A short tabulation of Egypt’s cultural heritage from A to W.
Despite many modern inventions, and the mastery of materials such as steel, concrete, power glue etc., the achievements of Ancient Egypt remain unsurpassed. In many ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians' and Mesopotamians' architecture and urbanism reflected the constant engagement with the divine and the supernatural (Wikipedia). Somehow highly sophisticated craftsmanship developed over not much more than a hundred years, starting in the 3rd dynasty. Several design elements of the Kufu’s Pyramid, such as highly complex shafts remain a mystery.
With the onset of the 20th century, systematic archeology exploration led to spectacular discoveries. Several royal tombs, such as King Tut’s, yielded treasures of jewelry as well as wooden furniture. The explorers were awe-struck: Royal furniture found in the tombs surpassed contemporaneous products both in terms of finish, and also artistically. In such ways it influenced Art Deco of the twenties and thirties.
Astronomy, Astrology & Time
Only our modern world distinguishes between astronomy and astrology. In the ancient world, celestial observations, time keeping and prediction of future and fate were one single ‘science.’ Egyptian astronomers calculated the length of a solar year with an accuracy of six minutes, then divided the year into twelve month, a month into four weeks, and a day into 24 hours etc. This system proved to be highly accurate and successful, as it reflected the cycle of the seasons correctly. It also replaced the cumbersome and unreliable lunar calendars (the word ‘moon’ and ‘month’ have the same root).
Astrology is based on Egyptian observations, noting the recurrence of astronomical patterns (on the sky), and the cycle of events (timing of solstice and start of flooding, fertile harvests, famine, plagues, etc) on earth. Soon they correlated both spheres of experience, and astrology was born.
The Hellenic travel-writer Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the 5th century B.C, wrote:
“As to those matters which concern men, the priests agreed with one another in saying that the Egyptians were the first of all men on earth to find out the course of the year, having divided the seasons into twelve parts to make up the whole; and this they said they found out from the stars: and they reckon to this extent more wisely than the Hellenes, as it seems to me, inasmuch as the Hellenes throw in an intercalated month every other year, to make the seasons right, whereas the Egyptians, reckoning the twelve month at thirty days each, bring in also every year five days beyond number, and thus the cycle of their seasons is completed and comes round to the same point whence it set out. They say moreover that the Egyptians were the first who brought into appellations for the twelve gods and the Hellenes took up the use of them; and that they were the first who assigned altars and images and temples to the gods, and who engraved figures on stones; and with regard to the greater number of these things they showed me by actual facts that they had happened so.”
“…Besides these things the Egyptians have found out also to what god each month and each day belongs, and what fortunes a man will meet with who is born on any particular day, and how he will die, and what kind of a man he will be… portents too have been found out by them more than by all other men besides; for when a portent has happened, they observe and write down the event which comes of it, and if afterwards anything resembling this happens, they believe that the event which comes of it will be similar…”
Herodotus wrote: “They eat bread, making loaves, which they call ‘kyllestis’ and they use habitually a wine made of barley, for vines they have not in their land.”
