Consider this. As far away in time as Ancient Greece seems to us, that’s how far away in time Egypt seemed to them. The pyramids looked much the same to the Greeks as they look to us, the limestone already stripped away to reuse, the tombs looted, the purpose, so clear to the Egyptians they didn’t actually write it down, as mysterious to the Greeks as it is to us.
And, unlike Babylon or Mohenjo-Daro, the Egyptian culture survived to and through Alexander’s conquest and flowered anew, recognizably Egyptian, with the Ptolemaic kings, only being crushed, finally, under Rome’s sandals.
For many years, from the time of the Greeks to now, Egypt was thought of as a culture of death, with the pyramids its most important symbol. But in reality Egypt was a culture of life, life made possible by the yearly gift of the Nile. Prosperous and healthy, protected by the nearly impassable deserts from marauding tribes, Egyptians enjoyed their world fully, savoring the pleasures of life and wanting them to continue into eternity. For most of its history, with a few exceptions, Egypt was a wealthy, sophisticated, remarkably free society, filled with good food, dance, sport, entertainment and gorgeous clothes.
The gift of the Nile, predictable every year, was fertile soil, making it possible for the people who settled on its banks to grow plenty to eat with enough left over to support people not directly attached to the soil. The gift of the Nile allowed for the first (it is posited by those studying such things) actual civilization, with kings and priests and soldiers and bureaucrats; with infrastructure like roads and taxes (yes, they’ve always been with us), international trade, even postal services; medicine and dentistry, entertainment, shops and businesses. And it allowed for luxuries like turquoise and gold, ivory and leopard skins, pets (the first recognizable cat and dog breeds started in Egypt), cedars from Lebanon (Egypt had very few trees of its own), marble, copper and limestone. And stability. While there were interim periods when the pharaohs were weak or died too quickly or lasted too long, when invasions upset the world of the Nile, for the most part, the serial dynasties of Egypt lasted not for tens but for hundreds of years.
It is difficult to see in what has been left behind such a span of years because much of what we can find looks so similar over time. According to Egyptologists, this was deliberate, not at all a failure of imagination. The Egyptian way of looking at the world, of governing it, describing it, or picturing it seemed to be “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” They liked the way their people looked incised on a plinth; there seemed no reason to change the perspective. Besides a pharaoh of Egypt recognized he (or much less often, she) was for the ages. Best to look so, best to look, after all, Egyptian. Akhenaton, a Middle Kingdom pharaoh who tried to change everything, even the way he was pictured for eternity, was after his death suppressed in all the king lists and historical records as much for his trying to change things as for what he tried to change things to.
But the society did, of course evolve, and even those parts of it that didn’t, that remained timelessly the same on the serene banks of the Nile, was a society more pleasant (for Egyptians at least) than all the others existing. Recent research even shows how far down into the ranks of ordinary people the prosperity went. There are hieroglyphs recording sessions of courts of law that sound remarkably similar to small claims court in the modern world. This mat weaver gets a short count on a delivery of flax and sues the middleman. That farmer disputes a boundary with a growing township. A courier complains of being delayed by bad maintenance on a boat. Archaeologists have now put forward evidence from the hieroglyphs that women owned property and ran businesses and made their own decisions. There is at least one text unearthed indicating what seems almost identical to a modern restraining order keeping the shopkeeper’s husband off the premises. And divorce could be–and was–instituted by either party to a marriage. The world of Egypt, so exotic to us, must have been a busy, bustling, ordinary place to live. And one which the Egyptians themselves enjoyed so much, they didn’t want to leave. Or at least, knowing they would have to, they believed with all their spirit that a place as wonderful as their own living Egypt awaited them out in the West, on the other side of the great divide.
The scenes incised or painted into tomb walls of the great do not celebrate death, they celebrate life, showing the tomb’s noble inhabitant (which isn’t precisely the word I am looking for) hunting, fishing, boating on the Nile, feasting with entertainers, ladies and gentlemen together, showing off their wigs and linen outfits and jewels. And displaying the makeup that gives them such a modern look to us. They were lean and athletic for the most part, healthier than their counterparts in virtually all other ‘civilized’ societies, finding much the same kind of facial and bodily structure attractive that we do now. The bust of Nefertiti, now in the Berlin Museum, seems gaspingly, astonishingly modern to us, showing to us easily the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
It is now considered self-evident that, Biblical anecdote to the contrary, pharaohs used paid labor, not slaves, to build their monuments, and the choice to do so was as much one of shrewd political economics–to enable full employment during the yearly inundation–as it was to glorify pharaoh.
Egyptian civilization waxed and waned and lasted in its essence for well over 3,000 years. In comparison, Greece managed only a few hundred years, Rome itself less than a thousand. Only China had nearly as long a run and was almost as sophisticated and cultured a society. And we, who pronounce on Egypt’s value as a civilization? The United States is less than 250 years old. Just consider.