Ancient Egypt

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Egypt, Ancient


an ancient state in the lower reaches of the river Nile in northeastern Africa.

The territory of Egypt was settled in the Paleolithic period. From the tenth to sixth millennia B.C., when the climate was more moist, various separate nomadic tribes lived in the savannas surrounding the Nile, whose delta and valley were still swampy. These tribes engaged in hunting, gathering, and, later, fishing. The change in climate during the Neolithic period, which led to the drying up of the savannas, forced the nomads to move to the floodlands of the Nile. Among these peoples were the Proto-Semites, the Berbers, and the Cushites; the intermarriage of these peoples led in the fourth millennium B.C. to the formation of the Egyptian people. An increase in population—a population that could not be supported by hunting and fishing—hastened the transition to stock raising and farming, bringing the territorial community into existence. The need for more land suitable for farming necessitated the development of a network of irrigation canals and dams. The labor for their construction was provided by community members and by slaves captured during internecine wars. The most ancient farming settlements of Egypt gave rise to the successive cultures of the fifth and fourth millennia B.C.: in the north at Merimdeh Beni Salameh, Omari, and Maadi; in the south, the Tasian, Badarian, Amratian, and Neqada cultures; and throughout the country, the Gerzean culture. The use of compulsory labor encouraged the social stratification of the communities, the emergence of a clan nobility, and the transformation of the tribal leaders into kinglets. Primitive state formations arose, from which evidently the administrative provinces, the so-called nomes, of Egypt developed at a later time. A struggle for land, cattle, and slaves ensued between these petty states. About the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. two kingdoms formed. Lower Egypt in the north and Upper Egypt in the south, with capitals in Buto and Hierakonpolis, respectively. The entire country was finally united around 3000 B.C. by Menes (Mena), king of the southern kingdom, who seized Lower Egypt and built the fortress “White Walls” (Greek, Memphis), which became the capital of Egypt in the 28th century B.C. With the unification of Egypt, the so-called Dynastic Period of Egyptian history begins. (Until the second conquest of Egypt by the Persians in 341 B.C. there were a total of 30 dynasties according to the Egyptian historian-priest Manetho [end of the fourth century to the beginning of the third century B.C.].) The country became a centralized Eastern despotate, ensuring the creation of a common irrigation system for the entire country.

The Protodynastic Period encompassed the rule of the first two dynasties. It was characterized by the development of irrigation, the perfection of stone and bronze implements, the appearance of the potter’s wheel, and increased barter trade. At this time the governmental apparatus was beginning to form with its petty official-scribe stratum. The administrative districts (nomes) headed by nomarchs emerged. Systematic campaigns of plunder were undertaken against Cush (Nubia) in the south, the Libyans in the northwest, and the Bedouin on the Sinai Peninsula, where copper mines were located.

Old Kingdom (c. 2800–2250 B.C.). The Old Kingdom began with the ascension of the first king of the Third Dynasty, Zoser (Djoser). Agriculture continued to develop during this period as did handicrafts, trade, and building. Private ownership of land emerged alongside communal ownership. The bureaucratic apparatus became firmly established and was headed by a supreme official—the vizier. The power of the pharaoh, who was also the high priest and considered the owner of all the land and subjects, reached its peak in this period; the ancient nomarch nobility became a court nobility. A standing army came into existence, composed of community members and, to a lesser extent, foreigners, largely the inhabitants of Cush. The idea of the unlimited power of the divine pharaohs was embodied in the construction of huge tombs—pyramids—especially in the Third and Fourth dynasties (the Pyramids of Snefru, Khufu [Cheops], Khafre [Chephren], and Menkaure [Mycerinus]). The labor of slaves and peasants was widely used in their construction.

By the end of the Old Kingdom the local nomarch nobility gradually became stronger and rose in opposition to the burdensome central power. The pharaohs of the Fifth and Sixth dynasties (Neferirkare, Pepi I, Pepi II, for instance) were forced to issue so-called writs of immunity to free templeowned lands and many settlements from their obligations to the royal house.

First Intermediate Period (c. 2250–2050 B.C.). In the 23rd and 22nd centuries B.C., Egypt fell apart into a number of warring nomes and small states. This led to the collapse of the irrigation system and consequently of agriculture. In areas that were remote from the Nile’s spring floods and not part of the community lands, private landownership developed, hastening community decline. The stratum of small and middle property owners, who were in need of various artisan goods, increased. The expansion of trade and the production of handicrafts led to the growth of cities interested in the country’s unity. This served as a prerequisite for a new unification of the country and the restoration of the irrigation system. The country’s unification proceeded gradually amid an internecine struggle. In the north the nomarchs of Herakleopolis (Ninth and Tenth dynasties) gained power and in the south, those of Thebes (11th Dynasty); the latter conquered Herakleopolis. About 2050 B.C. under Mentuhotep I the country was reunited under the hegemony of Thebes, which became the capital of Egypt.

Middle Kingdom (c. 2050–1700 B.C.). The Middle Kingdom primarily included the reign of the 12th Dynasty, during which major irrigation work was carried out in the Faiyum (Fayyum) Oasis. On the large noble estates the service of free landowners was probably used along with slave labor. Bronze items began to appear. Trade with Syria, Crete, and Punt in the south increased. In the reign of Sesostris III (Senusert III) Cush was united to Egypt up to the second cataract of the Nile. The internecine wars continued under the first pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty. Only under Amenemhet III (second half of the 19th century B.C.), who crushed the nomarchs, did centralized power become consolidated; the capital of Egypt became It-tawy (Itht-toui). However, the increasing property inequality provoked an uprising of the poor, leading in about 1750 B.C. to a new fall of Egypt.

