Term 3: An ancient African society: Egypt

Way of life in ancient Egypt

Social structure in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians are the inventors of another feature of civilization still existing today - the complete dictator! Social and industrial conditions were determined, through priests and scribes, by the inflexible rule of omnipotent rulers. All of Egypt was subjugated under one ruler, the Pharoah, who was god, king and high priest all rolled into one. The Pharaoh, screening much of his work and status in a kind of confusing mystery, centralized socio-economic power and control efficiently and ruthlessly, owns all the land. It is as if the triangular shape of pyramids themselves, show the hierarchy and control of one over many.

Royal household, priesthood and civil service administered the state under nepotism - the children of the pharaohs and bureaucrats were exempt from manual work and succeeded to their parent's position automatically. The civil service improved mathematics and writing (on clay and papyrus). These skills they kept to themselves and so maintained control. In this way planning and ideas became separate from doing and making. (Hellman: 1994)

Using the food surplus generated by a favourable climate and huge forced labour, the Pharoahs financed huge pyramids that eventually would contain their embalmed bodies and worldly riches for the after-life. Those who built them in summer during flood time were from a very large staff of trained craftsmen, and an army of peasant, slave and prisoners of war labourers. This religious obsession of the upper classes with the preservation of the body after death, led to the pyramid tomb standing as a symbol of the terrible majesty of the Pharoah's power.

The kings of ancient Egypt were known as 'pharaoh', a name given to them by the Hebrews while slaves in captivity, and derived from the Egyptian word 'per-aa', meaning 'great house'.(Fletcher:1963)

Note to educators: The section will be updated at a later stage.

Beliefs and religion

Ancient Egyptian religion remained mostly unchanged for many thousands of years, apart from a very short time of belief in one god, during the Amarna period under King Akhenaten. Also, their culture changed little over this time. Although the Egyptians claimed to be monotheistic, in practice they were polytheistic.

Religion was organized by a very powerful, well-educated priesthood with unlimited authority     under the Pharoah. The king was god on earth in the form of man, and no distinction was made between god and king. It was because of this that the ancient Egyptian belief system created and supported the political and social hierarchy.

Egyptians had strong belief in an after-life, but only the wealthy could afford the expensive and labour-intensive preparations for this after-life. Kings and powerful nobility could, and this led to the creation of the monuments of ancient Egypt, like the pyramids, that many of us have seen in pictures.

Note to educators: The section will be updated at a later stage.

Pharaohs

The king was known as a pharaoh. He was the most powerful person in ancient Egypt. The pharaoh was the political and religious leader of the ancient Egyptian people.

Sphinx, pyramids and temples

The Sphinx of Giza (also known as the Guardian of the Horizon) is a symbol that has represented the essence of Egypt for thousands of years.

Carved from the mould of a natural rock in the Giza plateau, the Sphinx is truly a mysterious marvel from the days of ancient Egypt. With the body of a lion and the head of a king or god, the Sphinx has come to symbolize strength and wisdom.

The Ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for their pharaohs and queens. Pyramids were huge structures with storage rooms, courtyards, secret passageways.

Hieroglyphics

When the ancient Egyptians started trading, they needed to keep record of what they bought and sold. This led to the development of their alphabet. At first they used picture writing called hieroglyphics where each picture stood for a sound.

Mathematics and astronomy

The ancient Egyptians possessed one of the earliest forms of mathematics that inspired all mathematical traditions that followed. They developed a system of numbers, using symbols for the number 1 and 10.

Medicine and physician

The ancient Egyptians had a great deal of knowledge of healing herbs and repairing physical injuries. Evidence shows that ancient Egyptian doctors also performed eye-surgery. The Ancient Egyptians also practiced dentistry and even extracted teeth, drained abscesses and made false teeth. The Egyptian physicians knew how to stitch a wound. Much of the Egyptian knowledge of the body came from their practice of embalming the dead.

Note to educators: This section will be developed to include the growth of the settlement around the Nile river in Egypt.

Last updated : 22-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 01-Feb-2012