Full disclosure compels me to acknowledge that I am not a professionally trained Egytologist. Immodestly perhaps, I still feel qualfied to act as your guide. I have visited Egypt twice, reflected closely on Egyptian objects in our museums, and have taught this course at Hunter College off and on for some twenty years.
Why have I elected to do this? I believe that Egyptian art and culture are of vital, universal importance. Many of the things that matter to us started in ancient Egypt. In fact the cycle of ancient civilization starts not with Greece but on the Nile.
Much of what is usually said about ancient Egypt--Kemet as they called it--is important and true. Still there is reason question some of the conventional wisdom about Egypt of the pharaohs.
1) Let us start with a famous truism: Egypt is the gift of the Nile (Herodotus) . There is no doubt that ancient Egypt is Nilotic, dependent for its very existence on the great river. (Only about a sixth of the Nile is in question--up to the First Cataract; further upstream lie Nubia, Axum, and Ethiopia). Each year saw a regular pattern of inundation from late June to September. Nature did much of the work that human toil had to perform elsewhere. The corollary, it seems, is that the need to control water resources led to absolute centralization under a single authoritarian ruler, the pharaoh, regarded as divine.
A great historian, Karl Wittfogel, addressed the question, why are some societies more despotic than others? (“Oriental Despotism,” 1957). He found the key in management of water resources. Where rainfall is regular and predictable, there is little need for such management. Yet scarcity is another matter, opening the way for domination: “agromanagerial despots claim to be benevolent, but the actually seek to maximize their own power and privileges.” One result is the pyramids. Wittfogel introduced the term “hydraulic society.” Ancient Egypt might almost be termed hyperhydraulic.
Is this analysis true? Each year as the waters receded the kings supervised adjudication of property rights. Maintenance of canals was required.
Still some comparative perspective is helpful. River systems characterize ALL the four primary civilizations of the Old World: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and Shang China. The other three all seem to have a city state organization, rather than centralization under a supreme monarch as in Egypt. So it seems that we cannot derive the poltical system in Egypt, so important for art and architecture, directly from the riverine environment. Ideology, including religion, played a significant ancillary role. (Note that it is no disgrace being a secondary civilization: viz. Greece and Japan.)
2) The Egyptian geographical details are as follows. Upper and Lower Egypt are the “two lands,” unified about 3100 B.C. E. Behind this dualism we can glimpse a pattern of local settlements, villages that became foci of little realms, a pattern that seems to survive in the 42 nome system, each with its god or gods.
Nomenclature tends to show a triad of options (ancient Egyptian, Greek, Arabic: Waset, Thebes, Luxor. Further; Mer, pyramidion, Haram (al Ahram). Current usage shows a shift in royal names. so that Chephren becomes Khafre; Sesostris, Senwosret. From Arabic come a number of recurrent name elements: wadi, gebel, kom or tell, bahr.
3) The sequencing of Egyptian history follows several templates. Egyptians tended to segment their history only into reigns, calling for a formidable feat of memory. At the end of the pharaonic era Manetho stipulated 31 dynasties. We still feel that certain dynasties have a “personality”: 3d the prodigy era (adolescence) of Old Kingdom; 4th the pyramid age par excellence; the 18th, worldliness. Before dynastic Egypt was the predynastic period. The now conventional sequence of Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom is of modern origin; this triad seems to have been introduced by the German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius in 1842.
4) Language: The Afro-Asiatic languages constitute a vast language family with about comprising more than 300 million speakers spread throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, northern West Africa, northern Central Africa, and Southwest Asia (including some 200 million speakers of Arabic). Egyptian is, of course, now a dead language (except in the film Stargate). The Afro-Asiatic language family includes the following subfamilies: Berber, Chadic, Egyptian, Cushitiic, Semitic.
The term "Afroasiatic" was coined by Joseph Greenberg to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic" after his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid language family. It is now most often spelled "Afro-Asiatic.” Afro-Asiatic is one of the four major language families of Africa identified by Greenberg in his book The Languages of Africa (1963). It is the only one also spoken outside of Africa.
No agreement exists on where Proto-Afro-Asiatic speakers lived, though the language is generally believed to have originated in Northeast Africa. Some scholars (such as Igor Diakonoff and Lionel Bender) have proposed Ethiopia, because it includes the majority of the diversity of the Afro-Asiatic language family and has very diverse groups in close geographic proximity, often considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin. Other researchers (such as Christopher Ehret) have put forward the western Red Sea coast and the Sahara.