Second Intermediate Period (c. 1700–1580 B.C.). Around 1700 B.C. the Hyksos invaded Egypt from the northeast, capturing most of the country and holding it for 110 years. Their kings, ruling from Avaris (the northeastern part of the Nile Delta), formed the 15th and 16th dynasties. Local rulers continued to be in power (17th Dynasty) in Thebes. The pharaohs Sekenenre and Kamose of the 17th Dynasty embarked on a war of liberation, which was completed by their successor, the founder of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose I (Amasis), who drove the Hyksos out of Egypt in 1580 B.C.

New Kingdom (c. 1580–1070 B.C.). During the New Kingdom bronze began to be used extensively, the first articles made of iron appeared, various metalworking techniques were perfected, as was the design of the loom and plow, wagons with wheels became common and glass production developed. Raw material was acquired by trade or as tribute from neighboring and captive countries (silver, lead, copper, and lumber from Syria and Palestine, gold and ivory from Cush, and incense and rare wood from Punt). Records of a fleet outfitted by Queen Hatshepsut to Punt have been pre-served. Private slaveholding reached unheard-of dimensions. Tens of thousands of slaves were brought back from successful campaigns. Constant warring forced the pharaohs of the 18th-20th dynasties to occupy themselves with improving their armies, the core of which were the charioteers from the nobility and the prosperous strata of society. The composite bow was introduced as the standard weapon for the infantry. These measures improved the combat efficiency of the army. The successors of Ahmose, Thutmose I and especially Thutmose III and Amenhotep II annexed Syria and Palestine in the north and Cush up to the fourth cataract in the south. Regular diplomatic relations were established with Mitanni, Babylonia, and the Hittite kingdom. The height of Egypt’s power was reached under Amenhotep III in the second half of the 15th century B.C. The increased influence of the temples, which received huge land allotments, gold, and slaves from the pharaohs, led to a conflict between the priesthood and royal power. Striving to weaken the priesthood and the nomarchs, Amenhotep IV (Ikhnaton), relying on the small landowners, introduced a religious reform, replacing the cult of the old deities with a single sun-god—Aton. The new religion better corresponded to the needs of a “world” empire. Ikhnaton transferred his residence to the newly built city of Akhetaton, modern-day Tell El-Amarna. The struggle between the pharaohs and priests weakened Egypt. In the first half of the 14th century B.C. it lost most of its northern possessions. After the death of Ikhnaton under the pharaohs Tutankhamen and Horemheb, the priesthood and nobility succeeded in restoring the old religion. Under the 19th Dynasty, the most outstanding representative of which was Ramses II (end of the 14th century to the middle of the 13th century B.C.), the Hittites and Egypt fought for Syria. After the battle of Kadesh, which took place according to V. V. Struve’s chronology in 1312 B.C., Egypt and the Hittites signed a peace treaty in 1296 and delineated spheres of influence (Palestine and southern Syria went to Egypt). In the period from the second half of the 13th century to the first half of the 12th century B.C. under the pharaohs Merneptah and Ramses IV the invasions of the “sea peoples” and ’the Libyans were repulsed. Prolonged warfare and increased compulsory levies of goods and services imposed on the free peasants belonging to temple and royal estates provoked the people’s dissatisfaction, which sometimes developed into outright rebellion (for example, at the end of the 13th century B.C.). Large offerings to the temples and extensive building exhausted government funds. All this led to the economic, political, and military weakening of Egypt; by the end of the 20th Dynasty, Egyptian-controlled Syria and the southern regions of Cush had been lost. Under Ramses XII (c. 1070 B.C.), the power in Thebes had for all intents and purposes passed into the hands of the high priest of the god Amon— Herihor.

Late Period (Libyan-Saitic and Persian period; c. 1070–332 B.C.). The Late Period was characterized by wide use of iron (from the seventh to the sixth century B.C.), the extensive development of monetary circulation and lending, the ruination of the working masses, and the further development of bondage slavery along with attempts to ban enslavement for debt (for example, the laws of Pharaoh Bocchoris). After the new decline of Egypt in the second half of the 11th century to the beginning of the tenth century, Sheshonk, the leader of Libyan military settlers, declared himself king in Bubastis, beginning the 22nd Dynasty in the middle of the tenth century B.C. The pharaohs of this dynasty attempted to unite Egypt into a single kingdom. In the second half of the eighth century B.C., Egypt came under the power of Cush (25th Dynasty), and in 671 B.C. it was conquered by the Assyrians. The Saitic ruler Psamtik I (Psammetichus I), who ruled from 663 to 610 B.C., was able to liberate and unite the country with the aid of Greek and Carian mercenaries. Under him and his successor Necho II, close trade relations with Greece were established as well as with other countries of the eastern Mediterranean. At this time the Greek colony of Naucratis was founded in the Nile Delta, and a canal uniting the Nile with the Red Sea was dug. Phoenician navigators sent by Necho II rounded Africa from east to west. Necho II, Psamtik II, and Apries fought with Babylonia for Syria and Palestine. The weakened Egyptian forces, however, were unable to repulse the army of the Persian king Cambyses and in 525 B.C. Egypt was conquered and annexed by the Persian Empire. This facilitated the further development of trade relations, especially with Greece and Asia Minor. Levying excessive taxes on the average landowner and artisan through their tax farmers, the Persian kings provided generously for their priests and warriors. All this angered the popular masses of Egypt and led to anti-Persian rebellions. Circa 404 B.C., Egypt gained temporary independence but in 341 B.C. was once again conquered by the Persians. Finally in 332–31 B.C., Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great of Macedonia during his military campaigns against the Achaemenids.

