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Essay/Term paper: Ancient egypt

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Society Term Papers

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Ancient Egypt

The giant pyramids, temples, and tombs of ancient Egypt tell an exciting
story about a nation that rose to power more than 5,000 years ago. This mighty
civilization crumbled before conquering armies after 2,500 years of triumph and
glory. The dry air and drifting desert sands have preserved many records of
ancient Egypt until modern times.
The ancient Egyptians lived colorful, active, and eventful lives. Many
were creative artists, skilled craftsmen, and adventurous explorers. Bold
Egyptian warriors won many battles, and their rulers governed wide areas of the
known world. The ancient Egyptians loved nature and had a lively sense of humor.
They were among the first people to try to find answers to questions concerning
man, nature, and God. They also considered the relationship of man to society,
but regarded other people as savages. They captured and enslaved thousands of
men and women from other lands.
The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt the gift of the Nile, because
floodwaters of this great river deposited rich, black soil on the land year
after year. Egyptian farmers planted their crops in this fertile soil. Sandy
plateaus and towering cliffs bordered the river valley. Beyond these waters
stretched the barren wastes of the Sahara desert. On the edge of the desert,
the Egyptians built giant pyramids as burial places for their pharaohs. They
carved the Great Sphinx out of solid rock as a guardian of King CheopsÕ Great
Pyramid at Giza. The ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet, which means
black (after the land). The Greeks called the country Aigyptos, from the name
Ha-ka-ptah, the main temple of the Egyptian capital at Memphis.
Many modern beliefs and ideals, as well as much of manÕs knowledge, had
their origin in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians developed the worldÕs first
national government. Their religion was one of the first to emphasize a life
after death. They produced an expressive art and literature. The Egyptians
introduced stone architecture and made the first convenient writing material,
papyrus. They developed a 365-day year and set up the basic methods of geometry
and surgery.
The boundaries of ancient Egypt changed many times during its history.
When the Kingdom of Egypt was formed in about 3100 B.C., it occupied only the
fertile valley of the Nile River in northeastern Africa. The kingdom extended
south about 680 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to the First Cataract (rapids)
of the river. It averaged only 12 miles in width from the Nile delta to the
First Cataract. Egypt covered about 8,000 square miles and was a little smaller
than the state of Massachusetts.
In later years, ancient Egypt usually controlled neighboring areas
around the Nile Valley, including oases (fertile green patches), in the desert
to the west. It usually governed part of the Nile Valley south of the First
Cataract, the Red Sea coast, and the western part of the Sinai Peninsula in Asia.
At the height of its power, around 1450 B.C., Egypt claimed an empire that
reached as far south as the Fourth Cataract in Nubia, a part of ancient Ethiopia,
and as far northeast as the Euphrates River in western Asia.
Ancient Egypt was a lot less crowded than Modern Egypt. Historians
believe that from one to eight million people lived in ancient Egypt. In Roman
times, estimates set the figure at about six million. Most Egyptians lived near
the Nile, with an average of 750 people per square mile. Today, the valley
averages almost 2,400 people per square mile, although Egypt as a whole averages
only 85.
The black-haired, dark-skinned ancient Egyptians were short and slender.
The belong to the Mediterranean race of the Caucasoid (white) stock. As time
went on, the Egyptians mixed with people from Asia, Negroes from other parts of
Africa, and people from lands around the Mediterranean Sea.
The Egyptians were divided into four social classes. They were from
most important: the royalty and nobles; artisans, craftsmen, and merchants;
workers; and slaves. The professional army gradually became almost a separate
class. Egypt had no fixed caste system. A person of the poorest class could
rise to the highest offices in the land.
The ancient Egyptians spoke a mixed language. It included words from
the Semitic language group of southwestern Asia and the Hamitic group of
languages of northeastern Africa. The language died out of everyday use about a
thousand years ago but the Coptic (Christian) Church still uses it.
No one knows just how the spoken language of ancient Egypt sounded.
Written Egyptian developed from picture writing into an elaborate system of
symbols called hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics consisted of 24 alphabetic
characters for consonants and semi-consonants. These characters were used in
combination with many phonograms (sound-signs) and idiograms (sense-signs).
Vowels were not written out. Hieroglyphic writing was carved or painted. Its
ornamental character was particularly suitable for inscriptions on monuments.
