Background in Egyptian History and Religion

Not wanting to feel completely overwhelmed by 5,000 years of Egyptian history, Lynda and I read up a bit before we left for our vacation in Egypt. During our two weeks of looking at temples and monuments all over Egypt (guided all the while by our voluble guide Max), we gradually added together enough pieces of information to make some sense of what we saw.

But it was tough going at first and unless you have a PhD in Egyptology or have been to Egypt, our blog on may be more bog...of information. So here’s a Coles Notes version of Egyptian History and Religion laying out only the basics, so at least some of the sights reported in our blog might have some context.

But please note! Expert knowledge of Egyptian history is less settled than you may sometimes be given to believe. We would read or hear a titbit about Egypt's history presented as "fact" and find later there were contending theories and that the "facts" were, in reality, far from agreed upon. Many of the websites we found were as amateurish as this one in this respect, presenting the same boiled down version as here but without any caveats that alternative theories were possible. Egyptian history is far from decided. It may be helpful to read the discussion page at Wikipedia for a glimpse into a corner of these debates.

You may find several different spellings of names or places. It is not unusual for Rameses to be spelled Ramesses or Ramses, and Tutankhamen...well legion are his names!

In spite of their shortcomings these notes may provide some grasp of 5,000 years of Egyptian history and culture.

History

Synopsis

The Pyramids might be as representative of Egyptian history for you as it was for us, but they are in fact an oddity—or perhaps "isolated" would be a better word. They are from the very earliest period of Egypt and almost nothing else is. Almost all evidence of the Old and Middle Kingdoms is gone: it either fell apart or got carted off. The vast majority of what is known (based on what remains of the temples and other sites we visited) are from the New Kingdom and later— into the time of the Greek and Roman occupations when Egypt was really in decline.

So it is as though the dawn of "Egyptian History" breaks on a civilization that, after a 1300 years of existence, was now declining. Far more remains of that next 1700 years but it has only fragments of what went before and what accumulated in that time would be debased considerably (see later details) before more serious and educated efforts to preservate it began less than 50 years ago.

Take a cursory glance through the following chart (no need to digest it)

Dates (all BC) Period External Influences/misc notes
3100-2950
(150yrs)
Pre-dynastic Two Egypts: Lower Egypt (Nile Delta) capital at Buto; Upper (Southern) Egypt, capital Hierankopolis); first monuments; beginning of writing;start of bronze age
2950-2650
(300yrs)
United Egypt; capital Abydos
2650-2200
(450yrs)
OLD KINGDOM
  • Uniting upper and lower Egypt
  • Building of the pyramids
2200-2055
(150yrs)
1stintermediate period Catastrophic reduction of Nile water levels; civil war; internal divisions
2055-1785
(300yrs)
MIDDLE KINGDOM Herakleons defeated and Egypt reunited under Theban rule.
1785-1580
(200yrs)
2nd intermediate period Invasions of the Hyksos
1580-1085
(500yrs)
NEW KINGDOM
  • Invasions of the Hittites
  • Peace treaty with Hittites (Ramses II)
  • Defeat of the pirates
  • Hatshepsut
  • Thutmose III
  • Ankhenaten
  • Tutankamen
  • Ay/Horemheb
  • Ramses II
1085-663
(400yrs)
3rdintermediate period Internal division
663 BC onwards
Decline of power
Egypt from 663 onwards would be either a conquered or occupied land until 1841. The (Greek) Ptolemy Kings would rule benignly; the Romans less so (although Cleopatra did make life difficult for them);
  • Defeat by Assyrians (10 years)
  • Persians (including Darius) alternating with Greek allegiances (330years)
  • Greeks: Alexander the Great (330 BC) had little trouble subduing Egypt and was made Pharaoh in 332BC. Although he spent only 6 months here, he was hugely impressed by Egypt’s religious heritage and more or less adapted Amun as a representation of Zeus.
  • His successors, beginning with his General Ptolemy, named themselves Pharaohs and ruled Egypt until the Roman conquest in 30BC.
  • Romans (400 yrs)
  • Byzantines (420 yrs)
  • Arabs (610 yrs)
  • Saladin & Mamluks (275 yrs)
  • Ottomans (250 yrs)
  • French (3 years)
  • British (40 years)

Key figures of the new Kingdom

Egyptian history is threaded with interesting stories, but there are several names that are more commonly known and it may help to place these. They are all from the New Kingdom.

