Saturday, 30 June 2018

Some African History from 3000-2000BC

Late Period statue of Imhotep
Around the year 3000BC the desertification of the Sahara continued and only a few tiny oases remained of what had previously been a relatively lush savannah. The First Dynasty ruled in Egypt, having previously united the land over the previous centuries. The king Djet was the ruler of Egypt at this time, holding sway over the river down as far as the First Cataract and possibly slightly further south. Egyptian writing at this point was not as developed as it would later become but at this point it was probably the most advanced writing system in the world, having surpassed cuneiform in terms of complexity.

Further south along the Nile was a settlement known as Qustul. This was inhabited by members of the A group culture from what is now Sudan. Qustul seems to have been a royal settlement contemporary with the First Dynasty kings and culturally was very similar to the Egyptian material culture of the time. This would suggest that there was state formation further south along the Nile and not just in Egypt.

Around the year 2890 the First Dynasty ended and was replaced by the Second Dynasty, which supposedly ruled from the old capital of Thinis until 2686. Almost nothing is known about the Second Dynasty and even the names of the kings are obscure. There are some things we suspect about this Dynasty but there are a lot of elements that I suspect are incorrect. For one things the length of the reigns of the kings are improbably long, which is usually a good indicator that something is wrong with the historical record. There is a suspicion that there may have been religious strife towards the latter end of this period between the followers of the Horus and Seth, with the kings occasionally taking sides. This is of course debated, as is the possibility that Egypt was actually divided and had multiple simultaneous rulers. The truth is that at the moment we simply do not know much about the Second Dynasty.

Step Pyramid of Djoser
Around 2686 the Third Dynasty of Egypt came to power. This marks the beginning of what is referred to as the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Djoser was the first monarch of this dynasty and had a famed vizier named Imhotep. The capital was moved from Thinis to Memphis, which was now probably the largest city in the world. The kings of Egypt had been buried in elaborate tombs with grave goods (and in the case of the First Dynasty, human sacrifices) but Djoser’s tomb would be the most spectacular building in the world so far. The previous burials had been brick or stone mounds, known as mastabas. Imhotep, the vizier of Djoser, was probably the architect who decided to place these on top of each other to form the first Egyptian pyramid, now known as the step pyramid of Djoser and, standing at 62 metres, probably the tallest building of its day. Imhotep’s fame would grow until he was eventually deified centuries later as a god of wisdom and healing, and he is remembered today as probably the first architect whose name is known to us.

Bent Pyramid of Sneferu in Dahshur
Djoser’s successors also tried to build pyramids, although most of them have been ruined over the course of the years. After Djoser the rulers of the Third Dynasty are not well attested but we know at least more than we do about the Second Dynasty. Around 2613 the Fourth Dynasty begins with King Sneferu ruling from Memphis. Sneferu was an extraordinary figure who was not content with simply building a pyramid but decided to construct three pyramids. The first of these, the Meidum Pyramid, probably partially collapsed during construction. The second, the Bent Pyramid of Dahshur, changed angles mid-construction, probably to avert a similar collapse. The third, the Red Pyramid of Dahshur, is in some ways the first true pyramid and it paved the way for the true pyramids of the successors.

Sneferu was succeeded by Khufu. Sneferu had built three of the largest buildings in the world but would be outdone by Khufu. Under Khufu’s reign the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed. This would be later classed as one of the ancient wonders of the world and is the only one to survive. It was the tallest man-made building in the world from the time of its completion (around 2560BC) until 1300AD. It is hard not to wax too lyrical about the Great Pyramid. It is truly one of the most spectacular buildings ever built. Many people today have some strange ideas that it was built by aliens or other nonsense. But this is clearly refuted by the fact that archaeologists have discovered, not just the village occupied by the Egyptians who built it, but that we have their records, including a document called the Diary of Merer, which gives some of the details of how this was built.

Great Pyramid of Giza with sphinx
After passing of Khufu, Khafre his son succeeded (though not directly) and also built a pyramid but on a slightly smaller scale to his father. The Great Sphinx dates from around this time. Menkaure also completed a much smaller pyramid completing the triad of the pyramids now seen at Giza.

Around 2500 the city of Kerma was established in present-day Sudan. Presumably Qustul was too close to the powerful Egyptian Old Kingdom and the cultural centres of the Kushites moved south. In between the Kerma culture and the Egyptians were a group known as the C-Group (as no writings survive giving their demonym). These were pastoralists and cattle-herders who traded with and occasionally allied with both of the two civilisations on the Nile. These tribal chieftains formed a buffer zone between the kingdoms of Memphis and Kerma.

Around the year 2498 Userkaf founded the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, continuing the pyramid building traditions of his predecessors. He was succeeded by Sahure who championed expeditions to the Levant and to what became known as the Land of Punt. Punt was an area probably around the Horn of Africa, perhaps in contemporary Eritrea or Somalia. From here exotic trade goods were brought back to Egypt in great ceremony. It is not known exactly where this land was or how organised it was but it was at least advanced enough to trade with the Egyptians, suggesting that there were at least three distinct civilisations in Africa at this time, Egpyt, Kush and Punt.