Greco-Roman period (332 B.C.-A.D. 395). After 332 B.C., Egypt became part of the Hellenistic world. The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander on the shore of the Mediterranean, became the largest Hellenistic cultural and trade center. In Egypt new artisan and trade centers sprung up, trade relations widened as far as Arabia and India, and the cultures of the western and eastern kingdoms began to merge. Under the Ptolemies (305–30 B.C.), who like the pharaohs were considered the supreme owners of all the land, the conquerors became richer at the expense of the local population by introducing a complex system of direct and indirect taxes, state monopolies, tax farming, and duties. The further expansion of trade and monetary circulation favored the growth of usury. The heavy tax burden and the system of state monopolies forced the landowners and artisans to abandon their lands and shops. By the end of the second century B.C. production had decreased considerably, the market became smaller, and an economic and political crisis ensued. At the beginning of the third century B.C., Egypt again took possession of almost the entire coast and islands of the eastern Mediterranean; however, these conquests were lost by the beginning of the second century B.C. in wars with the Seleucids and Macedonia. The military weakening of Egypt was also encouraged by frequent dynastic quarrels and popular rebellions (especially in the middle of the second century B.C.). The last Ptolemies were supported by Rome, which actively interfered in the affairs of Egypt, one of Rome’s main sources of bread. The Egyptian nobility, hoping to suppress with the help of the Romans the various rebellions that were breaking out, was also closely allied with Rome. This facilitated Rome’s conquest of Egypt and the latter’s transformation in 30 B.C. into a Roman province. After the division of the Roman Empire in A.D. 395, Egypt became a province of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). In 619 the Persian king Khosrau II, taking advantage of the weakness of Byzantium torn with social and dynastic strife, seized Egypt. Between 639 and 642, Egypt was conquered by the Arabs. (For the later history of Egypt see EGYPT.)


Khrestomatiia po istorii Drevnego Vostoka. Edited by V. V. Struve and D. G. Reder. Moscow, 1963.
Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. Edited by J. B. Pritchard. Princeton, 1955.
Breasted, J. H. Ancient Records of Egypt, 3rd ed., vols. 1–5. Chicago, 1962.


Turaev, B. A. Drevnii Egipet. Petrograd, 1922.
Struve, V. V. Istoriia Drevnego Vostoka, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1941.
Kink, Kh. A. Egipet do faraonov. Moscow, 1964.
Savel’eva, T. N. Agrarnyi stroi Egipta v period Drevnego Tsarstva. Moscow, 1962.
Katsnel’son, I. S. “Kharakter voin i rabovladenie v Egipte pri faraonakh-zavoevateliakh XVIII-XX dinastii.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1951, no. 3.
Perepelkin, lu. la. Perevorot Amenkhotepa IV, part 1. Moscow, 1967.
Struve, V. V. “Obshchestvennyi stroi ellinisticheskogo Egipta.” Voprosy istorii, 1962, no. 2.
Zel’in, K. K. Issledovaniia po istorii zemel’nykh otnoshenii v ellinisticheskom Egipte II-I vv. do n.e. Moscow, 1960.
Ranovich, A. B. Vostochnye provintsii Rimskoi imperii v I-III vv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1949.
Fikhman, I. F. Egipet na rubezhe dvukh epokh. Moscow, 1965.
Breasted, J. H.Istoriia Egipta s drevneishikh vremen dopersidskogo zavoevaniia, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1915. (Translated from English.)
Hayes, W. C. The Scepter of Egypt, parts 1–2. Cambridge, Mass., 1959–60. (With bibliography.)
Gardiner, A. H. Egypt of the Pharaohs. Oxford, 1961.
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCE BOOKS Pratt, J. Ancient Egypt. New York, 1925.
Pratt, J. Ancient Egypt, 1925–1941. New York, 1942.
Annual Egyptological Bibliography. Leiden (since 1947).


Education. In the Old Kingdom, schools were established by the pharaoh at the court for future scribes. Later, schools at the temples appeared and in the New Kingdom, at major government institutions. Boys from age five to 16 were educated in the schools. Beginning at the age of 12, the students worked as scribes in various offices. Studies began early in the morning and ended late in the evening; strict discipline prevailed in the school, and corporal punishment was used. The principal subjects were reading, writing, and counting. Reading and writing were learned by memorizing the hieroglyphs (the students usually read in unison in a sing-song manner) and by means of written exercises. Writing was accomplished using a small reed stick with black paint; red paint was used to begin a new paragraph. (From this derives the [Russian] expression krasnaia stroka [literally, red line], which means indented line.) At first, the students wrote on clay vessel shards and on pieces of limestone. After the student had mastered writing, he was permitted to write on a long narrow (16 cm) role of papyrus. Texts to be copied were chosen in such a manner that the content would further the education of the future official (sermons permeated with bureaucratic morality, religious texts, hymns, and so forth). Counting occupied an important place in education. School “notebooks” have been found containing solutions of problems of narrow practical character (calculations of the volume of corn bins and granaries and the area of fields, calculations of the labor necessary for given tasks, and computations of the area and volume of geometric figures). The detailed solution of the problem and the answer were recorded in these “notebooks”; often the phrase “You solved well” is found after an answer. Swimming, gymnastics, and good manners were taught. In addition to the general subjects, the temple schools provided religious education and also taught astronomy and medicine. The children of the higher Egyptian nobility were educated in military schools, which turned out the future military leaders.

Technology and science. The earliest evidences of the conscious activity of man are the Paleolithic hand axes made of flint and hornfels found in the Nile Valley. In the Neolithic period (fifth millennium B.C.) more specialized polished tools appeared; obsidian came to be used after the fourth millennium B.C. (the culture of Neqada II). With the transition from a hunting economy to stock raising and then to agriculture, the first farming tools came into use—the hoe, sickle, and so forth. They were made out of stone, wood, and bone; pottery of a more complex shape but still handmade appeared. Vessels were also made from stone (alabaster). Beginning in the fourth millennium B.C. copper was being worked (Gerzean culture); copper deposits were located in the Eastern Desert and on the Sinai Peninsula. The potter’s wheel came into use, ceramic and cloth production developed, and faience (glazed earthenware) and, in the third millennium B.C., glass began to be manufactured. Copper was used everywhere. Bronze began to be used in the second millennium B.C. The first individual iron articles found in Egypt date from about the middle of the second millennium B.C. Only a millennium later, however, did iron become widely used. The Egyptians were very successful in the working of silver and gold, out of which they fashioned genuine masterpieces of art.