Canals & Land Lease
It is questionable who invented irrigation. Examples of early irrigation works are found in ancient Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt. Regarding the latter, Herodotus wrote:
“…And also these were compelled to dig all the channels which now are in Egypt; and thus (having no such purpose) they caused Egypt, which before was all fit for riding and driving, to be no longer fit for this from thenceforth: for from that time forward Egypt, though it is plain land, has become all unfit for riding and driving, and the cause has been these channels, which are many and run in all directions. But the reason why the king cut up the land was this, namely because those of the Egyptians who had their cities not on the river but in the middle of the country, being in want of water when the river went down from them, found their drink brackish because they had it from wells. For this reason Egypt was cut up: and they said that this king distributed the land to all the Egyptians, given an equal portion to each man, and from this he made his revenue, having appointed them to pay a certain rent every year…”
Cat & Dog lovers
Herodotus explained: “Of the animals that live with men there are great numbers, and would be many more but for the accidents that befall the cats. For when the females have produced young they are no longer in the habit of going to the males, and these seeking to be united with them are not able. To this end then they contrive as follows, --they either take away by force or remove secretly the young from the females and kill them (but after killing they do not eat them), and the females being deprived of their young and desiring more, therefore come to the males, for it is a creature that is fond of the young. Moreover when the fire occurs, the cats seem to be divinely possessed; for while the Egyptians stand at intervals and look after the cats, not taking any care to extinguish the fire, the cats slipping through or leaping over the men, jump into the fire; and when this happens, great mourning comes upon the Egyptians. And in whatever house a cat has died by a natural death, all those who dwell in this house shave their eyebrows only, but those in which a dog has died shave their whole body and also their heads. “
Circumcision & Hygiene
The rites of circumcision, where probably already practiced in Neolithic Africa. It is by no means an invention of either Judaism, or Islam. Circumcision emerges as an element of systematic hygiene in ancient Egypt. Herodotus wrote:
“… They wear garments of linen always newly washed, and this they make a special point of practice: they circumcise themselves for the sake of cleanliness, preferring to be clean rather than comely. The priests shave themselves all over the body every other day, so that no lice or any other foul thing may come to be upon them when they minister to the gods; and the priests wear garments of linen only and sandals of papyrus, and any other garment they may not take nor other sandals..”
“…Of the Egyptians themselves however and the Ethiopians, I’m not able to say which learnt (circumcision) from the other, for undoubtedly it is a most ancient custom..”
Food Consciousness & Fasting
“Of the Egyptians themselves, those who dwell in the part of Egypt which is sown for crops practice memory more than any other men and are the most learned in history by far of all those of whom I have had experience: and their manner of life is as follows:-- For three successive days in each month they purge, hunting after health with emetics and clysters, and they think that all the diseases which exist are produced in men by the food on which they live: for the Egyptians are from other causes also the most healthiest of all men next after the Libyans…”
Geometry, Land Value, Land Taxation
The construction of the pyramids required some form of advanced mathematics, probably including geometry. On a more mundane level, geometry was used for the design of irrigation canals, and to assign property. Herodotus wrote:
“..And if the river should take away anything from any man’s portion (of land), he would come to the king and declare that which has happened, and the king used to send men to examine and to find out by measurement how much less the piece of land had become, in order that for the future the man might pay less (taxes), in proportion to the rent appointed: and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas (Greece) also..”
Modern medicine owes much to the Ancient Egyptians. Most famous of the Egyptian physicians is Imhotep, who is also renowned for his role as a Pyramid designer. Physicians such as Imhotep used a variety of methods to heal patients but based much of their practice upon religious belief: physicians in Ancient Egypt were also priests. It was common for different priests to act as physicians for different parts of the body, in much the same way that doctors specialise now, as they believed that different gods governed different sectors of the human body.
Much of what we now know of Egyptian medicine and the work of the physicians comes from a variety of medical documents written by these physician-priests. These documents, known as 'papyrus' are the first known records of medical practice: a significant, if rather obvious, development on prehistoric practices. The various papyrus documents that have been recovered and translated show us that the Egyptians had developed an understanding of medicine: they inform us of cures to some illnesses and that they performed surgical operations to remove cists and tumours. The evidence provided by these early medical training manuals is quite remarkable. They show quite clearly that the Egyptians had identified and developed cures for a wide range of diseases, many of which cures are still in use today (Direct pressure on cuts to stop bleeding for example). Such was the extent of Egyptian knowledge that there are records of over 800 medical procedures and remedies making use of over 600 drugs and a vast array of surgical tools (www.schoolhistory.org)
Mining started early in Egypt, probably already 4000-5000 years B.C. Early mining targeted gold and copper deposits (as nuggets and clean copper from the desert) first.
The arsenic copper age, that preceded the Bronze Age in Egypt, required probably already mining of Malachite (a copper silicate), and advanced smelting technology.
A recently discovered papyrus, showing a very detailed plans of shafts are believed to have been drawn by Pharao Seti, the father of Ramses II.
Monotheistic Religion ?
Today’s surviving monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The latter two are based on (or copied from) Judaism, which also seems to have a variety of spiritual roots. Many passages in the Bible infer polytheistic worshipping by the Israelite tribes, with only rudimentary concepts of Monotheism being in place.
