The Nile valley is surrounded by desert, which provides partial protection from foreign invasions. Unlike the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Nile is a fairly predictable river. It deposits vast quantities of fertile soil, leading to rich harvests. Throughout the whole of its ancient history, Egypt remained one of the...
The Nile valley is surrounded by desert, which provides partial protection from foreign invasions. Unlike the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Nile is a fairly predictable river. It deposits vast quantities of fertile soil, leading to rich harvests. Throughout the whole of its ancient history, Egypt remained one of the main centers of Mediterranean agriculture, supplying its grain to Syria and Palestine, and later to Greece and Roman Italy.
Unlike Mesopotamia with its warring cities and rival states, Egypt was united early in its history; the Egyptian pharaohs donned a crown with symbols of both Upper and Lower Egypt. Egypt remained integrated throughout most of history. The state developed a powerful, well-educated, high-minded, and relatively effective bureaucracy inspired by the principle of impartial justice and fairness (maat) taught in the scribal schools. This central principle played a prominent role in Egyptian religion, defined the views on the destiny of human beings after death, and served as a common reference point for various social groups in Egyptian society. For example, oppressed peasants could appeal to the principle of impartial justice when complaining about the actions of unscrupulous officials.
The state bureaucracy taxed peasants, controlled the aristocracy and the temples, and dominated much of the economy, including foreign trade. Market exchange played a limited role in Egyptian society and did not threaten the established social hierarchy. During the New Kingdom period (16-11th century B.C.E.) access to rich deposits of gold in Nubia financed commercial and military expansion in Syria and Palestine. From the Tel el Amarna diplomatic archive (14th century B.C.E.) we can learn much about Egypt's relationship with small vassal principalities in Syria and Palestine and about its contacts with other great powers of the time, such as the Hittite empire.
The Egyptian empire was able to outlive its most powerful competitor, the Hittite empire in Asia Minor and Syria; the latter was destroyed in the 13th century B.C.E. by invasions from the Sea Peoples. The Egyptians defeated the invaders during a decisive battle in Nile Delta. However, after the 11th century B.C.E., the Egyptian state became weakened and lost its control over Syria and Palestine.
While for most of its history, Egyptian society remained stable, there were epochs of social upheaval, political fragmentation, and foreign domination, such as the period of Hyksos rule in the 17th century B.C.E. Akhenaten tried to transform Egyptian religion and culture. The beautiful, innovative, and dynamic art of Akhenaten's period (the Amarna period) stemmed from these reforming efforts. However, the general tone of Egyptian culture remained conservative and the resentful temple clergy sought to destroy the memory of the reforming heretic. Such rigidity and conservatism is often the byproduct of social stability and a powerful common identity.