Since agriculture in Egypt is possible only with the aid of artificial irrigation, the first dams and canals were built as early as the Predynastic Period. Sweeps (shadoofs) were used to irrigate fields (the oldest depiction of a shadoof dates from the 14th century B.C.). Later, the waterwheel (sakieh) was used. The plow appeared during the Protodynastic Period.

The country’s principal route of communication was the Nile. Large boats of various forms and purposes were built as early as the Predynastic Period. Seagoing vessels, whose dimensions increased with time, were used for trade with other countries (Syria, Punt). Pack animals and sledges were used to transport loads on land. Wheeled transport began to be used in the 18th century B.C.

Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, clay and reeds were the basic building material. Mud bricks were used for the palaces of the pharaohs and fortresses. Only temples and royal tombs (pyramids) were built of stone. The Egyptians achieved an astonishing degree of skill in dressing stone. Stone blocks were broken away from cliffs with wetted wooden wedges. The dressing and fitting of stone blocks were done to a high degree of accuracy using bronze drills. This was possible only with an unlimited supply of cheap labor. Levers, rollers, and ramps were used to raise the blocks. People served as the draft force, although oxen were occasionally used.

The needs of irrigation, building, and government administration with its complex system of calculating taxes and land grants necessitated the development of mathematics and astronomy, which had a purely empirical, applied character and never reached the level of generalization and theoretical conclusions that was achieved, for example, in Greece. The yearly inundation of the Nile, the beginning of which coincided with the ascension of the star Sirius over the horizon, compelled the Egyptians to follow the motions of the heavenly bodies, which led to the birth of the rudiments of astronomy and perhaps as early as the fourth millennium B.C., the calendar. The year was divided into three seasons (inundation, harvest, and drought) and 12 months of 30 days, with a five-day addition at the end without consideration of hours or minutes. As a result, there was a one-day discrepancy every four years between the astronomical and calendar years. The priests and scribes, accumulating knowledge and experience over the centuries, determined the positions of the planets and stars, grouping the latter in constellations using only the simplest instruments (plumb line, ruler). Sun dials and water clocks (clepsydras) were used to measure time. Primitive schematic maps were compiled, which included distances between settlements and city layouts.

The mathematical papyruses that have come down to us (one of the most important of these is housed in the A. S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow) are basically collections of problems and their solutions. They indicate that the Egyptians not only introduced the decimal number system (without positional notation) but also knew fractions, although only those with the numerator 1. Addition and subtraction were performed in the usual manner, multiplication was reduced to addition, and in division, the number by which the divisor was multiplied to give the dividend was determined. The Egyptians knew of both arithmetic and geometric progressions. During the Middle Kingdom, elementary algebraic concepts arose and equations in two unknowns were being solved. The knowledge of the Egyptians in planimetry and particularly stereometry was extensive; they calculated the area of rectangles, triangles, and circles (using π = 3.16, an error of 0.02). The surface area and volume of both the simple pyramid and the truncated pyramid were also calculated.

The embalming of the dead, which entailed dissection, helped acquaint the Egyptians with anatomy and to acquire surgical experience. The functions of the heart were studied, blood circulation was discovered, and some understanding of the functions of the brain was obtained. The specialization of doctors, treating diseases and injuries of various organs, was already evident in the Old Kingdom. They performed trephinations of the skull, filled teeth, and applied splints, for which there existed a whole complex of medical instruments. However, this completely rational knowledge was intertwined with belief in magic, sorcery, and incantations.

Mummification and the preparation of incense, medicines, and paints as well as the experience gained in the production of faience and glass encouraged the development of chemistry. Manganese, cobalt, and zinc oxide were used as admixtures in the decoration of glass vessels.

Trade expeditions, and later military campaigns, which were begun during the Old Kingdom, to Syria in the north, in the south along the Nile to Cush and equatorial Africa, and to Punt across the Red Sea, aided the accumulation and widening of geographic knowledge. The concept of the earth’s sphericity was alien to the Egyptians. The data collected by the Phoenicians in the seventh century B.C. in their rounding of Africa upon the orders of the pharaoh Necho, had no influence.

As far as we know, there were no historical works written in Egypt until the Hellenistic period. Events were recorded only in the yearly chronicles (for example, the Palermo Stone) and sometimes united into canons like, for example, the lists of the pharaohs (Turin Papyrus). Annals of the campaigns of individual pharaohs were kept, such as those of Thutmose II; sometimes military reports were written with descriptions of the pharaohs’ conquests (the inscriptions of Amenhotep II and Ramses II).

The knowledge of the Egyptians in various fields exerted a considerable influence on the development of classical and, consequently, European, science. The Greeks always saw Egypt as the land of ancient wisdom and considered the Egyptians their teachers.

Mythology and religion Among the myths of Egypt, certain cycles occupied a central place: the creation of the world, the punishment of mankind for its sins, the struggle of the sungod Re with the powers of darkness in the form of the serpent Apep, and the death and resurrection of Osiris. The creation of the universe was most often attributed to Re, who rose out of a lotus bud that appeared in the primeval watery chaos (Nun). The Egyptians believed that the first gods came from Re’s lips and that human beings sprang from his tears. According to another version of the myth, the earth and humans were created by the potter-god Ptah, or Khnum. The cycle of myths about the punishment of man differed radically from the Babylonian and biblical versions. In the Egyptian myths there is no flood. Instead, Re, angered by mankind that had ceased to worship the gods, sends his daughter Sekhmet to the earth in the image of a lioness. She begins destroying people and it is only with difficulty that the gods persuade her to stop and are able to save the remnants of humanity. The omnipotence of the gods, capable of punishing or rewarding at will, was the universal theme of these myths.

