What can we learn about values and beliefs in ancient Egypt from their social and political structures?

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Ancient Egypt was a highly centralized, authoritarian state and a hierarchical society. At the top of the hierarchy was the pharaoh, of course, and under him were nobles serving as high ranking officials, influential priests representing numerous temples, and a bureaucracy consisting of carefully trained scribes, who regulated the daily...

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Ancient Egypt was a highly centralized, authoritarian state and a hierarchical society. At the top of the hierarchy was the pharaoh, of course, and under him were nobles serving as high ranking officials, influential priests representing numerous temples, and a bureaucracy consisting of carefully trained scribes, who regulated the daily life of ordinary Egyptians, strictly and directly. Scribal students studied wisdom texts, some of which contrasted the secure and relatively carefree life of the scribes with the exhausting daily toil and humble position of the peasants, artisans, and slaves at the bottom of Egypt’s hierarchy.

Such wisdom texts as the Teachings of Ptahhotep advised their readers to adopt self-discipline and to obey their superiors, even when those superiors were arrogant and violent. The texts also urged fair and decent treatment of inferiors in accordance with the understanding of justice (maat), considered the central principle of the Egyptian social order. According to Egyptian beliefs, those who neglected justice during their lifetime would regret it bitterly during the post-mortem judgement administered by Osiris.

Ptahhotep served as vizier to one of the early Pharaohs. In his text, he denounces greed and violence as leading to perdition and declares his belief that just people will prevail:

What is right is great... It has not been overturned since the time of Osiris. The one who overlooks laws is punished; that is what is overlooked in the sight of the greedy. It is the small-minded that seize riches, but crime never managed to land its rewards…. The final part of what is right is its endurance...

Many Egyptians were proud of their superior civilization, comfortable way of life and well-ordered society, which they contrasted to the miserable life of those they decried as “Asiatic barbarians,” i.e. the various tribes living in the Sinai peninsula, Palestine, and Syria. The Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe (20th-19th century B.C.E.) relates the story of an Egyptian bodyguard who was afraid that he might be falsely accused of participating in a conspiracy to kill the Pharaoh; he had not been involved in the conspiracy, but nonetheless fled to Syria, where he spent decades working as a military commander and official under one of the local chiefs. When Egyptian ambassadors persuaded him to return, he was happy that the pharaoh forgave him for running away and delighted to enjoy once again the amenities of civilized existence, including bathrooms. He was also pleased to know that after his death people would embalm his body and deposit it in a beautiful tomb.

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