Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt (epigraphy)

Egypt attracted the special curiosity of the Greeks, and Herodotus (5th century BC) devoted an entire book to on-the-spot observations and fanciful tales about the land of the Nile. The lost Aigyptiaka (or Aegyptiaca) of Manetho (3rd century BC) contained the roster of 30 dynasties, which still underlies the chronology of ancient Egypt. Such classical writers as Strabo, Plutarch, and Pliny the Elder all dealt with various aspects of Egyptian antiquities.

Yet the fund of knowledge would be woefully skeletal and inaccurate without the explicit testimony of contemporary records from Egypt itself. The decipherment of the Egyptian writings gave the impetus to Egyptian epigraphy. The progress of excavations multiplied the corpora of texts, especially adding the papyrological dimension. In addition, cuneiform Akkadian on clay tablets was the international diplomatic medium of writing during the most brilliant phases of Egyptian history and is hence an integral part of the Egyptian epigraphic record.

The historically significant Egyptian epigraphic texts, apart from their external peculiarities, have likewise special traits relating to genres. There is little attempt at historiography and great fluctuation in bulk in the course of dynastic vicissitudes. They are mainly annalistic and thus firsthand accounts of pharaonic or other high-level deeds; but the peculiar features of stylization, stereotyping, and usurpation must frequently give the careful historian pause and sometimes debase the face value of the record. Written monuments became somewhat numerous during the 4th dynasty (c. 2575-c. 2465 BC), that of the pyramid builders Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Notable are the fragmentary annals of Snefru, which already alluded to dealings with Asia, the chronic goal of Egyptian territorial ambitions. Historic records persisted under the following two dynasties, with particular articulateness in the reign of Pepi I, third king of the 6th dynasty (c. 2325-c. 2150 BC), then subsided until a modest reemergence in the (Theban) Middle Kingdom of the 12th dynasty (1938-c. 1756 BC). Another silence shrouded the period of the Hyksos kings (c. 1630-c. 1523 BC), broken only subsequently by such retrospective revulsion at the memory of barbarian domination as that in Queen Hatshepsut's (1479-58 BC) temple inscription at Istabl Antar in Middle Egypt. The golden age of historical recording began in the 15th century BC with the central rulers of the 18th dynasty, notably Thutmose III and Amenhotep II and III. Thutmose's annals on the walls of the temple of Karnak describe 20 years of ceaseless military activity in Asia, some 16 campaigns in all, and are supplemented by stelae from Armant in Upper Egypt and Gebel Barkal near the Fourth Cataract, as well as by lists of conquered lands at Karnak. Similar material continued in the reigns of Amenhotep II and III, in the latter's case importantly supplemented by the cuneiform correspondence with foreign powers (Mitanni, Arzawa, etc.), which was subsequently stockpiled and archived by Ikhnaton in his transitory new capital, where it lay buried to await the modern excavators of Tell el-Amarna. Ikhnaton's religious preoccupations (he changed the official religion to the worship of the sun god Aton), and political apathy led to the loss of many of Egypt's Asian possessions. Records of Ikhnaton's short-lived son-in-law, Tutankhamen, at Thebes (1332-23 BC), make recantation and restoration for the heresy. Tutankhamen's successor, the warlord-pharaoh Horemheb, left boastful accounts of foreign conquest that sound suspiciously grandiose in relation to plausible reality.

In the 19th dynasty (1292-1190 BC) Seti I went to war against the Syrians, Hittites, and Libyans, letting the world know about it on the walls of Karnak. But in this respect he was no match for his long-lived son, Ramses II, who usurped the monuments of others and covered unprecedented amounts of wall space with his own real or inflated exploits. (The Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites in 1299 BC, which ended in a stalemate, was given lavish coverage as a triumph on temple walls at Karnak, Abydos, and Abu Simbel.) In the 20th dynasty (1190-1075 BC) occurred incursions of the "sea peoples," and the records of Ramses III detailed both the crisis and the increasing accumulation of wealth and power in the religious establishment. Subsequently, Egyptian history receded from the world scene, with "Libyan" and "Ethiopic" dynasties and a brief Saite renaissance of the 26th dynasty (664-525 BC), already under the Assyrian and Babylonian shadow, soon to be replaced by the Persian. The firsthand political records declined accordingly, although they remain of significance for local history down to the Ptolemaic era, a dynasty that ruled Egypt beginning in 304 BC, founded by Ptolemy I Soter, a general under Alexander the Great.

No law codes have been found in Egypt, presumably because codification was not practiced. There are, however, royal administrative and legal decrees granting privileges and immunities and also records of legal proceedings, especially of the Theban tomb-robbery trials during the 20th dynasty.

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