Hatshepsut and Thutmose III

The Pharoah Thutmose I (~1500 BC) may be among the many Pharaohs you have barely heard of, but his achievements—the annexing of Nubia to Egypt, building of the temple at Karnak etc—were substantial. His son Thutmose II was a bit of a flake but married a woman who might be one of the most formidable in Egyptian (or world) history. Hatshepsut was also his half-sister. During her husband's lifetime Hatshepsut maintained the appearance of dutiful queen; when Thutmose II died he left a son Thutmose III, who was considered too young to assume the throne and Hatshepsut took on the role of co-regent. The belief that Hatshepsut wore the only pair of trousers during both reigns, is supported by the evidence that nothing much changed between the two periods. Some experts went further, believing that Hatshepsut virtually imprisoned her son, Thutmost III, to keep him from the throne and that when Thutmose III eventually rose to power (presumably after Hatshepsut died) he repaid the insult by defacing the many monuments Hatshepsut had raised in her own honour.

The monuments are undoubtedly defaced but whether Thutmost III is guilty or had that motivation is less clear. Eventually Thutmost III went on to become one of Egypt's stronger pharaohs and it is difficult to reconcile these later achievements with a boy who was cowed by his mother during childhood.

Regardless, most agree that Hatshepsut was one powerful woman regent.

The Armana Period

The second story begins almost 150 years later with the robust major pharaoh Amenhotep III. This story is of interest because it involves a period of monotheism in Egypt, around the time when Moses might have been in Egypt (did Moses bring it to Egypt or from Egypt?). And involves perhaps the most famous Egyptian, Tutankhamen. The centre of political power in Egypt has moved to Thebes (Luxor today) and the Theban deity Amun-Ra has been promoted carefully throughout Egypt so that the priests of Thebes are well entrenched as the centre of religious power.

But when the pharaoh Amenhotep III dies his son, Amenhotep IV, declares that there is a new god Aten and that Aten is not simply superior but is the only god! This is catastrophic! Centers of power, of course, changed occasionally and when that happened new myths would gradually appear explaining why new deities (coincidentally favoured by the priests in the new centre of power) were suddenly more powerful. But this took time so that the commonfolk would not have reason to become restive. To invent a new god and simply dismiss all the old ones presented a major political problem.

There was more. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaton, abandoned Thebes, decamped downriver to the new capital of Armana and remained there throughout his reign; he remains devoted apparently only to his wife Nefertiti, and the arts. The army, and with it Egypt’s fortunes, were allowed to decline.

Eventually Akhenaton dies leaving a 13-year old son Tutankhamen, who will become famous for all the wrong reasons*. Some historical accounts suggest that it is Tutankhamen who renounces the god Aten in favour of Amun, returns to Thebes and rebuilds the army. Given that Tutankhamen is only 13 years old when his father dies, a second theory appears more plausible...and intriguing. According to this theory, the wily priest Ay has accompanied the family to Armana but maintains connections with the temple priests in Thebes and has an ally in Thebes in the powerful General Horemheb. Horemheb is naturally "concerned" with the decline of the army and on the death of Akhenaton is probably unlikely to leave the rebuilding of it, and Egypt's fortune, to chance.

It seems likely that the young Tutankhamen was overshadowed by these two powerful men, and suspicions deepen when we notice that Tutankhamen, dead at the age of only 20, has a hole in his skull. Ay briefly becomes Pharaoh and marries Nefertiti; Horemhem succeeds Ay as Pharaoh...well, do we need a jury?

*  Tutankhamen achieved fame largely through luck. The tombs of the most of the significant Pharaohs were pillaged for millenia and have long been emptied of anything of value. The fabulous wealth reportedly buried with them was therefore only the stuff of legend...until Howard Carter unearthed "King Tut's" almost intact tomb in 1922. With its fabulous gold coffin and face mask it created enormous publicity, and a minor Pharaoh became a star. Why did this tomb escape the fate of the others? The tomb had escaped notice until then largely because of an accident of placement. It was close to another tomb and a rockfall had hidden the entrance. It was probably because Tutankhamen was a minor Pharaoh that the tomb robbers had not worked harder to find it.

The Horemheb Line

The lineage of the pharaohs changed with Horemheb: a general, rather than royalty, had ascended to the throne. It is the sons of Horemheb, including Ramses I and II, who will hold the throne of Egypt until the Ptolemies.

