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Gods and Empires

What do you think?

Pharaohs and the rulers of Egypt dreamed of attaining immortality and consequently they lived their lives putting their stamp on everything so that thousands of years later, when the sands of time would have eradicated most things, theirs would be like that beacon of light that draws our attention. Looking at a Discovery Channel program - Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, Hatshepsut, was fascinating. Queen Hatshepsut - “A pharaoh of the famed 18th dynasty, she was Egypt's greatest female ruler and had more power than either Cleopatra or Nefertiti. But, when her rule ended, she and her name disappeared into obscurity”.

The pyramids are perfect example of such features and they have never failed to draw on the curiosity of modern man. The life after death that was sought, the particular care and preservation of the body, the burial with artifacts to tell their stories, and chambers prepared in a manner to keep out idle curiosity or even common grave robber, all seemed to indicate that they knew something more than we did. Are we gods? Are we the gods they hoped would give them immortality of sorts? Are we (modern man) the ones who will give them that second life after death they knew of?

Our advancement in technology is far beyond their wildest imagination. Whether they believed in a future more sophisticated than theirs at that time, or believed man could eventually fly or not, surely their gods were capable of all manner of things. Imagine what our internet, televisions, planes and phones would say to them? After successful DNA testing and CT scans verified her identity, the summary of the comment made, was that Queen Hatshepsut, after years of obscurity, is finally reinstated into royalty and acknowledged as one of the most powerful women in the world (Discovery Channel). This ultimately gives her the immortality she sought, doesn’t it?

So how did the Egyptian empire manage to indulge in a more leisurely lifestyle when neighboring Mesopotamia struggled to develop between the Tigris and the Euphrates? Why did the world’s first cities develop within the inhospitable region of what is now known as Iraq is a question that historian do not have a convincing answer. Once civilizations like the Akkadians, Sumerians and the Babylonians among others developed, the basic patterns of urban life quickly spread to other parts of the Near Eastern world. As the widening network of trading developed so did the intense competition for control over people and resources. Attempts to forge empires out of these fiercely independent city-states during the third millennium B.C.E. failed and by the second millennium B.C.E. it was clear that competitions would come from elsewhere. Competition came from Anatolia (current day Turkey) and Egypt (Coffin and Stacey).

Egyptian Civilization
So how did the Egyptian empire managed to indulge in a more leisurely lifestyle than neighboring Mesopotamia? For that answer I think we should look to Geography. Geography helps to determine quite efficiently the development and expansion of empires. Unlike the Sumerians, Egyptians survival depended on a very fertile Nile River. Almost all Egyptians lived within sight of the Nile which enabled the river to serve as a highway binding the nation together. Regular Summer flooding of the river left rich black soil that made the Nile Valley the richest agricultural region in the entire Mediterranean world. Ancient Egypt was a narrow, elongated land snaking along both banks for about 600 miles. Outside the band lay an inhospitable desert, where the rain almost never falls. This contrast deeply influenced the way the Egyptians viewed their world. They saw themselves as the center of the cosmos and anything beyond was seen as beyond the boundaries of civilization (Coffin and Stacey).

Following the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, the basic features of pharaonic rule took shape along lines that would persist for the next 3,000 years. The pharaoh was identified very closely with divinity; he was regarded as the early manifestation of the falcon god Horus. How early pharaohs established claims to divinity is a mystery, and legitimatizing their rule would have been a difficult task. Very probably the pharaoh’s claim to divinity was one approach to solving the problem of political unity. However, once the sacralization of the Egyptian kingship was established, it was a remarkable success and by the end of the Second Dynasty, the pharaoh was not just the ruler of Egypt, he was Egypt, a personification of the land, the people, and their connection to the divine (Coffin and Stacey.

So why mummification? At the very heart of the Egyptian religion are two of earliest gods in Egyptian belief, Osiris and Isis. Osiris was the first to hold kingship on earth, but his brother Seth who wanted the throne for himself betrayed and killed Osiris and sealed his body in a coffin. His body was then retrieved by Isis, but seized by Seth, hacked into pieces and scattered all over Egypt. Undeterred, Isis sought the help of Anubis, the god of mummification and his body was reassembled long enough for Isis to conceive a child by him. This child became the god Horus. This mythology is important to the Egyptians as the tale of Osiris is a myth about life arising out of death; it embodies new life arising from the dead and the promise of the continuation of life – rhythmic, cyclical, and inevitable (Coffin and Stacey).

Egyptians did not have a bleak view of death and the underworld. Death was an unpleasant rite of passage, a necessity to be endured on the way to an afterlife and was more or less like one’s earthly existence, only better. This passage was not automatic, but full of dangers and because of their belief they developed elaborate rituals for dealing with it. It was crucial that the corpse be preserved; this is why Egyptians developed their sophisticated techniques of embalming and mummification. This detail often led to the assumption that theirs was a “death culture”, but their practices and beliefs were life affirming and hopeful and the cyclical nature of the cosmos meant that life always triumphed (Coffin and Stacey).

The story does not end with just mummification. Binding this endless cycle of life, death and return of life was ma’at. A female deity that kept the universe running in its serene, repetitive, predictable fashion and thus Egyptians were a supremely confident and optimistic people whose stability and peace were guaranteed by ma’at and ultimately their connection to it came through their pharaoh (Coffin and Stacey).

Shanti Inderjit

References mainly from

Coffin & Stacey. Western Civilization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
In what is the most important find in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings since the discovery of King Tutankhamun, Discovery Channel’s Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen exclusively reveals archaeological, forensic and scientific evidence identifying a 3,500-year-old mummy as Hatshepsut, the queen who would be king of Egypt.

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