Thursday, 2 January 2014

Ancient Egypt - Cultural Continuity

'Ancient Egypt' is a term everyone is familiar with, but no one is really familiar with what it actually means.  In the popular imagination, it includes mummies, pyramids, Cleopatra, and Tutankhamun, with a characteristically colourful style of iconography and painting, often found on walls consisting of enormous blocks of light sandstone.  The writing was in hieroglyphs - exotic but crude.  They thought cats were sacred.  If you image search 'ancient Egypt', Google even provides the images divided up into category - mummies, pyramids, maps, hieroglyphics, pharaohs.

But 'ancient Egypt' is a term that serves to cover three millennia of time.  Here's a startling reminder of the extreme longevity of this civilization, if that's what you can call it: you are closer in time to Cleopatra (died 30 BCE) than Cleopatra was to the builders of the Pyramid of Khufu (completed 2560 BCE).  Tutankhamun was about midway between the two, living as he did in the fourteenth century BCE.  You are closer in time to the Visigothic kings of Spain than Tutankhamun was to Khufu.  (John Green makes a similar point in his fun, and actually rather good, 'Crash Course: World History' episode on Ancient Egypt.)

Egypt is impossibly ancient, the kind of age that puts other human societies into stunning perspective.  It wasn't a period, or a sort of civilized prelude to Greeks and Romans, but possibly the longest-lived literate civilization on earth, ever.  The competition comes from Mesopotamia, but there are fewer examples of such extreme sameness over such long durations.  Egypt wasn't politically unified for the entire time - see, for instance, this map of political divisions in the Third Intermediate Period - but the reason ancient Egypt seems like one place, in which Cleopatra shared a two-dimensional walking dance with Khufu, is because some things stayed nearly the same over three thousand years.

File:NarmerPalette ROM-gamma.jpg
The Narmer Palette.  This is from 5100 years ago.  5100.  h/t Wiki.

Of course, there were changes in ancient Egypt.  Khufu's pyramid was built with huge blocks of stone transported over rivers and up ramps by teams of workers, and it is true that this style continued in use for some time.  Monumental architecture is characteristic of public sites in early Egypt.  But by the time of Akhenaten, around 1350 BCE, workers used much smaller blocks, ones that could be carried by a single man.  These are conventionally referred to as talatat, after the Egyptian Arabic word for 'three', referring to the three-handspan length of each block (about a cubit, or 45 centimetres).  Akhenaten also imposed changes in iconography related to his belief in the Aten, but these were not long-lived.  Akhenaten's Egypt would doubtless have seemed strange and foreign to Khufu, had he seen it.
File:Small aten temple.jpg
The Small Aten Temple at Akhetaten, aka Amarna.  Built using talatat.  h/t Wiki, User: Markh.

But hieroglyphs were in use for a very long time, well into the (Greek) Ptolemaic period (began 332 BCE) and beyond.  Hieroglyphs are very flexible and use a large number of signs of different kinds.  Some represent sounds, whether single phonemes (like /f/, represented by a horned viper, I9) or standard combinations of two sounds (like 'mt', for which read /met/, represented by a stylised phallus, D52).  Some are what are now called 'determinatives' - little pictures added on to the phonetic hieroglyphs to give a clue as to the meaning, as vowels were not written in hieroglyphic scripts.

Due to their flexibility, hieroglyphs were used to write several variants of the Egyptian language, including Archaic (in the earliest inscriptions), Old (roughly the time of the Old Kingdom), and Middle (the 'classical' language of Egypt until the Roman conquest, in which most of the great Egyptian literary works were composed).  The language changed, as spoken languages always do, but the hieroglyphs remained basically the same.  In addition to hieroglyphs were the hieratic script, which dates from approximately the same time as hieroglyphs and uses stylised versions of hieroglyphic characters; and the Demotic script, used to write a later form of Egyptian from c.650 BCE.  At which point, I hasten to add, Egypt had been using hieroglyphs, largely unchanged, for about two-and-a-half thousand years - nearly the time from the beginning of Demotic up to now.  The Greek and Roman alphabets are only just beginning to approach that age.
File:Prisse papyrus.svg
Hieratic script.  Image in the public domain, but see Wiki.
It is rare for histories of human societies to produce dates that rival geological or cosmological time in their ability to make you reconsider your place, and the place of everyone else, in the universe.  And Egypt's longevity may not make you think the kind of thoughts that the age of the universe makes you think.  But it certainly makes it hard to indulge in the belief that one's own society is primordial and ancient when that society pales in age next to the traditions established by the people of the Old Kingdom.

Egypt is perhaps the only literate place on the planet where there is such obvious cultural continuity, where even the written record attests to the incomparable age of the lifestyles found there.  But it's relatively easy to find continuities of a sort in prehistory.  At Cuddie Springs, an archaeological site in New South Wales, Australia, archaeologists have discovered remains of Pleistocene megafauna in human-associated contexts for a period of over seven thousand years beginning about forty thousand years ago.  These now-extinct megafauna included Genyornis and Diprotodon, a gigantic flightless bird and a three-metre-long giant wombat respectively.  For seven thousand years, humans lived alongside these creatures in that part of Australia.  They woke up every day for seven thousand years with the prospect of seeing, and perhaps killing, an enormous wombat.
File:Genyornis BW.jpg
Genyornis - a companion and prey of Australian communities for a period longer than the presence of farming in western Europe.  h/t Wiki, User: Nobu Tamura

All of which is just to remind you that the universe is vast, ancient, and inscrutable, and that everything you take for granted and think of as normal and essential to life is dust in the wind.


  1. Really very helpful when you are going to do Meditation in travel to Egypt, The ancient Egyptians built full magical places of power which serves the human being to develop their inner peace and to get full of it. We are offering you a simple way to know yourself, to find out where do you come from, to remember your mission here on earth, to discover the secrets of universe.

  2. his may be due to the fact that much of surviving egyptian culture art and architecture was connected in some way with religion, death, burial and/or the afterlife, but other factors as well need to be considered.

  3. When thinking of civilizations like this, I like to think not in terms of the modern western calendar (BC/AD, or if you wish BCE/CE), but in terms of the traditional Byzantine calendar, where years are counted from the supposed date of the creation, at 5508 BC. (The reckoning is based on Septuagint, which has a somewhat longer chronology than the Western Bible translations). So it is 7523 AM today; Cleopatra lived ca. 5470 AM; Tutankhamun, ca. 4100 AM, and Kheops had his pyramid built ca. 2940 AM. There is plenty of calendar space left for some of the Egyptian prehistory without having to go into negative numbers...

    In a sense, I guess, it is somewhat fitting that the timing of the Biblical Adam (especialy by the Eastern -- Septuagint -- chronology, that is, and not by Western, Ussher's) roughly corresponds to the putative time of the origin of the Indo-European language family, or of various early stages in the pre-literate civilizations of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent.


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