Egypt of the pharaohs


Egypt at the time of the pharaohs

Egyptian prehistory began in the Neolithic period with the appearance of man, probably driven by the desertification of neighboring regions, in the narrow strip of land fertilized by the waters of the Nile which he undertakes development for culture. During the fourth millennium BC, two kingdoms were formed: in Lower Egypt (Delta region) around the cities of Bouto and Sais, and in Upper Egypt around Hieracopolis. Narmer, king of the South, succeeded towards 3200 to unify Egypt for his profit and found to this the first of the thirty dynasties which will administer Egypt until in 333 BC. this one is reduced to the state of Greek province.

History under the pharaohs

The rulers of the first two dynasties (Thinite period) ensure the organization of the country and lay the foundations of the Pharaonic monarchy: while respecting its historical fragmentation in small provinces (or nomes) which they make the basis of their administration, they direct them even from their palaces the unification and enhancement of Egypt, particularly through a national irrigation policy. They impose Horus, their dynastic god, whose king claims to be the incarnation, at the head of the official hierarchy of the deities of the country.

With the Third Dynasty begins the Old Kingdom (from 2800 to 2400 BC). King Djoser transfers the capital of the country to Memphis, and the royal administration reinforces himself and becomes a vizier. The first may have been Imhotep, a man of letters, a doctor and an architect who conceived the first pyramid for the king's tomb in Saqqara. The solar dogma of Heliopolis is instituted in state religion and the monarchs add to their name the title of "son of Re". On the outside, Egypt begins to maintain relations with the whole Eastern Mediterranean and with Nubia, where trade exchanges and warlike expeditions alternate. The long reign (94 years) of Pepi II precipitates, probably thanks to foreign invasions, the collapse of the monarchy memphite, initiated from the beginning of the VIth Dynasty by the rise of provincial feudalism.

We must wait until the dawn of the second millennium to emerge, the multiplicity of royalties that had divided the country for three centuries, a Theban dynasty, the XI, which remade the unity of Egypt for his benefit, inaugurating the Middle Kingdom (from 2050 to 1800 BC). His kings restore a centralizing monarchy whose supreme god is Amon. Limiting the power of "nomarchs", they favor the development of the middle class. They are also committed to defending the borders of Egypt against foreign aggression (including building a line of fortifications in the northeast) and resume commercial shipments to Nubia, Sinai and Syria. But from 1900 BC J.-C, populations of Asian origin, probably driven from their lands by invasions from the Caspian Sea and Black Sea regions, seep into the Delta. These Hyksos took advantage of the political fragmentation, which had once again been established in Egypt since the 14th dynasty, to land a new kingdom around Avaris. Adopting Egyptian customs, they reign over Lower Egypt until the Theban nomarchs of the 17th Dynasty managed to drive them out of the country around 1580 BC. J.-C.

To protect against the powerful states recently established in the Middle East (the Hittite kingdom, the Mitanni, Assyria and Babylon), the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (from 1580 to 1085 BC), including Tuthmosis III and Ramses II, turn into conquerors. At the peak of its power, the Egyptian Empire will extend from Upper Nubia to the Euphrates. The submissive territories are organized into protectorates and have to pay tribute. Pharaohs also know how to use diplomacy, forming alliances with their enemies the day before by marrying Asian princesses. They are also great builders (Karnak, Abu Simbel, the hypogea of ​​the Valley of the Kings date from this time). While the administration came under the authority of the viziers who directly control the nomarchs - whose functions are no longer honorary - the pharaoh is assisted in his religious duties by the high priest of Amon. The Theban clergy eventually became a state within the state, going so far as to interfere in the conduct of political affairs. Amenophis IV (husband of the famous Nefertiti) then tries to establish the worship of the solar disk Aton. He takes the name of Akhenaton ("He who likes Aton") and transports his capital of Thebes to Tell al-Amarna. But this revolution, political as much as religious, quickly ended under the reign of Tutankhamun (around 1350). The end of the New Kingdom is marked by a further weakening of royal authority. As the Egyptian protectorate over Asia becomes more and more ineffective, the kingdom is beset by the invasions of the Sea Peoples.

