As much as we love him, Tut only a comma in Egypt's long-running history

05/05/2014 6:00 PM

05/05/2014 6:00 PM

OK people, consider this your Tuesday briefing. The topic: ancient Egypt.

With the new Tut exhibit open at Union Station, it’s clear we all need to brush up on our Egyptology.

Please make sure your coffee cup is topped. We will be skimming more than three millennia and that will get us up only to Cleopatra — who yes, we know, was not a true Egyptian.

A few basics before we start:

• Upper Egypt is actually lower on the map, the Nile flowing more or less straight north from the Mountains of the Moon to the Mediterranean. So Lower Egypt starts at the salty lips of the delta and goes to Memphis (now part of southern Cairo, which didn’t exist until modern times, that is, 969). Upper, ruled from Thebes, generally reached on south to various Aswan cataracts.

• Without the Nile, we would be writing this morning about whether Don Draper could take Tyrion in a drinking contest. This longest of rivers created a calender of three seasons: Peret, the growing time; Shemu, harvest season; and Akhet, the vast floods that covered the fields — and freed the workers for building tombs and temples.

• About religion, we will only say that, as with many basic faiths, there are stories of incest and murder and resurrection. That jackal-headed fellow outside Union Station? That’s Anubis, protector of the dead. When it comes to funerals, burials and mummies, he’s the go-to deity.

• At least 330 kings (“pharoah” actually means “great house” and didn’t come to mean ruler until rather late in the New Kingdom) are recorded; dozens more existed. We don’t have room to name but a few. If you’re a big fan of Userkaf or Amenemhat III, well, get over it.

Early Dynastic 3100-2686

Our review begins with a king called Narmer or a king named Menes — probably the same guy with two names. Such stuff happens in ancient Egypt. He followed the Scorpion Kings, which was not a rock band.

He was first to unify Lower and Upper Egypt, a very big deal. Also, Egyptian language shows up in hieroglyphs, early raised-monument building begins (but no pointy things) and kohl (not the department stores) is used for eye liner. More big deals.

Old Kingdom 2686-2134

These god-kings rule from Memphis (no, not Elvis town), which had been called Ineb-Hedj (White Walls).

This is the age of pyramids. We know of 138. Perhaps the first is the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the burial place of Djoser. Egyptians live on the east bank of Nile, bury their elite on the west side. Setting sun, the sun god Ra dying and all that.

The Step Pyramid was built by Imhotep, the first named architect in history. He was also a physician, high priest, official scribe and vizier. You might call him a pre-Renaissance Renaissance man.

The next pyramid tries a pointed top, but the slope is crooked. No one owned up to building this Bent Pyramid. As the saying goes: Success has many pharaohs, but failure is an orphan.

For the quiz later: Sneferu probably built more pyramids than any other pharaoh.

His son Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks) showed everyone how it was done with the big boy at the Giza complex. His tomb, the Great Pyramid, is nearly 50 stories high and was once sheeted with white limestone (long ago stolen). Its base is astoundingly symmetrical, off only 7.5 inches between its longest and shortest sides.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, said the “wicked” Khufu sent his beautiful daughter into the stews (brothels) to raise money for his project. His charming but silly story said that for her favors, she also charged a block of stone, which she used to build another small pyramid for herself. Considering the Great Pyramid has probably 2.3 million blocks, we can assume she didn’t get out much.

Khufu’s son, Khafre, built the next-biggest, and some say the Great Sphinx hashis face on it.

Then unlike its building projects, the Old Kingdom collapses — decades of drought and famine will do that.

First Intermediate Period 2181-2055

This span of five dynasties are often called a “dark period.” Little monument building occurs, in fact much may have been destroyed in the chaos.

Middle Kingdom 2055-1650

Mentuhotep II of Thebes conquers the lower Nile, ushering in centuries of prosperity.

Warrior-king Senusret III re-dredges the canal around the first and northernmost Aswan waterfalls and drives into Nubia to bring the Kushites back under Egyptian control.

Egyptian god-kings usually come with names like “essence of Re is created.” So it’s kind of odd when one with a Semitic name, Khendjer, or “boar,” shows up. His name is a part of the vast Saqqara tomb complex across from Memphis.

Second Intermediate Period 1650-1550

This period is dominated by the Hyksos. These invaders may have come from Syria or Canaan with their new-fangled weapons: composite bows and horse-drawn chariots. They settle around the Lower Nile for the 15th dynasty. Joseph, the Canaanite kid in the Bible with the coat of many colors and mean big brothers, may be from this period.

The Southern exclamation “Land o’ Goshen!” referred to Heliopolis, a sometime capital and grain storage area in Egypt.

Finally, from Thebes, Seqenenre Tao “the Brave” begins the liberation movement against the intruders, people from Syria called the Hyskos, although he didn’t live long enough to see victory. His mummified head indicates he took an axe in the cranium, perhaps executed by the Hyksos king.

New Kingdom 1550-1069

The best-known dynasties, 18-20, of this time produced many of the names we recognize today.

Hatshepsut took over after the death of her husband Thutmose II, much to the chagrin of her stepson. She is history’s first “great woman,” making her country prosperous, wearing a false but symbolic beard, opening sea trade with the Land of Punt (Somalia?) and leaving us a magnificent, terraced burial temple in the Valley of the Queens.

