Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Living through the past

The values that built Egypt’s ancient civilisation are still very much in evidence today, writes Hussein Bassir

The Giza Plateau
The Giza Plateau

Civilisation began in Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta. The ancient Egyptians, the builders of this unique civilisation, were distinguished for their skill, perseverance, calmness, forbearance, faith and tolerance. 

Egypt is also a meeting place for civilisations, a crucible for cultural exchange, and an object of desire for invaders throughout its long history. The names given to the land have been numerous. The name Egypt comes from the ancient term Hutkaptah, meaning “temple of the soul of Ptah”, the god of the ancient capital Memphis. The ancient Egyptians belonged to both the Semitic and Hamitic peoples. 

The written story of Egypt begins around 3000 BC. When the legendary king Menes unified Upper Egypt (the south) and Lower Egypt (the Delta) and established a centralised state around 3000 BC, values and standards were introduced that still govern the state of Egypt today.

Egypt then entered the period of the Old Kingdom, the age of the Pyramids, which lasted from 2686 to 2160 BC. During this time, the Egyptians built the Pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, and carved the statue of the Great Sphinx on the Giza Plateau, which represented the Pharaoh Khafre, builder of the Second Pyramid at Giza. These magnificent monuments bear witness to the archaeological, engineering, astronomical and administrative skills of the ancient Egyptians.

After this golden age, Egypt entered a period of decline, before emerging as a powerful force in the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC), the age of Egyptian classical literature. Following this second golden age, the country embarked on the most difficult period in its ancient history, namely the occupation by foreign tribes known as Hyksos, meaning “rulers of foreign lands”. 

These crept over the country’s eastern borders and took control of large parts of the land when the Egyptian state was weak. After a long and bitter struggle, the Upper Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmose I (1550-1525 BC) managed to expel the Hyksos from Egypt by driving them into neighbouring Palestine. The New Kingdom, the final golden age of ancient Egypt, was now established. 

Egypt adopted a new foreign policy based on expansion and foreign conquest and brought numerous other powers under its control. This period, which lasted until 1069 BC, is known as the age of empire. Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC) is considered the founder of the Egyptian Empire in Asia and Africa, while other famous Pharaohs of this age include Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Seti I, Ramses II and Ramses III.

After this age of empire, Egypt entered the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC), in which tension and lack of centralisation prevailed. The Late Period (664-332 BC) followed, during which various Egyptian dynasties ruled, with some periods of Persian occupation, until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. 

At his hands and those of his successors, the Ptolemaic kings (332-31 BC), Egypt was transformed into a Graeco-Roman kingdom. With the defeat by the Romans of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra VII in 31 BC, Egypt became an important part of the Roman Empire (31 BC-395 CE) and then the Byzantine Empire (395-641 CE). In 641 CE, the Muslim Arabs took control, and Egypt became one of the states of the Islamic Caliphate. 

Much later, in the early 19th century, the Albanian soldier Mohamed Ali Pasha (1769-1849) founded the modern state of Egypt along European lines. His family’s rule came to an end with the 23 July Revolution in 1952, which established the Republic of Egypt under president Mohamed Naguib (1952-54) and then subsequent presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1954-70), Anwar Al-Sadat (1970-81), Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) and Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi (2014-). A characteristic of Egyptian experience throughout this long history has been the country’s stability, characterised by continuity and not interruption.

The 1952 Revolution, carried out by a group in the army known as the Free Officers Movement during the reign of king Farouk I (reigning 1936-52), represented the end of the monarchy that had prevailed since the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. 

While the later defeat in the 1967 War was a shock, the victory against Israel in the 6 October War in 1973 was unprecedented. The hero of this war and subsequent peace agreement, president Sadat, described it as “one of the greatest days in history”. On this day, the brave Egyptian army washed away the shame that the 1967 defeat had attached to Egypt and the entire Arab people and brought Egypt back its occupied territory. 

The establishment of the Islamic movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan Al-Banna took place in 1928. A number of contentious issues later began to emerge, such as Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, the question of religion and the state, the system of rule and counsel, the position of Coptic Christians in an Islamic state, the Islamic economy, and the role of women and the hijab (headscarf). Most of these issues were concerned with form rather than substance. 

King Farouk, a television series broadcast in Egypt in 2007, related the story of the life of Farouk I. It presented the last king of Egypt as a humane ruler who loved his people and yielded to the expression of their power through the ballot box. He did what the prime minister and government ministers asked of him, consulted his officials, and did not enforce his own opinions. The series was very popular, particularly among the younger generations born long after his reign ended. This nostalgia for the past and for the monarchical era in particular suggests the Egyptian people’s keen awareness of their history. 

There are many Egyptians who are proud of this era and regret the subsequent Republic. They remember it fondly for the effectiveness, continuity and interaction of the authorities, the power and vitality of the economy, and the country’s progress in many fields. They look back on productive contacts with the West, particularly Europe, following Mohamed Ali Pasha’s decision to establish the modern Egyptian state with the help of the Europeans and despite the later British occupation. 

Then there are those who passionately support the July Revolution and liken it to the beginning of history. They tend to consider president Nasser almost as the last of the prophets. There is much disagreement between followers of Nasser and supporters of his successor Sadat, who discarded Nasser’s single-party socialist state and its solitary leader. Sadat took great strides towards political openness in Egypt and the liberalisation of the economy, particularly with respect to the poor and social responsibility. 

In liberating Sinai from Israeli occupation and making peace, he followed the example of his ancestor Ramses II, the Pharaoh who had battled the Hittites for dominance in Syria in the 13th century BC. Sadat also, however, loosened the reins on the Political Islamic groups, which led to his assassination in 1981. 

A third group rejects both the monarchical and the republican eras. Its members may be facetiously negative, or they may be frustrated by circumstances, yet they are eager for the best. Some of them recognise no difference between the two eras and are indifferent to both. 

    Many Egyptians today get excited about the national football team winning the African Nations Cup or qualifying for the World Cup. The spirit of ancient Egypt, expressed in revival, persistence, renewal and continuity, could motivate the modern Egyptians to restore their country to its former glory. 

Egypt today is looking proudly to its past when it was master of the entire ancient world. It is going through a process of adjustment, searching for the right way to achieve a renaissance and being full of hope.

The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria.

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