The Story of Africa


- The people of the Nile Valley


- Egypt


- Nubia



The pyramids
The Nile is without doubt the source of one of the most extraordinary and long lasting of civilisations, bequeathing an almost immeasurable legacy to Africa and the world.

The formation of Egypt as a unified state came when the regions known as Upper and Lower Egypt were united. According to tradition, the first ruler was Menes or Narmer who began the first of thirty ruling dynasties.

It was to take hundreds of years of consolidation before political stability was actually achieved. The Kings of the first two dynasties, or the archaic period, were mainly concerned with conquest and it was not until the Third dynasty of King Zoser that Egypt was secure as a united kingdom.

Divine rule

The rulers of Ancient Egypt, known as Pharaohs, were regarded as gods on earth. They were also the embodiment of public service and responsible for national security and the well-being of their people.

The ancient Egyptians had no single religious system but worshipped a wide range of deities. The most important ones were Ra, the sun god, from whom Egyptian kings claimed descent, and Osiris, king of the dead. In addition, there were numerous other gods who were worshipped in specific localities or temples.

There was an important belief in reincarnation - life after death - and the ancient Egyptians regarded burial rites as of supreme importance. It was believed that by doing good deeds in the first life, the deceased would be assured a place in eternal paradise.

The bodies of the wealthy were embalmed and mummified so they would stay in good condition before being put in a tomb, which was then filled with food and offerings that might be needed in the next life.

It was believed that once the body arrived in the Kingdom of the Dead, the ka, or double of the earthly person, would be judged by Osiris and was either condemned to torture or sent to a heavenly realm.

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Peasants and scribes

National pride
"The myth of slavery is very good for everyone... it looks good for movies. In reality slavery can build huge buildings but can never produce something like this civilisation. If you look at every inscription and every scene in a tomb it shows love... it shows the idea of a national project.

"Ancient Egypt had a system called family support... every household in the north and the south used to participate in building the pyramid instead of paying tax. The pyramid was a national project for the whole nation."- Zahir Hawass, Director of the Pyramids
The Pharaoh, as King, was at the top of a rigid hierarchy. Below him were the priests of the temples and a vast army of officials including literate and wealthy scribes and civil servants.

At the bottom of the hierarchy were the vast mass of the people - peasants who lived along the Nile in small mud huts, growing cereals, vegetables and fruit and caring for goats and cattle.

The relationship between the administrators and the peasants appears to have been largely based on economic exploitation.

Most years, the flooding of the Nile left the surrounding soil fertile enough for the farmers to harvest a large surplus. They were not allowed to keep it. Instead the civil servants would put the surplus in huge government stores.

Officials also monitored the rise and fall in the levels of the Nile in order to calculate the amount of tax the peasantry was expected to pay in a given year.

There was little chance of avoiding the officials. Egypt was divided into forty districts, each with its own governor. As every part of the kingdom could be reached by boat on the Nile, there were few hiding places.

Temples and pyramids

Construction work
"In the building of the Great Pyramid, King Cheops brought the people to utter misery, for he compelled all the Egyptians to work for him. The stones were quarried in the Arabian mountains and dragged to the Nile. They were carried across the river in boats and then dragged up the slope to the site of the pyramid...

The people worked in gangs of 100,000 men, each gang for three months?" - Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Greek Historian
Many of Egypt's most important building projects were also inspired by spiritual beliefs, with temples and shrines built to a range of important gods.

The Old Kingdom was the great age of pyramid building and this period saw the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza built as a burial chamber for Cheops or Khufu.

It used to be thought that pyramids were built by slave labour. Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century, believed 100,000 men were forced to take part in the construction.

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But such theories are challenged by modern Egyptologists, including Zahir Hawass, Director of the Pyramids in Cairo, who has carried out extensive excavations over many years.

He believes fewer than 25 thousand labourers were involved and that far from being slaves they were peasants who were well cared for and proud to take part in a 'national project', out of love and respect for their Pharaoh and his divine authority.

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The construction of such buildings showed the Egyptians had an outstanding grasp of the principles of astronomy, mathematics and geometry - we can only marvel at these today.

By the New Kingdom period, pyramid building had largely been abandoned and the Pharaohs were instead building stone tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in southern Egypt.

The tombs were filled with golden treasures, priceless jewellery and lavishly decorated pottery and artefacts. The discovery of the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankamun in 1920 gave the public an extraordinary insight into the fabulous wealth of the ancient kings.

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Among the many achievements of the Egyptians was the development of one of the oldest forms of writing in the world, hieroglyphics.

This was a system of pictorial images, each of which represented a sound or meaning, which could either be inscribed in stone or written on papyrus - an ancient form of paper made from dried reed pulp.

Hieroglyphics were used for administrative purposes, such as recording crop yields or the level of the Nile but also for inscribing prayers around temples and tombs and recording the feats and lineages of ruling families.

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