1993-03-20: Egypt’s Making

Egypt’s Making (1991)

 by Michael Rice (?-?)


This work surveys the early history (or the archeology) of Egypt from predynastic times to the end of the Old Kingdom. Rice’s main interest is Arabian archeology, and he brings this viewpoint to the work.

It is apparent that various groups had moved into the Nile valley by about 5000 BCE, each probably originating in more southerly or westerly parts of Africa. These groups were probably similar in culture and language, based on clan organization, with distinct totem or fetishes (animal or vegetable). The clan territories survived as the forty-two nomes of local jurisdiction in Egypt for millennia. There was a recognized cultural distinction between the nomes of the Nile Delta and those of the southern Nile Valley, so that these were known as the Two Lands.

In the period before Egypt’s making (3200 BCE), there was a trading culture centered in Eastern Arabia and the Arabian Gulf. This culture was in contact (or soon would be) with the Indus valley civilization of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, the Mesopotamian cities, and the Nile valley, via land or sea routes or both. In turn the Mesopotamian cities were in contact with other cultures through the fertile crescent; these provided another route for contact with the Nile. In between and around these cultures were desert peoples who were not interested in city life.

The relative time of developments in these various cultures is very difficult to determine, since most are not absolutely dated with sufficient precision in this era (uncertainties may be as great as 500 years). However, it appears that the traders of Arabia brought some significant memes to the Nile from Mesopotamia. Some of these memes, or other influences from inside or outside the Valley, may have influenced one or more of the leaders of the various clans to adopt a policy of consolidation of neighboring clans into an organized nation. The clans were then subordinate to the national leader, called the Pharaoh. Over a relatively short time, the Nile cultures were unified under one Pharaoh.

Evidence for Mesopotamian influence in the predynastic period includes the architectural forms and materials (e.g., mud-brick was used, as in Sumer, even though the Nile had much greater access to stone than had Mesopotamia; the recessed panels or buttresses of temple walls are nearly identical). In addition, the seals of the Pharaohs depict a serekh, the typical paneled building, surmounted by the image of the divinity. Depictions of boats show both the Nile type and the Mesopotamian or Arabian type.

Though it seems likely that Eastern influences were effective at the beginning of the consolidation of Egypt, they were a small part of the overall memetic complex. Even the memes for long-distance trade seem to have been eliminated after the first dynasty, since lapis lazuli (which was highly valued in predynastic times) ceased to be imported. Perhaps such trade was perceived as a threat to the unity and stability of Egypt. Either the accompanying imported ideas were threatening, or the notion of Egypt’s own perfection was threatened. The outstanding difference between Egypt and the other early cultures seems to have been in the dimension of security. The only serious threats to the Egyptian nomes were from other nomes; once these were united under the Pharaoh, outside threats were never serious until the end of the Sixth Dynasty (which was also the end of the Old Kingdom and start of the anarchic First Intermediate Period).

The security provided by Pharaonic rule created a situation in which the development of arbitrary forms could take place without inhibition, leading to outstanding achievements in the architecture, paintinf and hieroglyphic literature. The latter is especially susceptible to a form of visual punning, since the glyphs stand for phonemes of the words which carry the primary meaning, but the glyphs themselves have meaning by virtue of their pictographic character. This makes much hieroglyphic literature seem very obscure, and means that modern readers may never fully appreciate all nuances of meaning intended by their authors.

Rice documents the progression of dominance of the various divinities (Horus, Set, Ptah and others) and the rise and decline of memes such as those for interring family or servants with a dead Pharaoh. This practice was replaced by the practice of interring models of estates and workers; the early tombs which evidently included human sacrifice were later desecrated by fire (though it is not known at what time this happened).

He also shows the development of artistic ideas and architectural themes, including the vaunted Egyptian conservatism which seems never to have discarded anything, but did change the emphasis. For instance, the pyramids reflect a burial mound that in earlier times was hidden within the burial temple. When the pyramid was made dominant, the actual burial temple was still present, but with a markedly difference emphasis.

These “minor” aspects of Egyptian culture are overwhelmed by the importance of the Pharaoh as divinity incarnate, and the vessel for everlasting life. The Egyptian character is pointed to one end: the love and celebration of life. The oft-noted preoccupation with death is actually the attempt to assure eternal life, for the Pharaoh as the nation’s god. Later developments evidently included the possibility of eternal life for those who accompanied the Pharoah into the tomb, and also the “great ones”, the landed nobles and high priests who directly controlled the administration of the state. It seems likely to me that every individual held a notion of eternal life, even if only as a humble farmer serving on the eternal estates of the eternal Pharoah.

The eventual diffusion of power from the Pharoah to the administrative class led to internal rivalry and strife, whcih weakened the nation. The nation was long open to influence from Semitic peoples, as reflected in the language. Presumably this kind of influence was accompanied by other memes. It seems likely that the Old Kingdom was a period in which the original African influences were diluted with Semitic influences.

Eventually the ability to fend off (presumably continuous) outside threats from the desert peoples declined to the point that physical invasion and conquest was possible. The resulting shock led to the end of the Old Kingdom. When secure rule was reestablished, the forms were continued but much of the life was gone. The high craftsmanship and invention of the Old Kingdom are not repeated in later eras.


Rice’s work is a summary for non-specialists, and it would take a great deal of effort to examine the original work (for which he provides a bibliography). However, based on his summary, it appears that very early Egypt is an example of a culture which consisted of isolated agricultural villages, each with a special divinity and totem (Horus-falcon, Set-dog, etc). These clans were led by priest-chieftains who controlled their warrior class; probably the priest-chiefs were a hereditary line, in which the memes for ritual and leadership were propagated. As the clan-territories (the nomes) were filled and came into conflict, alliances among some against others must have taken place. Under the influence of Eastern memes (such as those for fortified enclosed towns) conveyed to the central Nile valley through the Red Sea ports and the wadis through the mountains separating the valley from the sea, one or more of the chiefs of the clans was able to create a large enough following to consolidate most of his neighbors under his rule. As the priest of his local divinity, such a victory would be seen as the victory of the god, and the subordination of the other gods. The totem for that god (Horus’s falcon) is seen atop a walled town or temple (perhaps there was no difference) in seals of the First Dynasty.

The later developments are worth describing in terms of the competition among memetic complexes, at least on the basis of our partial knowledge, to illustrate the way that memetic evolution works, and the effects of the partition of memes into dimensions. The security dimension in the Old Kingdom clearly allowed other dimensions to flourish.


Rice himself, of course, does not take this approach. Indeed his final chapter uses the material of the earlier chapters to illustrate C. G. Jung’s ideas of individuation and collective unconscious. I found this very unconvincing, perhaps because of insufficient understanding of Jung’s ideas, but probably because I have an alternative framework in which to understand the Egyptian material on its own terms, and in terms of the typical human need to communicate, and the selective advantage of communicating in a durable medium.

The book is an excellent source of memetic material; the illustrations are of material from many museums which are not often seen. The connections with Arabia and Mesopotamia, though still sketchy, are likely to be revealed in greater detail by future archeology; they should prove even more fascinating than those Rice has shown.



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