This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The Role of Religion in Establishing a Civilization.
While 1894 (the time our selection was written) to now is a long time, archaeology has tended to confirm that Egypt was the oldest civilization – or if not, at least among the very oldest ones.
As the last Ice Age melted away, climate change caused the great Sahara Plains across North Africa to dry up. The great plain became the great desert. Its inhabitants, already used to living in settled communities emigrated to the lush lowlands along the Nile River. This is where our story begins.
This selection is from The Dawn of Civilization: Egypt and Chaldea by Gaston Maspero published in 1894. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) was noted as a scholar of ancient Egypt.
Time: around 5900 BC
The monuments have as yet yielded no account of the events which tended to unite Egypt under the rule of one man; we can only surmise that the feudal principalities had gradually been drawn together into two groups, each of which formed a separate kingdom. Heliopolis became the chief focus in the north, from which civilization radiated over the wet plain and the marshes of the Delta.
Its colleges of priests had collected, condensed, and arranged the principal myths of the local regions; the Ennead to which it gave conception would never have obtained the popularity which we must acknowledge it had, if its princes had not exercised, for at least some period, an actual suzerainty over the neighboring plains. It was around Heliopolis that the kingdom of Lower Egypt was organized; everything there bore traces of Heliopolitan theories — the protocol of the kings, their supposed descent from Ra, and the enthusiastic worship which they offered to the sun.
The Delta, owing to its compact and restricted area, was aptly suited for government from one center; the Nile valley proper, narrow, tortuous, and stretching like a thin strip on either bank of the river, did not lend itself to so complete a unity. It, too, represented a single kingdom, having the reed and the lotus for its emblems; but its component parts were more loosely united, its religion was less systematized, and it lacked a well-placed city to serve as a political and sacerdotal center. Hermopolis contained schools of theologians who certainly played an important part in the development of myths and dogmas; but the influence of its rulers was never widely felt.
In the south, Siut disputed their supremacy, and Heracleopolis stopped their road to the north. These three cities thwarted and neutralized one another, and not one of them ever succeeded in obtaining a lasting authority over Upper Egypt. Each of the two kingdoms had its own natural advantages and its system of government, which gave to it a peculiar character, and stamped it, as it were, with a distinct personality down to its latest days. The kingdom of Upper Egypt was more powerful, richer, better populated, and was governed apparently by more active and enterprising rulers. It is to one of the latter, Mini or Menes of Thinis, that tradition ascribes the honor of having fused the two Egypts into a single empire, and of having inaugurated the reign of the human dynasties.
Thinis figured in the historic period as one of the least of Egyptian cities. It barely maintained an existence on the left bank of the Nile, if not on the exact spot now occupied by Girgeh, at least only a short distance from it. The principality of the Osirian Reliquary, of which it was the metropolis, occupied the valley from one mountain to the other, and gradually extended across the desert as far as the Great Theban Oasis. Its inhabitants worshipped a sky-god, Anhuri, or rather two twin gods, Anhuri-shu, who were speedily amalgamated with the solar deities and became a warlike personification of Ra.
Anhuri-shu, like all other solar manifestations, came to be associated with a goddess having the form or head of a lioness — a Sokhit, who took for the occasion the epithet of Mihit, the northern one. Some of the dead from this city are buried on the other side of the Nile, near the modern village of Mesheikh, at the foot of the Arabian chain, whose deep cliffs here approach somewhat near the river: the principal necropolis was at some distance to the east, near the sacred town of Abydos. It would appear that, at the outset, Abydos was the capital of the country, for the entire nome bore the same name as the city, and had adopted for its symbol the representation of the reliquary in which the god reposed.
In very early times Abydos fell into decay, and resigned its political rank to Thinis, but its religious importance remained unimpaired. The city occupied a long and narrow strip between the canal and the first slopes of the Libyan mountains. A brick fortress defended it from the incursions of the Bedouin, and beside it the temple of the god of the dead reared its naked walls. Here Anhuri, having passed from life to death, was worshipped under the name of Khontamentit, the chief of that western region whither souls repair on quitting this earth.
It is impossible to say by what blending of doctrines or by what political combinations this Sun of the Night came to be identified with Osiris of Mendes, since the fusion dates back to a very remote antiquity; it had become an established fact long before the most ancient sacred books were compiled. Osiris Khontamentit grew rapidly in popular favor, and his temple attracted annually an increasing number of pilgrims. The Great Oasis had been considered at first as a sort of mysterious paradise, whither the dead went in search of peace and happiness. It was called Uit, the Sepulcher; this name clung to it after it had become an actual Egyptian province, and the remembrance of its ancient purpose survived in the minds of the people, so that the “cleft,” the gorge in the mountain through which the doubles journeyed toward it, never ceased to be regarded as one of the gates of the other world.
At the time of the New Year festivals, spirits flocked thither from all parts of the valley; they there awaited the coming of the dying sun, in order to embark with him and enter safely the dominions of Khontamentit. Abydos, even before the historic period, was the only town, and its god the only god, whose worship, practiced by all Egyptians, inspired them all with an equal devotion.
Did this sort of moral conquest give rise, later on, to a belief in a material conquest by the princes of Thinis and Abydos, or is there an historical foundation for the tradition which ascribes to them the establishment of a single monarchy? It is the Thinite Menes, whom the Theban annalists point out as the ancestor of the glorious Pharaohs of the XVIII dynasty: it is he also who is inscribed in the Memphite chronicles, followed by Manetho, at the head of their lists of human kings, and all Egypt for centuries acknowledged him as its first mortal ruler.
It is true that a chief of Thinis may well have borne such a name, and may have accomplished feats which rendered him famous; but on closer examination his pretensions to reality disappear, and his personality is reduced to a cipher.
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