That stepson, Thutmose III, used his army to expand his territory, reportedly capturing 350 cities between Nubia and the Euphrates River. He’s called The Napoleon of Egypt, not to be confused with Napoleon of France who actually came to Egypt a couple thousand years later.

Thutmose III also had his stepmother’s name chiseled out of walls and monumnets, trying to erase her from history. He was the first to be actually called pharaoh.

His son, Amenhotep III, put up those Colossi of Memnon facing Luxor across the river. The wind through the earthquake-cracked rock “sang” every morning, so it became a tourist stop for Romans.

During this period, the Temple of Amun-Re was expanding; ultimately it would employ 81,000 people.

Then Akhenaten came along. He moved the capital to a new city and joined a cult that only worshiped Aten (the sun disk), a major shift from the polytheistic theology. This would put a lot of priests out of business.

Scholars say his sensuously carved likenesses (those that survived his enemies’ wrath after his death) show the toll of a few centuries of royal in-breeding. But setting aside the extended stomach, one might see a resemblance to British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Akhenaten’s powerful and beautiful wife, Nefertiti, shared in his passion for a new god, as well for music, art and building.

Akhenaten’s son — drum roll, please — was Tutankhamun. He was 9 when he took over. He died, perhaps of a leg wound, perhaps of a chariot crash, at 18 or 19. As you will learn at Union Station, his rather hastily prepared tomb is the only found intact, which is the only reason we even know the kid.

Did we mention the inbreeding? Tut married his half sister. Widowed queens would jump into a nephew’s bed to keep from being shipped off. Tut’s grandfather, Amenhotep III, even wed a couple of daughters. This was not unusual then; anything to keep the heirs coming and the bloodlines pure.

There were a bunch of Ramseses, too, but only No. 2 and No. 3 are worth noting here.

The big foes now were the Hittites from Anatolia (Turkey) whom Egypt battled for control of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. The Hittites were using this new stuff, iron. This put the Bronze Age Egyptians at a disadvantage because they were short of timber, which meant short of charcoal needed to ply iron.

Caught badly by surprise on one of his many Syrian campaigns, Ramses II managed to defeat the Hittite armies at the Battle of Kadesh (a swarm of perhaps 5,000 chariots; the Egyptians’ were lighter and faster than the three-man Hittite buggies.)

Living to about 90, Ramses II was another self-promoter, having a slew of giant statues made of himself, some including his consort Nefertari. One of them broke, leaving poet Percy Shelley to immortalize another of his names, Ozymandias. Although played by a bald Yul Brynner in “Ten Commandments,” Ramesses II, from examination of his mummy, might have been a redhead.

Legend has it that the Exodus of the Jews came around Ramseses, but historians have trouble dating it. Many have trouble believing it happened. Considering that the Bible says 600,000 work-worthy Jews hit the exits, plus their women, children and elderly — maybe half the entire population of the kingdom — the story of Moses might have been recorded by the Egyptians somewhere on all those carved walls. But it wasn’t.

Ramesses III beat back the invasion of the Sea Peoples and had to deal with the first recorded labor strike by some elite, but hungry, royal tomb builders. He was probably murdered in a messy harem plot.

Around this time, giant mausoleums were replaced by tombs carved out of the rock in the Valley of the Kings, across from Thebes. The reason: those pesky tomb robbers, but it still didn’t stop them.

Third Intermediate Period 1069-664

Pharaonic power was seriously crumbling under the last Ramses (XI), and the priests in Thebes were in power-grabbing mode.

Egypt prospers for a while under Shoshenq I, who came in with the Libyans. In the Bible, he’s Shishak, the guy who invaded Judah and walked away with the treasures of Solomon’s Temple.

But then the kingdom breaks up again, and the Kushites march up from Nubia and grab Thebes. Not satisfied, King Piye keeps going downriver until it’s all his and sets up his own Kushite dynasty, that we know as the 25th.

Before long, however, the Kushites retreat back south when invaders from Assyria (northern Iraq) arrive and sack Thebes and Memphis.

Late Period 664-332

The last native rulers of the Nile were the Saite dynasty, Assyrian-approved client-kings, who ruled well and prosperously from a city deep in the delta.

Then the Persians, who had just knocked out Babylonia, and had knocked out Assyria, showed up. Psamtik III, who had not been on his throne for six months, was defeated, captured, his son chopped to pieces and, as the story goes, was himself executed by being forced to drink bull’s blood.

Cambyses II claimed the pharaoh title and his Persians were mostly in control until Alexander of Macedon came around. “The Great” only stayed a couple of months, but got a great new city named for him before marching east.

It was late in this period, by the way, that Meretites, a well-to-do woman of middle Egypt, died. Her coffin graces the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Ptolemaic Egypt 332-30

Ptolemy I, a general of Alexander, had declared himself pharaoh, starting a long line of brother-sister-marrying, brother-sister-murdering Greeks to run the rich land. To keep the natives happy, they assumed the trappings and traditions, while keeping much of their Hellenistic culture and blood to themselves.

So it was to the protection of Greeks that Joseph and Mary are said to have fled from the terrors of Herod.

The last of this line was Cleopatra VII, who had the bad luck to choose the wrong Roman in that empire’s infighting. And no, she did not die from the bite of an asp. The Ptolemys were far too skilled in poisoning for anything so crude. Her son by Anthony was ordered quietly killed by Octavius (Augustus Caesar).

Then the Romans annexed Egypt, which they had come to rely upon as their empire’s breadbasket.

And the rest is history.

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