After antiquity

During the Late Period (from 1085 to 333 BC), two indigenous dynasties first shared the country - Tune installed at Tanis reigning on the Delta, the other, led by the high priests of Amon, at Thebes - before foreign dynasties, of Libyan (around 950) and then Sudanese (around 750) origins, finally seize power. Around 670, the Delta was invaded by Assurbanipal's troops and became an Assyrian protectorate. Psammetic I, King of Sais, manages to liberate the country with the help of Greek mercenaries. Under the Saïtes dynasties, the country will then know during a century and a half a last national restoration, compromised however by the defeat of Karkemish (605) against the Babylonian prince Nabuchodonosor, before falling under the influence of Persia, a first time of 525 to 404 and a second time from 341 to 333, after Nectanebo II, the last native pharaoh in Egyptian history, was submitted by Artaxerxes III. The first Persian rulers first tried to assimilate, as the Hyksos did before them, by adopting the rites and insignia of the Pharaonic monarchy. But the brutality of their successors provoked endemic revolts of the Egyptian people against an increasingly heavy slavery. Also, when, in 333, Alexander of Macedon, who had just defeated the Persians at Issos, entered Egypt, he was welcomed as a liberator.

The country, however, went for three centuries (333 to 30) to fall under a Greek domination that he would soon begrudge. Alexander is crowned king and founds Alexandria which will become the capital. At his death, his empire is divided between his old companions and Egypt is shared with Ptolemy, son of Lagos. He proclaimed himself king in 305 and founded the Lagides dynasty. The Ptolemaic rulers impose on Egypt a domination of the colonial type: the administration, extremely centralized, is in the hands of Greeks and ensures in particular the organization of agricultural production for the benefit of the king, owner of almost all the ground. Indigenous revolts are frequent. In addition, incessant palace revolutions eventually exhaust the monarchy. Egypt is finally annexed by Rome in 30 BC, during the reign of Cleopatra, who will be the wife of Caesar and Antoine, before killing himself not to survive the final sinking of the kingdom of the pharaohs.

Ancient Egypt remained for centuries in the eyes of the West a kind of myth. Admittedly, the literati knew, thanks to the accounts of Greek and Latin authors, that a powerful kingdom had once existed, then disappeared, leaving astonishing architectural vestiges. But the seventh-century Arab conquest, which had integrated the country into the dreaded world of Islam, had long discouraged the candidates for the trip.

At the end of the 17th century, scientific interest succeeded commercial reasons which had encouraged the Venetian merchants to stop at Alexandria since the Renaissance. Travelers of the time, including Richard Pococke (1704-1765), left us priceless descriptions of a number of monuments that less than a century later, during the first archaeological campaigns, had already disappeared. For the Egyptian authorities, while granting excavation permits to the first Western scholars, continued in the early nineteenth century to consider the Pharaonic remains as reserves of materials (the pyramids of Giza had been used in the past as "quarries" during of Cairo construction).

The French fleet led by Bonaparte, who landed in Alexandria in 1798, included - besides men of war - 167 artists and scholars who would play a determining role in the birth of Egyptology. It was by a French officer that was discovered in 1799 on the left bank of the Nile the famous stone of Rosette which allowed Jean-François Champollion to pierce in 1822 the mystery of the hieroglyphs and thus to open an inexhaustible field of investigation to scientists. Another Frenchman, Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), organized the Egyptian Antiquities Service and conducted numerous excavations in the country (he was the one who updated the Saqqarah serapeum).

But it is curious that some of the most famous finds are due to characters on the margins of science: this is the case, in the nineteenth century, the opening of the temple of Abu Simbel by Italian adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823), and especially the discovery, in 1929, of the Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter, who was then running a private mission for a wealthy English collector, Lord Camarvon.

