Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the ancient Egyptian phenomenon was its longevity. From the time of the building of the first pyramids, down to the time it became a Roman province, was a period of some three millennia – even longer if one allows the long continuation under Roman rule. No other society can challenge his long continuity – unless perhaps the Chinese. But how was this achieved?
Egyptian civilisation falls into two main parts. There was the early part dominated by the building of the pyramids, and there was the later part, the New Kingdom, when the capital moved 400 miles to the south, to Thebes, where burials took place in shaft-graves, burrowed out of the hillside in the Valley of the Kings.
However the two parts were separated by the Middle Kingdom and also by two ‘Intermediate Periods’ when the unity of the kingdom came close to collapse. The first intermediate period was brought about by over centralisation and bureaucratic decay, and a number of local chieftains established themselves throughout the country. It has been argued that for the small peasant it may have been actually an advantage to have lived in a less tightly controlled society
But around 2100, unity was once again this established. The so-called Middle Kingdom is the least known period perhaps because no major sites of this period have survived to be on the tourist route. However it was a time when the arts and literature flourished, and many of the great Egyptian stories belong to this period.
The second intermediate period had a different problem, in that foreign rulers set themselves up in the Delta and controlled much of the country. These were known as the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings and appeared to have been innovators from the Palestine area who ruled from the very substantial town of Avaris. To the Egyptians it seemed terrible to have foreign rulers, but one can not help thinking that they may have injected a new breath of life into the creaking Egyptian bureaucracy
Eventually around 1550, the immense strength of the Egyptian kingship system reasserted itself, and under a series of great kings, the Hyksos were ejected and the New Kingdom was established. Two highlights can perhaps be discerned. The first was the reign of Amenhotep III, who could be described as being Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King: his predecessors had done all the conquering, and he reaped the benefits being a great builder and artist who reorganised the new capital town of Thebes and whose buildings, temples, and statues are scattered the length of the Nile. He was followed by his son, who should have been Amenhotep IV, but who called himself Akhenaten and became the controversial heretic pharaoh who renounced the worship of the old gods in favour of the worship of a single God, the Aten or the sun god, and who moved the capital 200 miles to the north to a new site at Amarna. He is the most controversial of all the kings and after his death the site was moved back to Thebes, and the former pantheon was re-established.
However his establishment and then abandonment of the new town has meant that Amarna is the Pompeii of Egypt and the best example of what an Egyptian town looked like, so we shall spend some time examining it as a prime example of an Egyptian town. He was succeeded by one of the most insignificant Kings of all called Tutankhamen, who was so insignificant that the very site of his tomb was lost only to be rediscovered in 1923, so that he has now become the best known of all the Egyptian pharaohs.
And then 100 years later, came perhaps the most omnipresent of all the Egyptian pharaohs, Ramesses II, who ruled for 60 years and whose temples and statues have become the most numerous of all. But soon after, the New Kingdom collapsed: the ‘sea raiders’ broke up the unity of Egypt, and Egypt, like much of the rest of the Mediterranean, fell into a dark age.
We look first at Akhenaten, and the new town he established at Amarna, and we then take a brief look at the Workmen’s village in the desert where records have been found which offer a fascinating insight into how the Egyptian economy actually worked.
On to Towns: Egyptian towns v Roman towns