Pharaoh Dates
Horemheb 1319–1292 BC
Ramses I 1292–1290 BC
Set I 1290–1279 BC
Ramses II 1279-1213 BC
Seti II... 1213-1185 BC
Ramses III-XI 1185-1078 BC

I have made points elsewhere to suggest that our popular understanding of the importance of Egyptian figures may be different from their real role in history. For example, figures like Tutankhamen and even Ramses the Great get larger-than-life billing while others like Seti I, who laid the groundwork for Rameses, are shortchanged. The later figures in Egypt get better PR than earlier ones for several reasons: time hasn't eroded as much; Egypt was still a major world power and its exploits bigger; the Egyptians were coming into contact with the two civilizations that form our own Western history.

Rameses II probably was one of the great Pharaohs...but his reputation was, shall we say, greatly enhanced by his remarkable talent for self-promotion. He excelled at leaving awe-inspiring monuments to himself in all the right places, and would no doubt be overjoyed to know that their sheer size and placement would provide a lasting adoration from later tourists and archeologists.

Religion

Like the Greeks, Egyptians worshipped a great number of colorful gods with all-too-human characteristics. At first each was a local god, worshipped in a specific region. But—as described above—the central power of Egypt grew, and moved from Abydos, to Memphis, to Heliopolis and finally to Thebes, the fortunes of the god of that region would ascend to national recognition and those of the old regime would wane. Myths explaining this change would circulate to appease the populace.

All this no doubt made sense at each particular time but for those of us later trying to trace the whole range of Egyptian history, it is more difficult to put a finger on a consisent thread because the same name keeps coming up with a different story.

Ra was popular but not all-powerful. The creator god Ptah created the world and the gods including Ra; Isis overcame an aging Ra and forced him to surrender his name. Other gods, such as Horus (the elder or younger), Sobek (god of the Nile), Hathor (the cow goddess) and most of all, Isis and Osiris, would have temples devoted to them that barely mentioned Ra.

The Isis/Osiris myth that descends to us today seems to arise in the New Kingdom and because it is taken up by Greeks and Romans is worth reading (a brief version is provided at the bottom of this text). These two deities grew to be a major cult during the time of the Greeks, perhaps because the Greeks identified Isis with Aphrodite. God and goddess continued to attract a strong following well into Roman and then Christian times.

Although fortunes of different deities rose and fell there was a remarkable consistency, over 3,000 years, in the Egyptian rituals and ideas associated with the afterlife. From the earliest records it was clear that the Egyptians believed that the pharaohs passed on to an afterlife. Like Ra, who rose every morning in the East and "died" every evening in the West, the Pharaoh and others who could undergo the correct rituals of mummification and be buried with the correct rites ("The Opening of the Mouth") would live on in the afterlife.

Development

Perhaps I've glossed over a point here but it seems odd to me that over 3,000 years Egyptian religion made little progress philosophically. That is, where Indian and Chinese beliefs underwent substantial development, progressing from similar simple notions of a hierarchy of supernumaries to highly sophisticated explanations of the universe, Egyptian belief seemed to stand still, a fact that is all the more remarkable given the timespan of the Egyptian civilization.

Relationship to Christianity

There isn't specific reference to the presence of Moses in Egypt in any Egyptian historical records but Moses would have been in Egypt around the time of Ankhenaten—the monotheist. Did Moses influence Ankhenaten or did perhaps Ankhenaten influence Moses or is neither true?

The Myth of Isis, Seth, Osiris, and Horus

The Isis/Osiris myth may be of particular interest for Christians, especially if one reads "The Pagan Myth" and subscribes to certain websites. Here is good and evil personified; here is brother killing brother; here is resurrection—many of the ideas that would resurface later in Jewish and Christian thought.

Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom associated themselves with both Seth and Horus; since it is unlikely that a Pharaoh would align himself with an evil God it seems probable that Seth's portrayal in the following mythology—as the personification of evil—arose later. 

Three siblings: (sons) Osiris, Seth, (daughters) Isis and Nephsys were born of Nut, one of the wives of Ra, on consecutive days. They are the main actors in a story that scholars claim to be a universal theme—one which liberal Christians will find much interest in. There are no reliable Egyptian texts describing this myth and thus modern authors have to rely on sources such as the Roman writer Plutarch, who may have had access to reliable sources or may have made his own embellishments. The common thread of the various versions is that of the three children of Nut, wife of Ra, (there is a fourth, Nephsys) Osiris has been chosen by the fates as the favoured one. He is loved by everyone far and wide and Seth is jealous. So Seth kills his brother Osiris and sends the body off down the Nile. The gods are afraid of Seth and do nothing. Only Isis cares and uses her magical powers to find the body. However, Seth has followed her and cuts the body into 14 pieces and distributes it all over. Not to be beaten, Isis again sets out to find the pieces and does so, all except for one piece (his manhood according to one version but the others, discretely but significantly, omit that detail). She enrolls the help of Anubis, the god of the dead, who reconstructs the body and re-animates Osiris, while Isis, using magic, recreates (and presumably re-attaches) the missing piece.