Egyptian life at the time of the pharaohs

The basic features of Egyptian civilization were fixed in the reign of the first pharaohs: absolute monarchs boasting a superhuman origin, these were the pivots of a very hierarchical political, economic and social organization. The simultaneous birth of the hieroglyphic writing appears as one of the necessary conditions for the development of this society, because it allowed poets and priests to exalt the glory of the king and the gods, the scribes, charged with administrative tasks, keep records and transmit orders.

Paradoxically, it is the scenes adorning the tombs of this people, for whom the hereafter was only an extension of the earthly life, which today satisfies us the detail of its daily life. Farmer first and foremost, he represented sowing and harvests - barley, wheat, and flax were mainly grown for the stuffs - picking and harvesting, hunting and fishing, breeding: besides cows , sheep and goats, he sought to domesticate all kinds of wild species. The donkey was the pack animal par excellence, while the horse appeared late and seems to have been used only for war. The Egyptian probably invented beekeeping, whose methods and the many sacred and secular uses of honey and wax are illustrated in detail.

Every summer, the flood of the Nile brought on the ground the fertilizing silt. The majority of the population, therefore, concentrated in the Delta and the river valley, the only means of communication and the transport of goods. Irrigation had to be constantly aided and supervised by means of dikes and canals. . During the flood period, farmers could be enlisted for some public works, such as the construction of the pyramids.

Egypt also counted, from ancient times, large urban centers: Heliopolis, Memphis, Thebes ... The houses and palaces, built in raw brick, have disappeared, but we can imagine them from Foundations updated by excavations and some models found especially in the tombs of the Middle Kingdom. The paintings painted or carved in the funerary chapels evoke the activities of the ruling classes, their distractions (banquet scenes, concert), family life, fashions, domestic duties (preparation of food, weaving). The objects deposited near the sarcophagus (furniture, jewelery ...) make it possible to reconstitute their frame of life. They testify to a very advanced technique of cabinet making, goldsmithing, ceramics ... The craftsmen were most often grouped together in royal workshops or attached to temples, and most of their production accumulated, beyond the gaze of the layman, in the treasures of the gods, the pharaohs, or the dead nobles.


For those who received an intellectual training (priests, scribes), studies began at an early age, in schools attached to palaces or temples. They included a common core: the science of writing. The word "hieroglyph" was coined by the Greeks from hicros (sacred) and puphcin (engraved), probably because they discovered the first examples on the walls of the temples. In fact, the hieroglyphs were throughout the history of Pharaonic ornamental repertoire par excellence: painters and engravers could also group them as they please, for the sake of harmony, either in columns or in lines (from left to right or from right to left, the direction of the reading being in this case determined by the arrangement of the signs representing animated beings: one used while going to meet them). Originally, the Egyptians used a writing of an extreme simplicity: each hieroglyph represented the object that it designated (thus one expressed "five oxen" by the image of the animal followed by five features). These are called "ideograms" (from Greek ciaos, "form") or "sign-words".

In order to allow the transcription of more abstract terms or complex actions, most of these signs were then assigned a phonetic value and then associated with them as in a rebus (for example, the verb "to establish", which said Semett, was represented by two hieroglyphs: the first represented a folded cloth and pronounced "se", and the other a chessboard, "men"). To avoid confusion between words of the same "consonantal skeleton" (vowels not being transcribed), one had more recourse to "determinative" signs, which were not pronounced. Placed at the end of the words, they specified to which family each belonged and also made it possible to distinguish them, because one inscribed them following each other, without any separation. The Egyptian scribes developed, for their current needs (mail, accounts, literature), a faster writing, the hieratic, which took over by simplifying the hieroglyphics and that was drawn in ink on papyrus or tablets. It itself degenerated in the third century BC into a still more cursive form, called demotic. By adopting the Greek characters in the third century AD, and later still the Arabic alphabet, the Egyptians gradually abandoned their traditional writings, to the point of forgetting their meaning, which would remain a total enigma until in the 19th century Champollion finds the key.

