Some five thousand years ago, the valley along the Nile River witnessed the birth of one of history’s most splendid civilizations: Egypt. Located in a privileged geographical position, this was arguably the first empire to attain harmonious development, with a long-lasting cultural influence on other ancient societies, philosophical views and a political organization that suffered little change throughout the centuries. It was also a precursor of many disciplines we know today, such as art, agricultural lore, and astronomical beliefs.
For the Egyptian people, the Nile determined the future of their lives, although at first they had to settle on higher ground and build levees to protect themselves from the periodical floods. Once they managed to grow crops in the river slime or mud to feed themselves, they began farming the land and living in small states called «Nomes», which gradually merged together to create two major states, each corresponding to one of Egypt’s two main regions: Lower Egypt or Northern Country, closer to the sea and with Memphis as its main urban center, and Upper Egypt or Southern Country, located inland, with Thebes as its capital city. The two states eventually merged, and the chiefs of the nomes became vassals of the pharaoh or king of unified Egypt. Pharaohs were attributed a divine character, hence the reason they were considered the sons of god.
History of a great civilization
Greeks already dominated Egypt (III century B.C.), when a local priest named Manethon wrote a history of his country in which he termed the prehistoric period «pre-dynastic«, and divided Egyptian rulers into dynasties, stating the existence of more than 30 dynasties in three thousand years.
For a long time, that document constituted the main source of information on Egyptian history, but in 1798 a soldier of Napoleon’s army found a stone in the delta zone of the Nile, later named Rosetta after the town where it was discovered, which contained an inscription in three forms of writing, two in Egyptian language and one in Greek. It was only in 1821 that French researcher Jean François Champollion could finally decipher the writing. This discovery provided the base for Egyptology (the science that studies this civilization). At the same time, this allowed for the division of Egypt’s history into periods named Pre-dynastic, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and Decadence.
This period has been divided into: Primitive Pre-dynastic, Old Pre-dynastic, Middle Pre-dynastic and Late Pre-dynastic.
In the beginning, the Egyptians’ ancestors disseminated along Lower and Upper Egypt. Unlike other peoples who devoted themselves only to farming and cattle raising, they elaborated an array of artifacts made of stone, ivory, bone, terracotta and metal. Many of these utensils and vases were decorated with drawings and symbols that may well have been the seed that later bloomed into hieroglyphics, a form of writing that would subsequently evolve, reaching its peak during the Middle Kingdom, and finally becoming what we know today. The Pyramids and beautiful tombs we know today did not exist during this period, and the dead were buried in simple holes dug in the desert sand in fetal position and looking towards the sunset as a symbol of the death of the star. Only some small funerary objects surrounded the departed one.
Cultures of the middle pre-dynastic
Two cultures developed during this period (3500-3200 B.C.). The first was known as Gerzean and extended through Upper and Middle Egypt and reached Nubia (located around the border between modern-day Egypt and Sudan). Its main cultural centers were Naqada, Gerzeh and Elkab. It is precisely in Elkab that the oldest and most primitive examples of the subsequent Egyptian temples can be found.
One of these was made of clay and used to safeguard a sacred animal. These religious expressions were passed on to the following periods and were reproduced in the different cities with great accuracy as a type of local symbol. Moreover, the pottery depicts figures of people dancing, ships, animals, plants, etc. that resemble the emblems of cities founded later on.
The other Egyptian culture of this period is known as Maadi, which fourished in Lower Egypt. This culture is believed to have supported itself on the trade carried out with the sedentary sultures of the Levant, and on agriculture, given the fertility of the soil.