Early Egypt was divided into Lower, Middle, and Upper kingdoms along with other villages and tribes nearby. Eventually, they united into a single kingdom, establishing the capital at Memphis. Kingship was the primary form of Egyptian government at first, consisting of dynasties of ruling families. At this time, kings had strong power but were not yet considered absolute and godlike. Over generations, the kings usurped more power and resources as well as attempted to glorify their rule.
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Society was gradually transitioning into a class-based hierarchical system, of which the king was the leader. The government administrative complex housing the king was known as The Great House or Per Ao. The name eventually became adapted into the title for the king after 1400 BC, now known as pharaoh. The king sought to control the flow of resources which were collected from the provinces and peasants and channeled upward. Large palaces and symbols were erected as the king and his officials led a lavish way of life (Freeman, 2014).
The transition of Ancient Egypt is extraordinary. Before the unification, the Ancient Egyptian society was agricultural and egalitarian. However, the transition created a hierarchy and aristocracy which was difficult to escape. The first leaders which emerged were actively engaged and voluntarily escaped the role. Eventually, the transition led to pharaohs becoming despots. Pharaohs were extremely powerful, both practically and symbolically due to the monuments erected in their honor as well as their status as gods. Egypt is considered to be one of the first examples of civilization where one person and his royalty accumulated such tremendous wealth and power over the nation.
The rise to power of the pharaohs was based on a few factors. One was the natural growth of population density which occurs in an organized and agrarian society. With population growth, there is less availability of land and resources.
Populations grow denser and people become dependent on the distribution of resources from the government. Furthermore, the location of the Egyptian civilization in the Nile River valley and surrounded by desert prevented people from massively migrating or seeking residence outside the pharaoh’s influence. Therefore, the cost of leaving was high, forcing populations into an autocratic rule of the pharaohs for centuries. Meanwhile, the government maintained its power by all means of control, preventing any mass uprisings at early stages.
Religion was central to Egyptian society. They believed in the idea of deities and god (neter) as an omniscient power that guided all their aspects of life. Wealth, power, good crop yields, familial life, and other aspects were believed to be a result of the divine will which could not be disputed (Budge, 1895). Egyptian polytheistic religion was in place from the early days of its formation as a civilization, with evidence suggesting worship around 2400 BC, far before the building of the pyramids.
Order and a sense of community were centered around religion, as Egyptians were increasingly sensitive to spiritual influences. They believed that worshipping specific gods would protect against disorder, misfortune, and environmental disasters. The belief was so far-reaching that even familial conflicts would be rationalized through stories of gods and their humanized emotions. Political disunity would be spiritualized as well by “merging” deities to form new gods (Freeman, 2014).
The period of the most popular religious following in Egypt was the Osiris period. The symbolic nature of gods symbolizing practically every aspect, both natural and manmade in Egyptian society made religion both an unavoidable and irreplaceable component of society. Individuals had no incentive to reject religious beliefs and traditions so deeply integrated into daily life. Religion was flexible in its mainstream popularity and culture. Egyptian gods took upon different forms, could group, merge, and assume various identities within the well-developed mythology of the civilization to meet the human and spiritual needs of the society. Religion was involved in explaining aspects such as creation and afterlife as well which dominated the purpose of life for many Egyptians (Freeman, 2014).
Ancient Egyptian society was held together by religious concepts as it defined their beliefs, traditions, as well as societal order. There was class division present, led by priests and royalty, and government or military officials followed by the middle class of crafters and merchants. The lowest tier was unskilled peasants and slaves. The class division was strongly present in the mythology of Ancient Egypt and was accepted as status quo. Pharaohs were viewed as gods rather than human rulers. Rural areas or classes which did not have open access to temples prompted the rise in domestic religion and the presence of private shrines and chapels.
The nonroyals attempted to copy the architecture of temples for at-home worship. Meanwhile, temples became a place that collected all the cultural aspects of civilization. The cohesiveness brought by religion had positive aspects as well since communities throughout Egypt had common beliefs and values (Bussmann, 2015). Religion was a driving force of cultural expression which, in turn, reflected in the expansion of the civilization
Budge, W. E. A. (1895). The book of the dead: The papyrus of Ani. Web.
Bussmann, R. (2015). Egyptian archaeology and social anthropology. Oxford Handbooks Online, 1-29. Web.
Freeman, Charles. (2014). Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean. (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.