The religion of the ancient Egyptians originated in the primitive tribal communities and underwent a long period of development into a complex theological system of Eastern despotism. This religion retained the traditional beliefs throughout the history of ancient Egypt: fetishism (such as worship of the Benben stone, later associated with the cult of the god Re), the deification of plants (such as the holy sycamore of the goddess Hathor), and especially zoomorphism, the cult of animals. Almost every Egyptian deity was worshiped in the form of some animal. Thus, the god Anubis was revered in the guise of a wolf, the goddess Bastet (Bast) that of a cat, the god of wisdom Thoth that of an ibis or baboon, and the god Horus that of a falcon. At a later stage, anthropomorphism (attribution of human characteristics) is seen. The old beliefs did not vanish, however, but merged with the new. Thus, for example, the goddess Bastet was represented as a woman with a cat’s head and the god Thoth, as a man with the head of an ibis. The killing of sacred animals was punishable by death. Sacred animals and birds were embalmed after death and buried in special cemeteries. The transition from a hunting economy to agriculture and stock raising brought about many changes in religious beliefs. The gods personifying the different natural elements became foremost: the goddess of the sky, Nut; the god of the earth, Geb; the god of the sun, Re; and the god of the moon, Thot. The Egyptian farmers worshiped the Nile as the god Hapi.

The cult of the dead was widespread among the ancient Egyptians. According to their religious ideas, each person had several souls: ba, represented by a bird with a human head; ka, which was the person’s double, or counterpart; and so forth. According to popular beliefs, eternal bliss could be achieved only by that person whose body, considered to be the refuge of the soul, remained intact. This gave rise to the custom of mummification. To preserve the mummy, a tomb was built and furnished with objects the deceased had used during his lifetime. Small statuettes of servants (ushabti, or answerers) were also placed in the tomb. The Egyptians believed that through magical incantations the deceased could bring these statuettes to life to serve him in the afterlife. After death the soul departed on a journey through the underworld, where it was threatened by monsters from which it could be saved with prayers and incantations contained in the Book of the Dead, an indispensable part of every burial. Chapter 125 is devoted to the underworld judgment of the deceased’s soul. In the presence of Osiris, the sovereign judge of the underworld, the psychostasia took place—the weighing of the heart of the deceased on a balance, maintained at equilibrium by the symbol of truth. A heart weighed down with sins would upset the equilibrium of the balance, and the deceased would be devoured by the horrible monster Amemait, “The Devourer.” Honest men, whose hearts did not upset the equilibrium of the balance, were taken into paradise—“the fields of lalou.”

At first, each nome worshiped its own principal god: in Heliopolis Atum-Re was worshiped; in Thebes, Amon; and so forth. Triads of deities formed (for example, in Thebes, Amon, the sun-god; his wife Mut, the goddess of the sky; and their son Khons, the god of the moon). A hierarchy of gods formed around this triad. The unification of the nomes into the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and later into a single despotate (c. 3000 B.C.) necessitated the establishment of state cults and the unification of religion. The gods of the hegemonic cities occupied the leading positions in this unified religion. Thus, during the Middle and New Kingdom, when Thebes was the capital, the Theban god Amon was the principal deity of Egypt, and the Egyptian priests identified him with the old sovereign god Re.

The hierarchy of gods with a king of the gods at its head is a reflection of the order of the Eastern despotate. The supreme god (Atum-Re, and later Amon-Re) had his own palace, a vizier (Thot, the god of wisdom), his own offices, and so forth. The official religion declared the pharaoh to be god incarnate and directed that he be worshiped as such. Large offerings and various privileges strengthened the priesthood, which began to dispute the pharaoh’s power. An attempt by Amenhotep IV (Ikhnaton) at the turn of the 14 century B.C. to undermine the power of the priests by introducing monotheism failed; the cult of a single sun-god Aton, which he introduced, was soon abolished. In the 11th century B.C. the Theban priests seized the Egyptian throne and established a theocracy.

A rich magical and religious literature developed in Egypt. Charms, prayers, instructions, and invocations of the gods were set forth in collections. The Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead, and other religious collections arose in this manner. The so-called Memphite Theological Treatise (second codification dates from 800 B.C.) serves as an example of the development of Egyptian theological thought. In this work, centuries before Christianity, the idea that logos—the word—created the world is advanced. The theology of ancient Egypt was disseminated among the religions of the classical world and considerably influenced Christian dogma, iconography, and ritual. Thus, for example, elements of Egyptian zoomorphism are found in Christian icons: St. Christopher with the head of a dog—a descendant of Anubis. The cult of Osiris influenced Christianity, particularly the Easter rituals; likewise, the Last Judgment recalls the Egyptian judgment in the kingdom of the dead.

Literature.The most ancient literary works written in the Egyptian language date from the third millennium B.C. , while the latest works were composed in the first centuries of the Common Era. The literary works of Egypt have come down to us in the form of many hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic texts, extremely varied in content and genre. The literature of Egypt is one of the oldest literatures in the world. Like other ancient Eastern literatures, it is characterized by anonymity. Fairy tales, narratives, hymns and prayers, epistolary texts, didactic works, fables, epics, and love poems are the principal genres. Many themes of the folklore and literature of the peoples of the ancient and modern world are first encountered in Egyptian literature. This has attracted the deserved attention of scholars throughout the world. Egyptian fairy tales are full of vivid and figurative imagination, passionate sympathy for man, and a conviction in the ultimate triumph of good and righteousness over the forces of evil. Some of them bear the imprint of folklore, such as the Tale of the Two Brothers; other stories are the product of experienced and talented authors whose names are unknown to us (the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, for example). The genre of narratives includes works that contain no elements of the supernatural and approach historical reality (the Tale of Sinuhe, the Tale of Peteesi). These narratives are told in the first person as the narrator’s recollections. Their language and style are vivid and imaginative. Among these narratives a papyrus of the 11th century B.C. , containing an account of the journey of the Egyptian Wenumen (Wenamon) to Byblos, stands out as one of the best works of Egyptian literature. It contains interesting information about the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. Told realistically, this narrative is undoubtedly a literary version of an actual account. The Egyptians apparently valued such works highly since individual narratives have come down to us in several copies. Narratives of a historical nature were closely connected with the ruling dynasty and were written at the orders of the court in the interests of raising the prestige of the centralized power of the pharaoh. In the didactic works, the so-called instructions, an author, real or imaginary (sometimes a noted sage of the past), is often mentioned. These “instructions” often contain blunt, useful maxims and wise advice pertaining to all facets of life.

