Assignment on History of Art and Design- Egyptian Civilization

The basic element in the lengthy history of Egyptian civilization is geography. The Nile River rises from the lakes of central Africa as the White Nile and from the mountains of Ethiopia as the Blue Nile. The White and Blue Nile meet at Khartoum and flow together northward to the Nile delta, where the 4000 mile course of this river spills into the Mediterranean Sea. Less than two inches of rain per year falls in the delta and rain is relatively unknown in other parts of Egypt. Most of the land is uninhabitable. These geographical factors have determined the character of Egyptian civilization. People could farm only along the banks of the Nile, where arid sand meets the fertile soil. Of course, each summer the Nile swells as the rains pour down and the snow melts on the mountains. The river overflows its banks and floods the land with fresh water and deposits a thick layer of rich alluvial soil. The land would then yield two harvests before winter. This yearly flood determined more than just the agricultural needs of early Egypt. It also determined the lifecycle of society and helped to create the world view of ancient Egyptian civilization.

The basic source of Egyptian history is a list of rulers compiled in c.280 B.C. by Manetho for the Macedonians who ruled Egypt. Manetho divided Egyptian kings into thirty dynasties (a 31st was added later) in the following manner.
Archaic Period
3100-2700 B.C.
Old Kingdom
2700-2200 B.C.
Intermediate Period
2200-2050 B.C.
Middle Kingdom
2050-1800 B.C.
Intermediate Period
1800-1570 B.C.
New Kingdom
1570-1085 B.C.
1085-332 B.C.

Early Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, one in Upper Egypt (Nile Valley), and one in Lower Egypt (Nile delta). Remember, the Nile flows from south to north.

Egyptian Dynasties
Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt and established his capital at Memphis around 3000 B.C.. By the time of the Old Kingdom, the land had been consolidated under the central power of a king, who was also the "owner" of all Egypt. Considered to be divine, he stood above the priests and was the only individual who had direct contact with the gods. The economy was a royal monopoly and so there was no word in Egyptian for "trader." Under the king was a carefully graded hierarchy of officials, ranging from the governors of provinces down through local mayors and tax collectors. The entire system was supported by the work of slaves, peasants and artisans.

The Old Kingdom reached its highest stage of development in the Fourth Dynasty. The most tangible symbols of this period of greatness are the three enormous pyramids built as the tombs of kings at Giza between 2600 and 2500. The largest, Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks), was originally 481 feet high and 756 feet long on each side. Khufu was made up of 2.3 million stone blocks averaging 2.5 tons each. In the 5th century B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the pyramid took 100,000 men and twenty years to build. The pyramids are remarkable not only for their technical engineering expertise, but also for what they tell us about royal power at the time. They are evidence that Egyptian kings had enormous wealth as well as the power to concentrate so much energy on a personal project.
The priests, an important body within the ruling caste, were a social force working to modify the king's supremacy. Yielding to the demands of the priests of Re, a sun god, kings began to call themselves "sons of Re," adding his name as a suffix to their own. Re was also worshipped in temples that were sometimes larger than the pyramids of later kings.
In the Old Kingdom, royal power was absolute. The pharaoh (the term originally meant "great house" or "palace"), governed his kingdom through his family and appointed officials. The lives of the peasants and artisans was carefully regulated: their movement was limited and they were taxed heavily. Luxury accompanied the pharaoh in life and in death and he was raised to an exalted level by his people. The Egyptians worked for the pharaoh and obeyed him because he was a living god on whom the entire fabric of social life depended. No codes of law were needed since the pharaoh was the direct source of all law.
In such a world, government was merely one aspect of religion and religion dominated Egyptian life. The gods of Egypt came in many forms: animals, humans and natural forces. Over time, Re, the sun god, came to assume a dominant place in Egyptian religion.
The Egyptians had a very clear idea of the afterlife. They took great care to bury their dead according to convention and supplied the grave with things that the departed would need for a pleasant life after death. The pharaoh and some nobles had their bodies preserved in a process of mummification. Their tombs were decorated with paintings, food was provided at burial and after. Some tombs even included full sized sailing vessels for the voyage to heaven and beyond. At first, only pharaohs were thought to achieve eternal life, however, nobles were eventually included, and finally all Egyptians could hope for immortality.