For everyday purposes, a simplified cursive form of hieroglyphics called
hieratic was used. Hieratic could be rapidly written on light, easy-to-carry
materials, such as papyrus and leather. The Egyptians called their writing the
words of the gods. They claimed that on of their gods, Thoth, had invented it.
Modern scholars first learned to read when they translated the writings on the
Rosetta Stone. In Egyptian, the word pharaoh originally meant great house, but
in the late 1300's B.C. it came to mean ruler of Egypt.
Education was seen as a different level of importance between classes.
Most young boys learned their work from their fathers, or as apprentices in
various trades. Boys of royal and wealthy families were trained to become
priests or government officials. At an early age, they were placed in the
schools for scribes at the capital. Priests controlled the schools. They
required the students to memorize classic texts, take dictation, and learn to
use the 700 characters of the Egyptian language. They also taught literature.
Schoolboys practiced their writing by copying stories and proverbs.
Archaeologists have found copybooks that these boys used for practicing their
handwriting, although the number of people who could read and write was
apparently quite small.
Religion appeared in every part of life in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians
believed that gods and goddesses took part in every human activity from birth to
death. For the Egyptian, the good life depended on obeying the commands of the
gods. After someone died, the gods would judge how well the person had obeyed
their directions. The Egyptians believed that their king was a god who could
keep the country prosperous by his divine powers.
In the earliest period, the Egyptians worshipped the forces of nature,
such as wind and fire. As towns grew up, each adopted its own special god. In
one part of the delta, the people worshipped Horus, the god of heaven. In
another district, the people worshipped Osiris, the god of vegetation, who later
became the god of the dead. Heliopolis, near Cairo, was the center for the
worship of the sun god Re, or Ra. Heliopolis means city of the sun in Greek.
About 2500 B.C., priests at Heliopolis developed the worship of Re as the nationÕ
s first state religion. Other members of ReÕs divine family included Osiris,
and his wife, Isis; Set, the evil brother of Osiris, and his wife Nephthys; Shu,
god of the air; Tefnut, goddess of moisture; Geb, god of earth; and Nut, goddess
of the sky.
The people of Thebes worshipped Amon, or Ammon, the god of the air and
fertility. When Thebes became the political center of the empire, the people
worshipped Amon and Re together as Amon-Re.
The Egyptians believed that certain animals might serve individual gods
in a special way. For example, they regarded the ram as acceptable to Amon, and
chose on ram to be the temple animal of that god. Other sacred animals included
the baboon, bull, cat, crocodile, and jackal.
The people of ancient Egypt took great care in preparing for life after
death. They denied that death ended the existence of a person who had led a
good life. They believed that the next world would be like Egypt in its richest
and most enjoyable form. They built stone tombs and filled them with clothing,
food, furnishings, and jewelry for use in the next world. They embalmed their
dead and wrapped the bodies in layers of cloth. Preserved bodies were called
The Egyptians caved inscriptions on the walls of their tombs. They also
wrote on the insides of the coffins. They placed papyrus copies of the Book of
the Dead in the tombs to protect the spirits of the dead. The Book of the Dead
contained spells and prayers.
The priests conducted the rituals and guarded the temples. They
acquired much political power. For example, the king did not make them pay the
corvŽe, a tax in labor that furnished the government with workers. The priests
used thousands of people to work in the temples and divine lands.
Egyptian discoveries in mathematics and other sciences were rudimentary.
The Egyptians used a system of counting by tens, but their system had no zeros.
They could multiply and divide whole numbers, and reduce simple fractions. They
used a series of simple fractions, such as 1/2, 1/5, and 1/10 to build up
complex ones, such as 4/5. The Egyptians could determine areas and calculate
the volumes of objects. They were among the first people to survey land. The
floodwaters of the Nile washed away the boundaries of farms every year, and new
ones had to be fixed by surveying. The Egyptians measured distances accurately
with equally spaced knots tied in long ropes. They used a cubit, the length of
a manÕs forearm, as a standard of measurement. They worked out the foundations
of geometry and arithmetic.
The Egyptians also pioneered in the field of astronomy. They
distinguished between planets and stars, and devised a 365-day calendar.
In medicine and surgery, the Egyptians recognized the importance of the
heart and its relation to other parts of the body. They related the speed of a
personÕs heartbeat to his general physical condition. They also know how to sew
and dress wounds.


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