Given that wavy-line pottery is found widely in the Sahara from 8000 BCE, and that the Neolithic agricultural technologies arrived around 5000 BCE. this finding sets a possible context for Proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal. As it is known that the Ethiopian farmers moved into the highlands from the direction of Nubian Sudan, and attempts to translate the Meroitic script found in this area show significant Afro-Asiatic characteristics, Lionel Bender suggests that this area of the Southern Nile was the centre from which the Afro-Asiatic languages dispersed. The dates of pottery and agriculture set approximate early and late dates for this linguistic dispersal. The date of Proto-Afro-Asiatic would thus lie somewhere between ca. 8000 and ca. 5000 BCE or, expressed differently, between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Climatically this was the time of a "wet Sahara" phase with large rivers and lakes. The dispersal of Afro-Asiatic may thus have been a response to the recent operation of the "Sahara pump.”
Common features of the Afro-Asiatic languages include: a two-gender system in the singular, with the feminine marked by the /t/ sound; VSO typology with SVO tendencies; a set of emphatic consonants, variously realized as glottalized, pharyngealized, or implosive; and a templatic morphology in which words inflect by internal changes as well as with prefixes and suffixes (e.g haram/ahram)
Apart from these questions, are there cultural traits that spread along these linguistic paths? Pottery (not yet fully investigated in this light) might show some interesting common properties, assuming that pottery was invented before the dispersal. There is also the question of sacred kingship as found in West Africa (e.g. the Oba of Benin).
The stages of the Egyptian language are as follows: Old, Middle, Late, Coptic.
So much about the natural features of this group of languages.
What about the distinctive Egyptian writing system, commonly known as hieroglyphic? Egyptian writing is a mixture of phonetic, determinative, and ideographic elements. The matter is complicated by biliteral and triliteral signs. The example of mer (pyramid) was noted. The key to this complex task of interpretation was given by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822.
At their finest, hieroglyphs have a beauty and clarity that makes them works of art in all but name. Indeed the transition from hieroglyph to art is a gradual one.
5) At the outset we said something about the origins of pharaonic Egypt. What of its legacy?
A. Coptic. By tradition the founding of Christianity in Egypt is due to the missionary work of St. Mark in Alexandria. In some instances, Coptic (written in a modified Greek script) preserves the original vowels, which were not written in hieroglyphic. A considerable number of gnostic Christian documents have survived (e.g. the Nag Hammadi finds). The stylized mummy portraits of Roman times contributed to the emergence of icons. Institutionally monasticism is the greatest contribution of Coptic Christianity. There may be some remote connection with the organization of pharaonic temples. Generally, though, the Copts were unappreciative of their pharaonic heritage: some monks deliberately defaced murals and sculptures of earlier times, as survivals of “pagan superstition.”
B. Islamic. The Arab conquest in the 640s yielded an uneasy coexistence with Coptic Christianity. According to Okasha El Daly, a contemporary Egyptian researcher based in London, progress was made by Muslim scholars in Egypt and elsewhere from the 9th century C.E. onwards In this writer’s view the first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made by Dhul-Nin al-Misri and In Wahshiyya in the 9th century, who were able to gain some understanding of what was written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, by relating them to the contemporary Coptic language. Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, a teacher at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in the 13th century, wrote detailed descriptions of ancient Egyptian monuments, Similarly, the 15th-century Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi produced detailed accounts of Egyptian antiquities. [In Dynes’ view, this is exciting research, which will go far to redress the balance. Yet some claims may be a little overenthusiastic.]
C, The hermetic tradition. This is a largely fantastic European elaboration of Egyptian wisdom based on speculative interpretations of the hieroglyphs, set against the background of the Corpus Hermeticum, ostensibly written by the sage Hermes Trismegistus in early times. In principle this approach was demolished by Champollion's decipherment of 1822. Yet something of the hermetic approach survives in the modern fashion for pyramidology, a series of speculative interpretations of the pyramids.
D. Influence on ancient Israel. In the Hebrew bible Egypt figures as a negative role model: the bondage from which one must free oneself. Yet modern scholarship has questioned the historicity of the exodus story. Egypt did, however, anticipate monotheism with Akhenaten in the mid-14th century B.C.E. A new analysis of Egyptian religion, currently underway, may recast the problem.
E. Influence on Greece. In three massive volumes (so far) of “Black Athena,” Martin Bernal has questioned the conventional view of ancient Greece as autonomous and self-generating, an approach that is encapsulated in such phrases as “the Greek miracle.” Bernal believes that Egypt made an enormous contribution to Greece. In all likelihood, time constraints will prevent us from returning to this important matter in class. See, however, my paper above: "Greece, Egypt, and the Near East."