By Mursi Saad El-Din
My first introduction to ancient Egypt happened in London. This may sound strange, but I always found that I learnt more about my country when I was abroad, especially in England.
One book which really educated me was The Legacy of Egypt, edited by SRK Granville, written by a number of well chosen Egyptologists and published by Oxford University Press. The chapters reflected love, understanding and genuine interest in our ancient history.
I was particularly interested in the chapter about science written by RW Sloley. Sloley's thesis is that the West wrongly attributes the emergence and development of science to the Greeks. They forget the debt Greece owed to Egypt, a debt the Greeks themselves acknowledged in no uncertain terms.
Astronomy was one of the most developed sciences in Egypt. According to the writer star diagrams were made at a very early date, with the stars grouped in constellations according to a fancied resemblance to some animate or inanimate form.
The ancient Egyptians divided the day into 24 house. Observations of the stars were made by a simple sighting instrument, as an indicator for determining the commencement of a festival and for placing all men in their hours.
The hours of the night were determined by water clocks which were used when the stars were not visible. The oldest water clock dates from about 1300 BC. The water clock took the form of a vessel shaped like a flower pot. It was filled with water which flowed out through a small opening near the base. On the interior surface a series of marks indicated the passing hours and the time was read according to the water level. The hours were unlikely to be of uniform length but in the absence of regularly moving mechanism or precise methods of observing the movements of the stars the irregularities were probably not noticed.
The hours of the day were determined by simple shadow clocks which are still used in some countries. Observations of the directions of shadows during the daytime as well as observations of the night sky enabled early observers to acquire a sense of direction and to mark the meridian dividing the period of daylight conveniently into morning and afternoon.
The ancient Egyptians, according to Sloley, achieved astonishing results in the practical applications of knowledge. Their knowledge and use of mathematics were phenomenal. As early as the 1st Dynasty (3200 BC) a decimal system of numeration was in use involving high numbers running into millions.
The writer concludes that mathematical knowledge in ancient Egypt was essentially practical in character and must have developed as occasion arose in dealing with problems encountered in daily life. He deplores the custom of many writers to emphasise what Egyptians did not achieve rather than what they accomplished. The Egyptian, he says, has not always been given credit for what he did. Before 2000 BC he says, he had developed a practical system of numeration and could carry out mathematical calculations with ease. He could solve mathematical problems, had notions of mathematical progression as well as geometrical progression, was familiar with the properties of rectangles, triangles, circles and pyramids.
"There is no evidence that the early Egyptians owed anything to other sources," says Sloley.