Alas, even a god cannot return to life in the world of the living so Anubis graciously surrenders his throne, as god of the dead, to Osiris. Then the spirit of Osiris, erm, “combines with” that of Isis, and eventually Isis gives birth to a son, Horus. Horus will eventually kill Seth and ascend to the throne of the living. With Father as king of the dead and son as king of the living, Isis becomes—at least during Greek and Roman occupations—the most loved by all the people.

Wikipedia: Egyptian Religion
TourEgypt:Gods
Egyptian Art
Egyptology Online

Of interest in the temples

Seen one, seen 'em all? Surprisingly no! We both found more of interest at the many temples than we had imagined.

Perhaps the most lasting impression is the miracle that these monuments are still around and largely intact after thousands of years:

  • Pharaohs (a few) defacing the tombs and temples of other pharaohs
  • New Kingdom builders who took materials from, or built over Old and Middle Kingdom sites
  • Tomb robbers, who often defaced tombs and the mummies in order to avoid the curse of a pharaoh returning to haunt them from the afterlife
  • Coptic Christians, left defacements everywhere
  • Later Christians who, under the Romans, closed and defaced some temples
  • Arab and other middle age builders, who quarried sites (such as the pyramids) and used the marble for building mosques and palaces
  • The Mamluks, who used the temples as fortresses to escape Napoleon
  • Napoleon's troops, who chased the Mamluks from the temples and then used the temples as fortresses themselves
  • Invading British and French troops who scrawled graffiti on ruins they considered worthless
  • The early archeologists, who through ignorance or carelessness, destroyed a great deal of what they unearthed (eg the gash in the side of the pyramid of Cheops)
  • The British and Americans, who stole major artifacts and failed to take care of them. (eg Cleopatra's Needle, which is still eroding in London's traffic fumes; ).
  • Modern day tourists, who are still filching "souvenirs"

A second source of wonder is the engineering of the buildings. The Egyptians had only saws and other hand-tools with which to carve and hone the huge limestone blocks that make up, for example, the temple pillars. A close look at such a pillar reveals joins that are almost perfect. They had to be. The slightest imperfection in either of two faces of stone at a join will produces a slight wobble. How can you support a temple with wobbling 50ft pillars? And how did they manage to carve temple walls that required four such perfect faces at perfect right-angles? And how did they manage curved joins and stones? In Luxor Museum, there are samples of tools that were used but they are very simple.

Understanding the reliefs, cartouches and hieroglyphs in the temples is much like solving a cryptic crossword. You need a few hints to start you off but once running, the meaning of what you see becomes clearer and more illuminating.

Cartouches
'Cartouche' is the name that Napoleon's soldiers gave to the cartridge-shaped (rounded rectangle) that appears everywhere in hieroglyphs and reliefs. In reality, these were the nametags for the gods or pharaohs appearing in the reliefs.
Known cartouche of Ramses III
A relief, with the cartouche above clearly visible above the figure in the relief. The cartouche is a little small and stylized but the characters identify that this is Ramses III.

Note:

  • the crown (see below)
  • The sun disc of Ra
  • The feather of Ma'at (justice) in the cartouche
  • The Was sceptre (symbol of power and dominion)

Secondly clues are given by the symbols in the relief or painting, that denote clues as to the meaning or intent of the painting:

Crowns: the pharaoh would be shown wearing one of several crowns. For example, when a pharaoh was shown Wearing the double crown of upper and lower Egypt, the relief would obviously be intended to convey the pharaohs political power as monarch over the whole country. If the pharaoh was shown wearing a crown related to protection by a particular god, then the pharaoh’s chummy relationship with that god would be the focus.

Deshret crown (lower Egypt)

Hedjet crown(upper Egypt)

Pshent(Upper/lower)

Gods
Horus (the Falcon god)
Sobek (the Crocodile god)
Anubis (the black jackal—note the ears to distinguish easily from Sobek)
Gods are represented in cartouches as a symbol. The symbol for Ra was the circle, representing the sun often with a dot in the middle. That for Hathor, the cow goddess, shows the sun supported by horns. In figures, she would be identified by her round, cow-like eyes
The Ankh, or life symbol: pharaohs and gods holding this symbol were demonstrating their power over life
The feather of Ma'at, representing justice
For a more comprehensive coverage of crowns and 'god symbols' visit here