Nearly 5000 years ago, two kingdoms surrounded the Nile river, the North around the mouth and the South stretched along the water for hundreds of miles. The Egypt we’re familiar with begins with King Menes, the first Pharaoh. Under his command, the South conquered the Northern lands unifying the two nations into what we now consider Ancient Egypt. Even though the two kingdoms were greatly different, they did have one enormous element in common, the Nile River. Each spring, the southern snow would melt and cause flooding; the waters overflowed and replenished the soil, promising a large harvest that autumn. The entire kingdom vitally depended on this natural rhythm.
When western historians created the study of Egyptology they quickly learned the field would need to be simplified. With the help of intellectual locals and decades of work, a previously monumental mass of records was divided into an accepted group of 33 dynasties over 3 periods. On the other hand, the Egyptians never saw their Kingdom divided in that way; to them, Egypt was one, strong, unified land ruled by a godlike Pharaoh providing safety for his people eternally.
Harmony (Ma’at) is a concept Egypt loved to obsess over; they believed in an endless flow that life and even death allowed them to experience. Practically all surviving remnants from the Old Kingdom period are the grand tombs and burial sites of the royals, often giving us the wrong impression that death haunted the Egyptians. Their culture reflected the polar opposite, summarized here by Salima Ikram. The monuments and temples the Egyptians produced were “a celebration of life and a means of continuing it for eternity…For the Egyptians, as for other cultures, death was part of the journey of life, with death marking a transition or transformation after which life continued in another form”.
The Egyptians harbored a deep fear of dying beyond their own borders; in fact, those who did travel, either as a soldier or a merchant, usually arranged for the return of their bodies, in the event of death. They believed the fertile earth encompassing the Nile was the only place the gods blessed for the re-birth of the soul. Simply put, if you die outside of Egypt; that’s it. This reason not only affected the lives of the Egyptians long-term, encouraging them to live their lives absent of much exploration, but also explains why they didn’t conquer more of the world despite possessing the technology to do so. Explorers came to Egypt, the Egyptians rarely explored. Even during the height of their expansion, they never extended their power farther than Turkey and the Persian Gulf. Egypt was a Kingdom, not an Empire.
Most Egyptians avoided travelling all together, dying in the same village they were born in. Their afterlife reflected their life on Earth, Egyptians expected to occupy the same village they grew up in for all of eternity just without sickness, sadness, and death. Inside a 3,500-year-old tomb reads an inscription about what one man expects in the next life, “May I walk every day on the banks of the water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I planted, may I refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore”. The concept of harmony (Ma’at) governed their lives and assured that happiness was about living peacefully and, dissimilar to other ancient cultures, not greed and material wealth.
We know a little about what they perceived happiness to be, but what made them laugh? What did they do for fun? Games were an enormous part of relaxation during that time; archery, sailing, swimming, and especially Senet; a board game best described as Checkers mixed with the Chinese game Go. More than just playing games, a personal garden was treasured by every family who could afford it. The Egyptians didn’t work their own crops and thus desired to produce something of their own. It wasn’t just for sustenance, the pride in their labor was deeply important to them. After all, this was the place they would spend eternity; they wanted to appreciate it.
All classes, though especially the poor, in Egypt worshipped the goddess Hathor. The following grew from a place of discontent. Because the Egyptians didn’t work their own land, they felt a lack of meaning in their lives. Making the rich even richer every day would, understandably, leave you feeling discouraged. When the farmers harvested wheat, they would grab the grains with their left hand and cut the base with a knife in their right. To the poor, their left hand was always in front of them during work. When an Egyptian joined the cult of Hathor, a priest held your left arm and told you to name the five things you would miss most if you were to die. A typical Egyptian answer could be, “My wife, my son, beer, my dog, the river.” The five fingers on the left hand represent the gifts Hathor gave even the lowest of workers. Spreading the message of gratitude, an essential part of Egyptian culture, was the purpose of the cult. In their society, ungratefulness was a “gateway sin” leading to a wrathful heart. Every time a worker would reach out to harvest another man’s crop, he would see his left hand and remember the five gifts Hathor had blessed him with.
The gods granted worthy Egyptians happiness in the form of the Four Kas: life, children, wealth, and proper burial. A quick breakdown of these four elements shows why they were elevated to such a high place in Egyptian culture. First, life didn’t just refer to a healthy, long existence on Earth; it also meant a comfortable and peaceful afterlife. To the Egyptians, they never stopped experiencing life, their time after death was just a different form of existence they welcomed. Asking for life from the gods was to pray for a joyful time in this world and an untroubled journey to the next.
Second, children were deeply desired as a continuation of life. It was common for Egyptians to die quite young; usually parents didn’t watch their children grow into mature adults. They would marry young and it was hoped for that one’s descendants would be numerous, powerful, and prominent in the city. Third, wealth has been desired by most cultures throughout history, with few exceptions. Riches signify safety and power, not only did the Egyptians crave material wealth for themselves; it would also aid their children and extended family.
Fourth, a proper burial is the most vital on this list. If a burial was held wrongly or if a detail was excluded, the dead could be punished. In tombs of the wealthy, if, for example, there was no bread painted on the table, they believed the deceased would not be given bread for eternity. This belief, although now seems a bit extreme, is the reason the Egyptian art form and overall style remained unchanged for nearly 3000 years.
Although their society remained unchanged for millennia, newly developed technology defined their culture. A list of Egyptian inventions could fill their own book, you may have heard of a few: paper, dentistry, the wig, not to mention they drastically improved on the wheel, brewing beer, medicine, astronomy, shipbuilding, and every other facet of life you can imagine. The Great Pyramids were such an astonishing accomplishment humans wouldn’t build anything taller for nearly 40 centuries until the Lincoln Cathedral in Medieval England.
Beyond the myths and superstitions, the Egyptians were people just like us. A great example showing how common their view of happiness was to ours is from the Pharaoh. After he signed his name on official documents, the message “Life, Prosperity, And Health.” always followed mimicking the four Kas. In the Tomb of Petosiris, an inscription reads “He who keeps to the road of the god, he spends his whole life in joy, laden with riches more than all his peers. He grows old in his city, he is an honoured man in his home, all his limbs are young as those of a child’s. His children are before him, numerous and considered foremost in their city; his sons follow each other from generation to generation… At last he reaches the necropolis in joy, in the beautiful embalmment of Anubis’ labour.” Despite being separated by geography, religion, and language, the core philosophy of these Nile-dwellers seem to mirror our own: gratitude, family, and a healthy life are the keys to happiness.