In addition to literary works, the texts of the pyramids and the inscriptions of kings and nobles are also classed with Egyptian literature and are of literary merit. The literature of Egypt exerted an important influence on the literatures of other peoples of antiquity, especially that of the Greeks, particularly during the Greco-Roman period. Several Egyptian plots were passed on through the Greeks to the literature of European peoples.

Architecture and fine, decorative, and applied arts. The art of Egypt, which was called upon to serve the interests of religion and the official state cult of the divine pharaoh, expressed its ideas in a strict canonical form. But despite such rigid canons, it experienced a complex evolution that reflected the changes in the political and spiritual life of Egyptian society; vivid creative individuals and local artistic phenomena and schools emerged. The unprecedented demands placed upon art by society and the state encouraged Egyptian artists to seek a clear, fine, and impressive artistic language. They were the first to comprehend and convert into a harmonious system the basic elements of the plastic arts: volume, weight, pier and ceiling, and rhythm in architecture; two-dimensionality, line, silhouette, and patches of color in relief and painting; and texture and the particular features of stone and wood in commemorative and decorative sculpture. It was in Egypt that many classical architectural forms and types were developed (the pyramid, obelisk, and column) as well as many forms of the fine arts (sculpture in the round, relief, mural); portrait sculpture acquired particular importance.

The monuments of artistic culture in the Nile Valley date from remote antiquity. In the fifth-fourth millennium B.C. primitive huts of clay and reed were gradually replaced by rectangular structures of wood and mud brick. The statuettes of people and animals, paintings on the walls of tombs and on pottery, and stelae are connected with the cult of the afterlife and reflect magical hunting beliefs. The representations are, as a rule, geometrical and simplified. The space is filled with separate unrelated figures, often lying in different planes (such as the painting in Hierakonpolis, end of the fourth millennium B.C.). The principle of representing parts of the human figure in different aspects—now in profile, now full face—which existed at this time was retained in future Egyptian art. At the turn of the third millennium B.C., artistic composition became more ordered and was broken up into registers; attempts were made to distinguish the figure of the leader, often represented in the form of a bull, by size. The principles of ancient Egyptian art began to take shape in the Old Kingdom, forming the basis for its development in the next several millennia. A hierarchy of artistic types and genres formed. Architecture acquired the leading role among the arts, since it was closely associated with the mortuary cult. The dominant principles of monumentality and static character, embodying the stability of the social order and superhuman majesty of the pharaoh, influenced the development of sculpture and painting which are connected with architecture. The mastaba became the principle form of religious architecture—a rectangular superstructure in the shape of a truncated pyramid with burial chambers situated deep within the ground. Geometric generalization, symmetry, and a static quality also characterize the sculpture of this period (the statue of the pharaoh Khasehem, beginning of the third millennium B.C.). Rhythmic compositional arrangement and graphic definition of the outlines became accentuated in reliefs; the representations conformed strictly to the flatness of the stone (palette of the pharaoh Narmer, c. 3000 B.C.).

In the Old Kingdom the artistic techniques discovered earlier acquired stylistic perfection. New architectural forms emerged. The architect Imhotep created new types of pyramids. For the pharaoh Zoser he constructed in Saqqara a complex of funerary structures, the center of which was a step pyramid consisting of six progressively smaller mastabas. The later architects of the Old Kingdom only perfected the form of the pyramid, evening out the sides and giving its form geometric clarity and purity. A good example of the perfected form is the complex at Gizeh, which includes the pyramids of the pharaohs Khufu (by the architect Hemiun), Khafre, and Menkaure. The utmost simplicity of form combined with gigantic proportions creates an architectural image full of strange, superhuman majesty. Careful rows of mastaba-like tombs situated near the pyramids of the members of the court and the majestic figure of the Great Sphinx reflect the ritual order and hierarchy of Egyptian society. Mortuary temples, reminiscent of the mastaba in form and surrounded by walls, were located near the pyramids. These temples consisted of rectangular halls, the ceilings of which rested on massive, four-sided pillars. The temples were connected by covered passageways with similar buildings that served as vestibules. The simple, rhythmically sequenced geometric forms and the smooth polished surfaces of the walls, floors, and ceilings constructed from various varieties of stone all served as a background for the immobile statues of the god-pharaoh. The design of the mortuary temples of the Old Kingdom became more complex by the end of the epoch. A courtyard, surrounded by a wall and within a number of large but graceful columns with stylized capitals reproducing various Egyptian plants—the palm, papyrus, and lotus—was added. Another type of temple also emerged in the old kingdom, usually dedicated to the principal divinity of Egypt, the sun-god Re. Such a temple, rectilinear in plan, as a rule had an open courtyard with sanctuaries on the sides and an obelisk, the top of which was burnished gold.

