Geographically, the valley of the Nile is the great protagonist of the Egyptian civilization. This valley has an arid and hostile desert that, according to Soravilla Españó, the Egyptians knew as the Red Land. The fertile land, or Black Land, Egypt, was divided into 2 clearly differentiated zones, one zone is the Nile Valley and the other zone is the Nile Delta.
The Black Land was periodically bathed by the waters of the Nile River. This land was fertile thanks to the floods of the river and the minerals in suspension that it contained. The Nile valley ends near Cairo, a little to the north. This is where the Nile Delta begins. In this place the river divides into several arms forming meanders and swampy areas, until it ends at the Mediterranean Sea. (Soravilla Españó, page 16)
These two geographical areas divided Egypt into two parts. The part of the valley was the Upper Egypt, and the part of the Delta was the Lower Egypt. Kings of the Upper Egypt during the Predynastic period proceeded to conquer the delta unifying the two territories. The last of those conquerors was King Narmer. His successor named Aha or Menes founded the capital of the kingdom in Memphis, which was strategically in the place of encounter between the Valley of the Nile and the Delta. (What life was like, page 12)
The geographical location of Egypt marked the culture and beliefs of its people. Life there was very difficult: on the one hand there was the proximity of the desert, a place where life was practically impossible and on the other hand there was the dependence on the flows of the Nile river for survival. This made the Egyptians exposed and highly dependent on the effects of nature. Due to these circumstances the Egyptians relied on the help of the gods to prosper.
Religion touched all aspects of life in ancient Egypt, and it affected the development of science and technology. Another important tool for the development of sciences was the apparition of writing. With the help of the writing system they were able to record thoughts or ideas, and to share them with others.
Within the beliefs of ancient Egypt was the idea of a life beyond death. For the Egyptians it was very important to keep the body healthy in this life as well as in the next. Due to this idea, mummification systems were developed to preserve the bodies for the next life. This practice also helped them to learn concepts of human anatomy. For example, they knew that the heart was a fundamental part of being able to live. In order to protect the body in life the Egyptians developed medicine, although it was strongly linked with magic or superstition. According to Veiga, medicine was practiced using the written word to heal the sick person as well as to prevent illness in the healthy, and to protect the dead in their passage to the afterlife. The Egyptians had a concept called “Hekka” that mixed medicine and magic into one whole. Doctors or healers used prayers or spells to heal in addition to ointments and medicines that they made with elements that nature provided them. (Veiga, page 28) Just as spells were used to heal, they were also used to cause illness to others. These prayers used the power of the written word to conjure spirits of the underworld to make alterations in the living through a figure or statue that represented the target person. These statuettes were buried in tombs belonging to a young woman or someone who had died of a violent death. (Veiga, page 29)
To protect themselves from diseases caused by bad spirits, many Egyptians used amulets to protect themselves. For example, the parents sought the protection of the gods, attaching amulets and pendants around the babies’ necks. Some of the pendant cases contained papyrus scrolls with prayers and spells to drive away maladies. (“What life was like…” page 57) As mentioned earlier, medicine had a magical component centered on the written word. The people who could exercise it were those who could read and write such as scribes, priests, kings or people of high social rank. There were also doctors who had assistants, nurses, midwives, and therapists. According to Herodotus, on his writings about his trip to Egypt, he could see that the doctors were specialized in some medical areas, for example there were doctors dedicated to ophthalmology; since eye diseases and blindness were very common in the ancient Egypt. There were also doctors dedicated to internal medicine, gynecology, or dentists who extracted teeth or joined false ones.
As with medicine, religious beliefs also led the Egyptians to develop a system for measuring time. Religion and the need to know when the floods of the Nile river occurred, a factor of vital importance for the survival of the Egyptians, led the ancient inhabitants to observe the sky, and invent the calendar to indicate religious festivals and to know how close there the annual flood of the river was. According to Juan Antonio Belmonte, in his article on ‘Astronomy in Egypt, the origin of the calendar’, the first astronomical observations are located right at the beginning of Egyptian civilization, during the Predynastic period (3500-3050 BCE), as well as during the reign of the first pharaohs of the Dynasty II (2857-2705 BCE). The Egyptians used two types of calendars to measure the passage of time. One of them was the lunar calendar. This calendar was based on the cycle of the moon, where 29 or 30 days were counted from the first new moon to the next. According to the lunar calendar, the year consisted of 3 seasons of 4 months. The beginning of the year was announced by the star they called “Sopdet” (Sirius) that appeared just on the horizon at nightfall around the time of the flooding of the Nile River (What live was like … page 22) The lunar calendar was not a perfect measurement of time since it was not possible to predict which was the first day of each month.
