, and there they acquired more incense and ivory, ebony, animal skins, and boomerangs. And, on at least one occasion, they found a pygmy from the Congo basin, whose appearance entertained the court of Egypt’s king.
Contact with other peoples brought one of human history’s most recurring developments: the adoption of ideas and techniques. From Mesopotamia, the Egyptians acquired the use of bronze, shipbuilding techniques and artistic motifs. The Egyptians learned to write, but not gradually and starting with pictographs as had the Sumerians. Instead, the Egyptians started with script that had a Sumerian structure. But with time, Egypt’s script became distinctively Egyptian.
Egyptian kings (pharaohs in Egyptian) put members of their immediate or extended families in charge of their government’s central administration. The kings functioned as makers of law, as chiefs of justice and as supreme priests. And they passed their power and property to their sons. A distance had developed between the kings and common people, and official priests prohibited common people from using rituals that were believed suitable only for the king. And commoners were not recognized as having an afterlife like the king and his associates.
Much of Egyptian writing was religious in nature and concerned with the king’s religion, and both the religion of the king and that of the masses had much in common with humanity’s earliest religions.
From claiming that they ruled Egypt in behalf of the gods, Egypt’s kings began to claim that they had been born by the gods, that they were the son or the incarnation of Re. Among the Egyptians the belief spread that their kings were immaculately conceived. The kings believed that as members of the family of the gods they had to keep their bloodline untainted, and, to protect the purity of their blood, kings married their sons to their daughters.
Local authorities who had been appointed by ministers at the king’s court were allowed to bequeath their positions to their sons. Their descendants became hereditary nobles, and they believed that their positions were part of the god-given order. The new hereditary nobles wished to be united with Osiris after death, as was the king. And if the opportunity presented itself — if a king were weak or lazy — some nobles ruled their domains without interference from the king.
Egypt’s famous pyramids were a product of politics. They were primarily the burial place of kings. One pyramid was the labor of as many as ten thousand workers on the scene at any one time: craftsmen, engineers and common laborers. Archaeologists examining a village of construction workers — a village of men, women and children — estimate that around 20,000 workers labored twenty years to complete one of the great pyramids. Smaller pyramids were built for the king’s officials and overseers. It was politics and a culture in sharp contrast to the 21st century in the United States, where a political leader might lose office or go to jail for spending government money on a project that benefited himself or his family.
Feuds within royal families and problems involving the succession of kings led to the demise of many Egyptian dynasties. When the eighth dynasty collapsed, around 2130 BCE, nobles took control over what had been units of the king’s army stationed in their area, and these nobles began to rule on their own. Kings remained, at least in name, but for two centuries no pharaoh ruled over the whole of Egypt, and common people suffered under the control of local nobles. This happened during a period of unusual dryness in Africa and low flooding of the Nile. Famine appeared. Common Egyptians became violent, and anarchy swept north and south along the Nile. Peasants seized property. Servants overpowered their masters and made their masters servants. It was written that the high born were full of lamentations and the poor full of joy. And taking advantage of the anarchy, people from Nubia (called Cush by the Egyptians) came north and settled in Egypt, as did mercenaries from elsewhere.
Rebellions in different areas failed to unite with each other, and eventually nobles with armies suppressed the uprisings. Amid the warring, the same tendency that brought unity to Egypt a thousand years before brought unity to Egypt again. One ruler (from Thebes ) spread his power over the whole of Egypt. Shortly thereafter, around 1900 BCE, someone usurped power at Thebes. This was Amenemhet I, who began a new dynasty — the twelfth. And his rule was to be different from that of the pharaohs of previous dynasties.
The new king had learned from the past. He believed that it was his duty to promote justice — as embodied in the goddess Ma’at. The worship of Ma’at now included a belief that during the social upheavals the gods had abandoned Egypt and that it had been prophesied that a king would come and end the injustice. And it was believed that the prophecy had been fulfilled. The king was aware that poor people and nobles expected their king to be more concerned with their welfare than had kings centuries before, that they expected a system of justice that redressed mistreatment. The king and his ministers were more concerned than were previous kings about protecting common people from exploitation. The king opened positions in government to people of ability from outside his family.
Nobles were allowed to retain some of their powers, and they received recognition by being given a place in the afterlife that they had wanted. Commoners were also recognized as having an afterlife, and it was now believed that commoners would meet Osiris when they died, and that Osiris, working with Ma’at, would judge people entering the underworld. The Egyptians now believed that before one entered the underworld, his or her sins were put onto scales of justice. An ostrich feather represented Ma’at, and if an individual’s sins outweighed the ostrich feather he was rejected. Commoners saw their sins as weighing little, for most of them expected an eternal afterlife of paradise in pleasant labor, maintaining their earthly status amid kindly gods.
Peace and stability had returned to Egypt. The trade that had fallen away during the upheavals returned, and the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty, from around 1900 to 1750 BCE, helped Egypt’s trade and economy rise to new heights. But not all Egyptians were content. Hopes had been raised, and some Egyptians expressed disappointment. More than a thousand years before the prophets of the Old Testament, an Egyptian priest wrote a denunciation of the rich for what he saw as their injustice to the poor. He wrote that the poor still had no power to save themselves from the abuse of those who were younger and stronger than they. Another Egyptian, Amenemope, wrote a book of thirty chapters that objected to how society was structured. He wrote that people should earn their bread by their own labors, that they should be content with little, should tolerate the weaknesses of others, should forgive others their transgressions and should rely on their gods for serenity.