Wall painting occupied an important place in the art of the Old Kingdom as did sculpture in the round and relief, which were closely tied to the mortuary cult. Statues of pharaohs and their retinue were placed in the tombs and mortuary temples. The walls of the tombs were covered with paintings and reliefs representing detailed scenes of a happy life in the kingdom of the dead—scenes of offerings and festivities, luxurious living quarters, and abundant fields with working slaves. The life and work of the Egyptians are amply reflected in these paintings. Separated into registers and strictly conforming to the planar surface, these rhythmically sequential scenes of daily life in the reliefs and paintings are distinguished, despite the fundamental canons, by relatively greater freedom from constraint than the portraits of the pharaohs. The fertile imagination characteristic of Egyptian artists is manifested in these paintings, along with a sensitivity for rhythm, for the beauty of stylized contour line and silhouette, and for local patches of color (the reliefs in the tombs of Ti and Ahhotep in Saqqara, middle of the third millennium B.C.). During the Old Kingdom portrait sculpture developed markedly. The Egyptians believed that the portrait sculptures were the doubles of the deceased and served as the repository of the soul. Of a clearly differentiated typology (a walking man with one foot advanced, a sitting man with crossed legs, and so forth) and distinguished by a majestic and static quality, the portrait sculpture of this period staggers us with its clarity and accuracy in rendering the most characteristic and essential traits and social position of the person portrayed (the statues of the pharaoh Khafre, the prince Ankh-haf, the priest Ranofer, and the scribe Kai). Masters of the stone, the Egyptian sculptors do not overpower but rather bring out the natural properties of their material: hardness, weight, and static quality. The artist always perceived the primary structure of the material he was using. Sculptures are generalized volumes; joints between anatomical parts are smoothed out. The details of clothing, headgear, and jewelry, which are executed carefully, play a decorative role in the statues.

A number of new features appear in Middle Kingdom Egyptian art. The tombs of the pharaohs became less grand. The pyramids now as a rule had only a stone frame of walls radiating from the center to the sides and corners of the pyramid, the gaps between which were filled with brick, sand, or stone fragments. The influences of provincial traditions appear in the architecture—the mastabas were replaced with rock-cut tombs with entrances in the form of a portico with two or four columns. These columns are often fluted with a round base and rectangular abacus. Colonnades and porticoes played an important role in the architecture of the mortuary temples of this period, which were often separated from the tombs and were of an elongated, axial layout (the temple of the pharaoh Mentuhotep I at Deir el Bahri). During the Middle Kingdom the construction of irrigation facilities (canals, dams, dikes, and reservoirs) expanded in the vicinity of Faiyum, and the growth of the cities accelerated. The remains (beginning of the second millennium B.C.) of the city of Kahun in the Faiyum region testifies to the existence of sharp class distinctions: the quarter of the construction workers, separated from the rest of the city by a wall, consisted of small mud huts. The dwellings of the nobles, however, were as a rule surrounded by blank walls and were built of mud brick and had many rectangular chambers with columns, porticoes, galleries, and internal courtyards; the ceilings and walls were covered with paintings; the palaces had many adjacent service buildings.

The fine arts of the Middle Kingdom are marked by a heightened tendency toward realism. There is greater compositional freedom in the wall paintings of the nomarchs’ tombs; there are attempts to represent volume, and the range of color hues widens. The minor scenes of daily life, plants, animals, and birds are distinguished by poetic freshness and spontaneity (the paintings in the tombs of Thebes, 21st century B.C., and in Beni Hasan, 20th century B.C.). This growth of individuality is manifested most strongly in portrait sculptures. Statues of the pharaohs, while retaining the traditional canons of composition, clearly reflect the model’s physical peculiarities and age. An element of character analysis is introduced (the heads and statues of pharaohs Sesostris III and Amenemhet III, 19th century B.C.). The virtuosic working of the hard stone (granite, diorite) in the portraits of this period seems to reflect the sculptor’s struggle with his medium. His instrument cuts deeply into the stone mass, bringing out the fine structure of the face and imparting dramatic expressiveness to the representation.

After a period of decline brought about by the invasion of the Hyksos (between 1700 and c. 1580 B.C.), the art of Egypt blossomed during the New Kingdom. The successful campaigns in Asia and an influx of riches made possible the unusual luxury of the life of the nobles during this period. The severely dramatic representations of the Middle Kingdom gave way to a refined aristocratic art. The striving for elegance and decorative splendor intensified. The traditions of the preceding period were developed further in architecture. The temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el Bahri, designed by the architect Senmut (beginning of the 15th century B.C.), is an architectural complex, three-dimensionally organized and consisting of two levels of terraces, framed by porticoes and surrounded by the colonnade of an open courtyard; its sanctuary is cut into the cliffs. The regular line of the cornices and proto-Doric columns is contrasted in its rational order with the random crevices of the cliffs. The statues, reliefs, and paintings, full of softness and elegance, impart a lucidity and harmonic clarity to the temple. This heightened intimate, lyrical quality also became characteristic of the wall paintings of this period. Freedom of movement, foreshortening, and subtlety of color combinations—unseen up until now in Egyptian painting—made their appearance. Scenes of feasts and festivities were especially popular as were scenes of hunts in thickets of papyrus. Landscape was widely introduced (the paintings in the tombs of Rekhmire, Nakht, and Zoser in Thebes, end of the 15th century B.C.). The reliefs were characterized by a refined elegance of line and fine incised finish on the stone surfaces. Sunk relief (coelanaglyphic) with subtle chiaroscuro developed in particular (the reliefs in Hatshepsut’s temple, beginning of the 15th century B.C.; the tombs of Ramose in Thebes, end of the 15th century B.C.).