Pyramid of Neferirkare
Sahure’s successor Neferirkare continued trade relations with the Levant and also with Nubia/Kush. He is remembered as being a kind ruler who relaxed some of the restrictions surrounding the royal person. There is an inscription from the tomb of an official called Rawer where Rawer records that the king pardoned him from death after an accidental infraction (he had accidentally touched the royal mace during a religious ceremony). This is a very minor incident but I thought that records of human kindness should be remembered as well as achievements in building, trade and war.

A later Fifth Dynasty ruler known as Djedkare continued the traditions of empire building and trade, sending more expeditions to Punt, Nubia and the Levant. His reign is most notable however for his vizier Ptahhotep, who became known as a byword for wisdom. Later wisdom texts supposedly record his wisdom, the most notable being the Maxims of Ptahhotep. But these texts date from much later and are not contemporary with the sage himself.

Around 2345 Teti founded the Sixth Dynasty. The tradition of pyramid building continued but these pyramids were much smaller than the giant edifices of the Fourth Dynasty and have not survived well. One of the later Sixth Dynasty monarchs, Pepi II, is credited with being the longest ruler in the history of the world, with a possible reign of 94 years but this is rather unlikely. He was a long-lived Pharaoh but the reign is more likely to have been around 60 years. During the reign of Pepi II the Old Kingdom began to split and collapse, with two viziers being appointed to govern Upper and Lower Egypt. In the early stages of his rule Pepi II had tried to mount expeditions to Nubia. The governor of Aswan, Harkhuf, sent an expedition that brought back trade items and a pygmy to the royal court. Harkhuf recorded the expedition on the walls of his tomb and this has been referred to as the world’s first travelogue. Harkhuf is sometimes recorded as the world’s first named explorer, which is possible but it’s not clear if Harkhuf went on the expedition himself. Following Pepi II were a number of short-lived rulers, at least one of which seems to have murdered his predecessor. Here the Old Kingdom ends and Egyptian history enters what is known as the First Intermediate Period.

Tomb image of Harhuf and his son
Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, (Pepi II) Neferkare, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent, inspect ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt. If thou arrivest at court this dwarf being with thee alive, prosperous and healthy, my majesty will do for thee a greater thing than that which was done for the treasurer of the god Burded in the time of Isesi, according to the heart's desire of my majesty to see the dwarf. 
Inscription from the Tomb of Harkhuf describing the king’s excitement to see the dwarf who had been found on a southern expedition. 


The Seventh Dynasty supposedly reigned at this time, around 2181BC, but this dynasty is probably mythical and no firm evidence has ever been found of it. The Eighth Dynasty was a similarly weak dynasty and their kings reigned for about 20 years before the Ninth Dynasty succeeded it around 2160. Even the names of the kings of the Ninth Dynasty are not fully known and the local rulers or nomarchs of the regions of Egypt must have been mostly independent.

This confusion may or may not be tied into a century of climate change known as the 4.2 kiloyear event, meaning that it took place about 2200BC. This may have led to lower Nile floods and to pressures from Libyan nomads. It’s unclear what exactly happened in the First Intermediate Period. It seems that the power of the central state simply broke down and was replaced by local rulers, some of whom claimed kingship. The changed rainfall patterns do seem to have affected the civilisation across the Near East but I am unsure if the collapse of the Old Kingdom can be attributed to this alone. By the year 2130 however the Ninth Dynasty collapsed and what is known as the Tenth Dynasty took their place.

The Tenth Dynasty has a bad reputation in later times but this could simply be a reflection of the troubled times that they lived in. They were based in Herakleopolis and overthrew the Ninth Dynasty in Memphis. Around the same time Intef the Elder, a local official in Thebes, became effectively independent and is viewed as the founder of the Eleventh Dynasty. But he would not have seen himself as a king.

Mentuhotep II who reunited Egypt
and founded the Middle Kingdom
Around the year 2050, a member of the Eleventh Dynasty, known as Mentuhotep II came to power in Thebes and following a war with the kings of Herakleopolis, managed to reunite Egypt. This event brought the First Intermediate Period to an end and is referred to as the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. The reunited kingdom began sending expeditions to Nubia and Punt as had been done in the Old Kingdom and the renewed prosperity and stability would allow the flourishing of Egyptian literature.

This overview of African history has unfortunately been heavily centred on Egypt. This is unfortunate but somewhat inevitable, as Egypt is the best documented place in the world for this millennium. Outside of Egypt there were sophisticated cultures in Nubia and Punt. The lower edge of the Sahara had seen the development of agriculture although there is no record of extensive bronze metalworking from this period. This is to be expected as tin was very scarce in the ancient world and there were no easy trade routes past the Sahara at this time.

Further south of the equator humans still lived as hunter-gatherers, as their distant ancestors had done for millennia. This was more to do with the sophistication of their hunting techniques than anything else. Unlike other parts of the world they had not had the need to develop agriculture and their culture was perfectly adapted to its surroundings. However, should farming groups arrive in the area from outside, this would change the balance of the environment and tip the scales in favour of the agricultural groups. Near the Niger Delta agriculture was being developed by speakers of what are now known as Proto-Bantu languages. This group would change the face of the continent when it began to expand.

Even while we have very limited information about Africa during this millennium it is fair to say that there are still a remarkable series of firsts and records, with the Egyptians repeatedly setting the records for the tallest construction in the world and attempting to explore and trade with other groups in Africa and beyond.