For a few months now, I’ve been listening to the Egyptian History Podcast, and reading Toby Wilkinson’s book on the rise and fall of ancient Egypt. I thought to myself, why is ancient Egypt, which lasted from 3000BC to about 30BC, no longer a great civilization? What was it about ancient Egypt that led to its downfall? The Egyptians built a thriving civilization along the great Nile River from the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains of Ethiopia. They built huge pyramids, and statues to their gods and themselves (Egyptian religion posited that kings were gods themselves), many of which survive today for us to marvel at.
Over 3,000 years, Egypt was conquered a number of times, but they mostly managed to take their territory back from the conquerors. The pyramids and temples testify to their knowledge of mathematics and engineering. They built ships from imported wood, since no trees grew in their semi-desert territory; their warships were very successful in carrying trade goods and armies up and down the Nile, and coastwise along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. They mined stone, amethyst, gold, tin, and silver from as far away as Lebanon and the Sinai. They traded with civilizations all over the Near East, from Punt and Nubia to Canaan and Anatolia. So why did their civilization die?
I came to the conclusion that their religion was the key to the downfall of ancient Egypt. They worshipped a whole pantheon of gods, from Amun-Re the sun god, to lesser gods Isis, Osiris, Hathor, and Bastet. As a part of that religion, Egyptian kings promulgated the belief that they were equal to the gods they worshipped, and took their power from the support of the gods. The Egyptians believed in an afterlife, but that afterlife was simply a continuation of their life on earth, not a better or different place. They believed that, in order to have a happy and prosperous afterlife, they needed to provide, in their tombs, for all their needs, very similar to what they needed to live on earth. So, the tombs of their kings were extremely elaborate underground structures, with rooms like their houses, supplied with all the furniture a living person would need.
Needless to say, kings and pharaohs of ancient Egypt spent a lot of time and money on their tombs, starting early in life. In later periods even high officials like overseers, army generals, and viziers also had these well-built and stocked tombs so their afterlife would be comfortable and prosperous. In fact, more Egyptian wealth was buried with their kings and high officials than was used to make their life comfortable while they lived. The average Egyptian saw none of that wealth, and lived a very hard life, scraping a living from what farmland they had along the Nile. The average life expectancy of an ordinary citizen was about 35 years. Dominic Perry on the podcast noted that, since the land around them was desert, and sand was a constant companion, their teeth wore down easily from all the sand in the poor bread they made from their emmer wheat! The peasants ate mostly bread and drank mostly beer, with little in the way of protein, which probably contributed to their low life-expectancy. The nobility had access to meat and vegetables, grown on crown land.
It occurred to me that a civilization that buries most of its great wealth underground for their kings to use in the afterlife, must not be set up for long-term survival. I thought about what kind of life the peasants could have had, if they had gotten to keep some of the gold and silver they mined. And there’s another result of the Egyptian religion which depended so much on its kings surviving after death. The monarchies of the various dynasties of ancient Egypt ensured that their great families would reign for a long time, by marrying their close family members. How better to ensure a long-lived dynasty than making sure all its members remained in the family. Unfortunately, cousin and brother-sister marriage in the Egyptian royal families led to very bad consequences. The later kings lived shorter and shorter lives, cut down by the illnesses that ran more in their family of close relatives. Genetic conditions made later kings unfit to live, much less to reproduce.
So the Egyptian religion set their empire up for failure twice over; by burying their great wealth, and by inbreeding. Neither of those conditions worked quickly, so the empire lasted for 3,000 years. Just think of how long it could have lasted, however, if the kings hadn’t buried all that wealth, but used it to enrich the lives of all their citizens while they were alive. And think how long their monarchs might have reigned, if they had taken wives from other families and enriched their gene pool. The ancient Egyptian civilization had fallen before Christianity rose-might they have benefited from a change in religion?