During the unification of Egypt, the civil bureaucracy needed a more efficient system that could unify the life of the country. A civil calendar was made, and duration was determined through solar observations. This calendar had a duration of 12 months, each of them had 30 days, so they made a total of 360 days. To these 360 days, according to JA Belmonte, were added the ‘Five on the Year’, five additional days that at least during the New Kingdom, were dedicated to the 5 most important gods for the Egyptians: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus. The Egyptians thought that these days, which were considered part of the 360 days, were the respective days of the birth of each god Like the lunar calendar, the civil calendar based on the sun also presents problems. This 365-day calendar did not have a leap year, so each year the departure of ‘Sopdet’ was delayed for a few more hours. The civil calendar remained official until the Roman Period (30 BCE-395 CE), at which time it was replaced by the Alexandrian calendar which was practically the same but adding one more day every four years.
The Egyptians measured the time during the day with the help of the Sun and the shadows projected according to the Sun position, like the sundial. They also had a method to know the hours during the night. They had a list of stars they called ‘decans’ that were identified with different hours of the night in various parts of the year. During the reign of Amenhotep, I, during the period of the New Kingdom (1560-1070 BCE) appeared clocks that did not need the help of the sun and the stars to show the time of day. This object used to measure time was called Clepsydra and it was formed by a container full of water with a small perforation in the bottom part through which the drops of water passed to reach another container where it was collected. The inside of the first vessel was inscribed at different levels to mark the hours, which was the shortest unit of time that the ancient Egyptians could measure.
Religious beliefs also helped to develop Egyptian architecture. Due to the concept of life after death, the ancient Egyptians had the belief that the objects that they possessed during their life were going to be necessary in the next. At first, they only believed that the pharaohs were the only ones who could carry out this process, so they built tombs in which to house the mummified body of Pharaoh and the great treasures he would need in the afterlife.
The Egyptians prepared their passes to the afterlife with their graves. During the Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom, the tombs of the pharaohs took great importance. They started to build a building call mastaba
The mastabas were truncated pyramids of rectangular base with an underground funerary building. With time, the mastabas would give place to the pharaonic pyramids. The mastabas were, at first, built with adobe bricks; However, for these tombs to better withstand the passage of time, Egyptians began to use the stone as constructive material. In the mastabas, the body of the deceased was deposited in a funeral chamber that was located a few meters underground. Access to this chamber was through a well that, sometimes, it was covered with stones to protect the body from possible thieves. In addition, the cameras of the mastaba were decorated with paintings in which they often presented scenes of daily life.
The idea of building a pyramid was due to the desire to build more spectacular mastabas, superimposing different mastabas each time smaller. During the Third Dynasty, the pyramid was staggered, with six levels corresponding to the superposition of six mastabas. The body of the deceased was in a chamber excavated underground and under the pyramid. In addition, around the pyramid were different buildings with different functions. The construction of the pyramids was a monumental work involving thousands of workers, tons and thousands of stone blocks, precise calculations and time.
During the New Kingdom, and since the pyramids were frequently looted, the pharaohs decided to hide their tombs, that were made inside the rock of the mountains. They wanted to hinder the arrival of thieves to the chamber where the Pharaoh’s body rested and to the chambers where his rich funeral trousseau was located (furniture, valuable objects and precious metals …). For this reason, the tombs were made at the end of long corridors. In addition, there were dead-end corridors, wells and guards at the entrance. The walls of these tombs were richly decorated, with numerous paintings.
The civil buildings were built with adobe bricks, which is not preserved as well as the stone of religious buildings. Like the rest of the Egyptian houses, the palace was also built of adobe and, therefore, almost no remains remain; only the foundations. The palace was profusely decorated with paintings and reliefs. In addition, many people lived there (royal family, servants, guards …). For this reason, it was large and had different adjoining constructions. It was also surrounded by rich gardens. The temples were always built on the eastern bank of the Nile, where the sun rose. Generally, in accesses of the temples were statues of sphinxes that had the symbolic function of protecting the temple.
Belmonte, Juan A. “La Astronomía en Egipto, el origen del calendario.” (The Astronomy in Egypt, the Origin of the calendar) National Geographic. 25 Apr. 2013. http://www.nationalgeographic.com.es/historia/grandes-reportajes/la-astronomia-en-egipto_7198/2
Manchip White, Jon. Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt. Dover Publications, INC. 2015ed.
Soravilla Españó, Luis E. Tecnología y Cultura en el Antiguo Egipto (Technology and Culture in Ancient Egypt). TFC: Josep Cervelló Autuori
Veiga, Paula Alexandra da Silva. Health and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Magic and Science. Archaeopress, 2009.
What Life Was like on the Banks of the Nile: Egypt 3050-30 BC. Time-Life Books, 2004.