Egypt: the Rise of a New Civilization

  November 29, 2021   Read time 3 min
Egypt: the Rise of a New Civilization
Mesopotamia was not the only great river valley to cradle a civilization, but the only early example to rival it in the antiquity and staying-power of what was created was that of Egypt.

For thousands of years after it had died, the physical remains of the first civilization in the Nile valley fascinated men’s minds and stirred their imaginations; even the Greeks were bemused by the legend of the occult wisdom of a land where gods were half men, half beasts, and people still waste their time trying to discern a supernatural signifi cance in the arrangement of the pyramids. Ancient Egypt has always been our greatest visible inheritance from antiquity. The richness of its remains is one reason why we know more about Egyptian than about much of Mesopotamian history. In another way, too, there is an important difference between these civilizations: because Sumerian civilization appeared fi rst, Egypt could benefit from its experience and example.

Exactly what this meant has been much debated. Mesopotamian contributions have been seen in the motifs of early Egyptian art, in the presence of cylinder seals at the outset of Egyptian records, in similar techniques of monumental building in brick, and in the debt of hieroglyph, the pictorial writing of Egypt, to early Sumerian script. That there were important and fruitful connections between early Egypt and Mesopotamia seems incontestable, but how and why their fi rst encounters came about may never be known. The earliest archaeological evidence of contact comes from the fourth millennium BCand when Sumerian infl uence fi rst came to bear it was probably by way of the peoples settled in the delta of the Nile. It operated there at the very north of the feature which above all differentiated Egypt’s history from that of any other centre of civilization, the Nile itself, the heart of Egypt’s prehistory as of its history.

Egypt was defi ned by the Nile and the deserts which flanked it; it was the country the river watered, one drawn-out straggling oasis. In prehistoric times it must also have been one great marsh, 600 miles long, and, except in the delta, never more than a few miles wide. From the start, the annual floods of the river were the basic mechanism of the economy and set the rhythm of life on its banks. Farming gradually took root in the beds of mud deposited higher and higher year by year, but the fi rst communities must have been precarious and their environment semi-aquatic; much of their life has been irrecoverably swept away to the delta silt-beds. What remain of the earliest times are things made and used by the peoples who lived on the edge of the flood areas or on occasional rocky projections within it or at the valley sides. Before 4000 BC, they began to feel the impact of an important climatic change. Sand drifted in from the deserts and desiccation set in. Armed with elementary agricultural techniques, these people could move down to work the rich soils of the flood plain.

From the start, therefore, the river was the bringer of life to Egypt. It was a benevolent deity whose never-failing bounty was to be thankfully received, rather than the dangerous, menacing source of sudden, ruinous inundations like those in which the men of Sumer struggled to make land out of a watery waste. It was a setting in which agriculture (though introduced later than in the Levant or Anatolia) gave a quick and rich return and perhaps made possible a population ‘explosion’ which released its human and natural resources. Although, as signs of contact in the fourth millennium BC show, Sumerian experience may have been available as a fertilizing element, it cannot be said that it was decisive; there always existed a potential for civilization in the Nile valley and it may have needed no external stimulus to discharge it. It is at least obvious, when Egyptian civilization fi nally emerged, that it is unique, unlike anything we can find elsewhere.