Belief in the afterlife

If we must believe the reflections, probably idealized, that their art has left us, life was sweet for the ancient Egyptians. So they wanted to see in death only a passage to another life, conceived in the image of the one they had tasted here below. The precautions taken for the burial of the dead bear witness to this.

Men were attributed to the body, besides the body, several spiritual elements: the principal ones were the "bat" (the soul), that the death liberated from the body, and the "kâ" (the vital energy). The latter needed the support of the body, preserved from destruction by the rites both material and magical mummification, to survive, and thus ensure the deceased an eternal survival. Enclosed in a sarcophagus, the mummy was then placed in the tomb, designed as the house of the dead: its equipment included funeral furniture and everyday objects (weapons, dishes, clothes ...). The tomb also contained a statue of the dead, which would serve as a replacement for the case where the mummy would be destroyed. With the spread of the Osirian myth, this organization of eternal survival, originally reserved for the pharaohs, then extended by them to the aristocracy, ceased to be the privilege of a few and was offered, at the end of the 6th Dynasty, to anyone who had the means to sacrifice to these rites.

For the care that the living owed to the dead did not stop the day after the funeral: it was necessary to make a daily and perpetual worship to the deceased, by depositing offerings in the tomb. Funeral priests, called "servants of the ka," could do it. But this service was expensive and it was feared that it would be neglected. So it was customary to store food, mummified or fake, for sustenance, as well as statuettes depicting the servants of the deceased, to serve him forever. Often the dead person was represented on the walls of the chapel sitting at a table covered with offerings. In case of need, these objects and these images, endowed with magic, could - it was believed - take reality. Thus the belief in survival dominates the civilization of Pharaonic Egypt in some of its most spectacular expressions and especially in the artistic field.

Egyptian art

The art of pharaonic Egypt, whose history takes place over 4,000 years, strikes the viewer in awe of the apparent monotony of his formal language. But the one who pursues the observation, especially in the field, can perceive the nuances of style peculiar to each epoch - all the more clearly since the geographical displacement of the capital of the country has often inaugurated the great political periods: de Memphis (Ancien Empire), at Thebes (Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom) from Thebes to Tell al-Amarna (under Akhenaton) - and note among others this parallel: the decadence of the central power generally led to that of all the arts (in volume as in value), while the culminating epochs of Egyptian civilization correspond on the contrary to those of the Pharaonic monarchy.

Engravings, drawings

The Old Kingdom set the traditions of pharaonic art and elaborated the main conventions that make it original, in the representation of the human body (the face in profile, but the front eye, the torso face, but the three-quarter pelvis and the profile members ...), the social hierarchy notation (the pharaoh dominating his subjects by the size, as well as the master his servants) or the indication of the unfolding of the scenes, detailed in successive actions. These conventions are linked to the magical goals of an art intimately linked to religion and which freed itself from the real perception of things in order to try to simultaneously grasp all the aspects of a being or an event in order to ensure its survival. The one we would call today "artist" was then only a "specialized craftsman" (hemut: the one who shapes). Embedded in a royal workshop, he did most of the work in the realization of a work only a fragmentary task and remained anonymous.

The Old Kingdom also addressed the themes (the king "in majesty", the offering to the gods and the dead, the scenes of everyday life) that will be tirelessly taken over for centuries, and especially at times like that of the "saite renaissance" in the seventh century BC, when, after a period of foreign domination, the political and military efforts of national affirmation will be accompanied by an archaic artistic tendency (the saite art is also said to be "neo-religious"). Memphis ").

He finally inaugurated a debate between the idealization of the portrait, carved or painted, which will often characterize official art, and the temptations of realism: reserved for private art under the Old and New Kingdoms, this one In the Amarnian era, it will reach - in a spectacular and somewhat outrageous liberation - the representation of the king and his relatives.


Monuments of the first two Thinite dynasties, built with light materials, there is practically nothing left. The true development of Egyptian architecture, characterized by a colossal search, begins with the use of stone.