There seems to be little historical evidence for the Jewish exodus from Egypt and the person of Moses. It is quite possible, for example, that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman or prince influenced by the religion of Aten, since Moses is an Egyptian name meaning "son" and was often used in pharaohs' names. Some rightfully speculate that the ‘Heretic’ Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton, who tried but failed to establish a monotheistic system in Egypt around 1353 BC, might have influenced Judaism.
There is also a psychoanalytical interpretation of Moses' life, put forward by Sigmund Freud in his last book, "Moses and Monotheism," in 1937. Freud postulated that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman who adhered to the monotheism of Akhenaton. Freud also believed that Moses was murdered in the wilderness, producing a collective sense of patricidal guilt which has been at the heart of Judaism ever since. "Judaism had been a religion of the father, Christianity became a religion of the son," he wrote (partly from Wikipedia).
Carved from granite or basalt with Bronze-Age tools, these marvelous sculptures became synonymous of centralized government, and power. Go to any western capital and you might find Egyptian obelisks – purchased or stolen during recent history.
Papyrus is an early form of paper made from the stems of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that grows to 5 meters (15 ft) in height and was once abundant in the Nile River delta. Papyrus was first used in Ancient Egypt around 3000 BC, but by 1000 BC, peoples from West Asia started to buy it from the Egyptians and use it themselves as it was much more convenient than clay tablets. The Egyptians called it pa-per-aa which means "property of Pharaoh", denoting that the Egyptian Pharaoh owned the monopoly of papyrus production. The Greeks adapted the name and changed it into papure from which the English word "paper" derives. The study of manuscripts written on papyrus, or papyrology, is an essential tool for historians of Classical Antiquity (from Wikipedia).
Rule of Law
It is thought that the laws of ancient Egypt were at least partially codified. In fact, we learn from one Greek writer that in the Late Period there were probably eight books that set out the legal code. But nothing remains of these documents, or for that matter, legal codes from other periods. However, we can derive some of the laws of ancient Egypt from funerary texts, as well as court and other documents.
Essentially, we believe that Egyptian law was based on a common sense view of right and wrong, following the codes based on the concept of Ma'at. Ma'at represented truth, order, balance and justice in the universe. This concept allowed that everyone, with the exception of slaves, should be viewed as equals under the law, regardless of wealth or social position. However, when punishment was carried out, often the entire family of the guilty suffered as well. For example, when individuals were sentenced to exile, their children were automatically outlawed along with them. If a relative deserted from military service, or defaulted on the labor demands of the state, the entire family might be imprisoned (Mark Andrews).
No, it was not Bill Gates who invented spreadsheets. These were widely used in Ancient Egypt to manage repeating activities, such as the keep-up of temples, maintenance and duty sheets for servicing statues and to provide sacrificial offerings. I remember having read an article describing a spreadsheet-papyrus: On the x-axis figure the name of the person and his/her duty. The y-axis spells out the activities.
Temples & Columns
Many secular buildings (The Forum of Rome, The Vatican, Versailles, The capitol, Wall street) in the Western World have their roots in Egyptian examples. One can regard Pharaoh Hatsepsut’s temple in Luxor as ‘the mother of all temple designs.’ It has, beyond any doubt, influenced Greek temple design, which was later again copied by the Roman and several European civilizations. The classic lotus design of Corinthian columns, decorating Greek temples, Roman temples, and Wall Street originated most likely from Pharaoh Seti’s Great Temple Hall of Karnak. His son Ramses II completed it. The top sections of the columns are decorated with lotus leaf ornaments.
The more a civilization advances, the more rights does the female part of the population acquire. Look at a society, the status women have, and you know how developed a nation is. In ancient Egypt, the status of women within society was very high.
Herodotus writes: “…For among them the women frequent the market and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave… the men carry their burdens upon their heads and the women upon their shoulders…”
Sources for this article and additional info:
Herodotus: An account of Egypt. Translated by G.C.Macaulay. Roberts Publishing. E-book, 2004.
© 2004 by Franz L. Kessler