Along with the hemispeos (half-cave) temples, the open-type temples-sanctuaries also became widespread during the New Kingdom. Such temples as a rule had an open courtyard surrounded by a colonnade and a hypostyle with rows of huge lotus- or papyrus-shaped columns, behind which were sanctuaries with statues of the gods. The entrance to the temple was in the form of two pylons with an opening between them, in front of which obelisks and statues of the gods and pharaohs were erected. An avenue flanked by sphinxes led up to the building. The walls of the temples were decorated with paintings depicting the military victories of the pharaohs (the temples of the god Amon-Re in Karnak, 16th-12th centuries B.C., and in Luxor, 15th-13th centuries B.C.). During Ikhnaton’s rule, the cults of the old gods were abolished and the cult of Aton introduced. A new capital, Akhetaton, was built. The art of Ikhnaton’s period is marked by a controversial naturalism of images and a grotesque exaggeration of the pharaoh’s individual deformities. The break with the old canons led to the emergence of new themes: the pharaoh is often represented in a family setting, talking to his wife and caressing his children (relief portraying Ikhnaton’s family, first quarter of the 14th century B.C.). By the end of Ikhnaton’ s rule, the grotesque naturalism is replaced by an aristocratic refinement and a classical clarity of representation. Among the masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art are the portraits of the pharaoh and his wife, Nefertiti, by the sculptor Thutmes, distinguished by their austere elegance of line, sensitivity of characterization, and a virtuosic gentleness in the working of the stone’s surface. The traditions of the art of Ikhnaton’s period continued under the reign of his immediate successors. Retaining the preceding technical perfection and decorative elegance, the art of the first half of the 14th century B.C. acquired, however, a shade of academic coldness (the finds in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamon—a gold mask, a throne, vessels, and small chests with reliefs and paintings, first half of the 14th century B.C., Egyptian Museum, Cairo). The traditions of the Ikhnaton period were retained in the works of a number of Theban and Memphite masters. The reliefs and paintings depicting mourners and slaves (one of the best reliefs in this genre is in the Moscow Museum of Fine Arts) are distinguished by precisely naturalistic images, direct expression of emotion, and stylized contour silhouetting.

In the second half of the 14th century B.C., the construction of temples became more extensive. New sanctuaries in the temples of the god Amon-Re in Karnak and Luxor were built. The art of this period is characterized by a tendency toward triumphal splendor and ponderous forms (the hypostyle of the temple in Karnak with 134 massive columns and polychrome reliefs on the walls and shafts of the columns). Again the rock-cut temple became widespread. The Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel was cut entirely into the cliff with four colossal statues of the pharaoh at the entrance and two huge halls decreasing in size, with statues set against the pillars.

Decorative and applied art achieved a high level in Egypt (vessels and dishes of slate, alabaster, and crystal; figured cosmetic spoons made of ivory and wood; gold bracelets, necklaces, and rings studded with precious stones; carved or painted chests; and artistic furniture). While governed by the fundamental stylistic rules of ancient Egyptian art, the household articles are distinguished by precision of form, elegant decorative beauty, and delicate finish.

The final flowering of ancient Egyptian art occurred under the pharaohs of the so-called Saitic dynasty (seventh century B.C.). Characteristic of this period was the return to ancient traditions and the eclectic combination of the artistic techniques of different periods. Carefully sculpted and polished, the statues and reliefs of this period are often characterized by academic abstractness. At the same time, the seventh century produced a number of portraits, striking in their characterizations (the statue of Mentuemhat).

After Alexander the Great’s conquest of the country (fourth century B.C.), Egypt was incorporated into the Hellenistic culture and later, into the culture of ancient Rome. The religious architecture of this period, combining the classical and ancient Egyptian forms, is highly eclectic (the temple of the god Horus in Idfu, third-first centuries B.C.). The original merging of ancient Egyptian and Roman traditions is represented by painted portraits of the first through fourth centuries A.D. discovered in the Faiyum Oasis. With Egypt’s subjugation by Byzantium at the end of the fourth century, one of the most unique local variants of Christian art began to form—the Coptic culture. After the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, Egypt became one of the regions for the dissemination of Arabic culture.

Music. The musical culture of Egypt is one of the most ancient. The first material remains of the existence of music in Egypt dates from the beginning of the third millennium B.C. These are various musical instruments—rattles and whistles made from shells. Artistic works also testify to the existence of music in Egypt: bas reliefs on the walls of tombs and paintings depict singers and musicians. Music was an indispensable part of all mass festivities and religious rituals and an accompaniment to work. No theoretical works on music or musical notation, which could give us an idea of the character of Egyptian music, have been discovered. But on the basis of certain data investigators have come to the conclusion that music with a single voice predominated in ancient Egypt. This music, as that of other early civilizations, was of a strictly syncretic character; it was indissolubly connected with dance, pantomime, dramatic presentations, and literature. Gradually, music differentiated into religious, court, and folk music, which were closely related and developed concurrently. New instruments emerged, ways of performance became more complex, and group performances arose. The art of heironomy arose (one of the early forms of choral direction, the prototype of the conducted chorus). In the New Kingdom, apparently, primitive forms of polyphonic music emerged. An analysis of the musical instruments used shows that the majority were capable of producing only the tones of the scale without half-tones, which affirms the prevalence of the pentatonic system, characteristic of the music of the countries of the East. There are grounds to presume that certain instruments preserved by peoples living in modernday Egypt derive from ancient Egyptian instruments. There are Egyptian instruments in many museums of the world: sistrums (rattles), harps, flutes, oboes, pipes, hydraulic and pneumatic organs, wooden and bronze trumpets, and percussion instruments of various types. The musical culture of Egypt was influenced by neighboring peoples; during the New Kingdom a Syrian chorus was maintained at the court in addition to a local Egyptian chorus.

The fundamentals of the ethical understanding of music also evolved in Egypt. Egyptian sources divide music into the “useful” and the “harmful.” Professional musician-poets, the performers of music, enjoyed great respect and were considered to be the relatives of the pharaohs. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods Egyptian music retained its originality. After the end of the Roman occupation, a new period in the development of musical culture began in Egypt, closely related to the musical cultures of the Turks, Arabs, and other peoples.


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R. I. RUBINSHTEIN (education),
I. S. KATSNEL’SON (technology and science),
E. N. MAKSIMOV (mythology and religion), M. A. KOROSTOVTSEV (literature),
R. D. SHURINOVA (architecture and fine and applied arts), L. G. GRIGOR’EV and IA. M. PLATEK (music)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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