Funeral complexes

Although it is only a relatively fugitive moment in the history of royal funerary architecture, it is the pyramid that today symbolizes the art of the Old Kingdom. It is from the third dynasty that the royal tombs will be distinguished from those of the private individuals (the mastabas) and exalt by their superb majesty the superhuman character of the sovereigns. The mastabas were rectangular superstructures that covered the vault containing the sarcophagus, itself deeply buried in the ground. They included a funeral chapel in a wall of which a niche called "false door", intended for the passage of the world of the dead to that of the living, concealed a corridor containing the statues of the deceased (to offer to him a body of replacement for the his resurrection day was one of the major functions of Egyptian statuary). Imhotep, architect in charge of the construction of the tomb of King Djoser (3rd Dynasty) in Saqqara, had the idea of ​​superimposing six mastabas of decreasing size, inventing the first so-called "step" pyramid. He surrounded it with an enclosure within which he built, among other things, a funerary temple and a room with statues, for the first time dissociated from the tomb. After some intermediate achievements (rhomboid pyramid Snefrou Dahshur), the research of architects and the skill of thousands of workers with only a rudimentary tools allowed the construction on the Gizeh plateau of the three pyramids with smooth wall of Kings Kheops, Khephren and Mykerinus (Fourth Dynasty), the largest of which originally reached 146 m high on a square base of 230 m side. The pyramid sheltered the vault, arranged inside the mass of stones that penetrated a complicated network of galleries, with corridors derived in cul-de-sac. The funerary device was completed by a first temple on the banks of the Nile (the royal mummy was being prepared), which was covered by a long covered pavement, at the foot of the pyramid, where the priests performed daily rites of survival. A total of seventy pyramids were built until the end of the Old Kingdom, but their size diminished as the kingdom sank into the economic and social crisis.

In the New Kingdom, the royal tombs, grouped on the left bank of the Nile at Thebes, now the capital of the kingdom, were now dug into the rocky walls of the Valley of the Kings without any exterior construction revealing the 'location. A long corridor descended gently to a double room: one housed the sarcophagus, the other contained all the objects (furniture and crockery, clothing and ornaments, foodstuffs) amassed by the king for his life in the room. beyond that, which alone allow us today to imagine the decor of these sovereigns, because the palaces themselves, built of adobe or raw brick, have not withstood the wear of time. Funerary rites, as well as agricultural and craft activities or the leisure activities of private individuals, are well known to us, thanks in particular to the bas-reliefs and the paintings decorating the private tombs. This illustration of the daily life proceeded from the same concern to gather around the deceased the testimonies of his terrestrial life in order to ensure the prolongation of this one in the beyond.

Temples and statuary

Second part of the monumental achievements of ancient Egypt, religious architecture has in turn fixed its canons to a later period. The Karnak ensemble, whose construction began in the New Kingdom, when Thebes became the spiritual and political capital of the country, offers a classic example of a divine temple. An alley lined with sphinx leads to the entrance, flanked by porticoes. There stopped the public part. The private apartments of God - whose temple was the home on earth - were accessible only to Pharaoh and priests. They included a sanctuary containing the divine statue, surrounded by annexed sacristy. As one moved forward, the rooms became smaller, floor and ceiling approaching each other to allow only a dim light to converge towards the sacred place. Under Ramses II, the temple will experience a curious profane drift: the temples of Abu Simbel, consecrated one to the goddess Hathor, the other to Rê-Horakhty and Amon-Re, were also intended to assert the power of the King of Egypt on the African borders of an empire then at the height of its extension. Thus Ramses II adorned the facade of the largest of these two temples - caverns carved in the rock - colossal statues (20 m high) the representative seated on a throne where African and Asian captives figure, while the walls the temple is full of scenes illustrating his warlike exploits, and that finally, supreme audacity, his effigy appears in the sanctuary among the divine statues, the same rank and the same scale as these.

It is mainly under the New Kingdom that the statuary, often related to the architecture which lent him its frame, reached the considerable proportions of one of the historical symbols of the pharaonic art, the famous colossi of Memnon ( 21 m), remains of the funerary temple of Amenophis III at Thebes, which were carved in a single block of sandstone.

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