ABOUT 5,000 YEARS ago, the great civilization of ancient Egypt grew up on the banks of the River Nile. It lasted virtually unchanged for 3,000 years. During this time the Egyptians built the first large stone buildings, invented one of the earliest forms of writing, and created a cult of the dead unlike anything known in any other culture. This cult involved preserving dead bodies, and burying them with their possessions. As a result, people today know a great deal about the ancient Egyptians.
The River Nile was the lifeblood of the whole region. Every year the river flooded, depositing dark silt on the banks. This silt made the soil fertile and, because of this, most Egyptians lived by the river. When the Nile flooded and work in the fields was impossible, many people helped on the great royal building projects, such as the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The Egyptians cultivated wheat and barley, from which they made bread and brewed beer. The hot climate also allowed them to grow many different kinds of fruit, including figs, dates, pomegranates, and grapes.
Tilling the soil
Egyptian farmers used a lightweight plough pulled by oxen. The plough had a wooden blade and a handle so that the farmer could steer it, and was effective enough to cut a furrow in the light Egyptian soil.
The Nile was the main highway of Egypt. Wooden boats carried passengers and heavy cargo up and down the river. Water transport was especially useful for heavy loads, such as stones for the pyramids. Egyptian boat-builders were among the first to attach sails to their craft.
Ancient Egypt was ruled by kings called pharaohs. The pharaohs had absolute power, and the Egyptians believed that they joined the gods in the next world when they died. For this reason, the Egyptians took special care when burying their pharaohs, mummifying them and building splendid tombs.
Pharaoh's courtA pharaoh was surrounded by officials, high priests, and ambassadors, all of whom helped him run the kingdom. The court was also the home of entertainers and the women of the royal harem. The pharaoh and courtiers lived in great luxury. They took pride in their appearance, dressing in fine linen. The women used black eye make-up, and had elaborate hairstyles.
The Egyptians believed in many different gods. Some were local gods, who represented each district of Egypt. Others had more general powers, such as Thoth, the god of Wisdom.
Karnak at Thebes was the greatest of the Egyptian temples. Temples were run by priests, who maintained the building and left offerings for the gods. The most important temples had large estates and rich treasuries, so high priests were very powerful.