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Egypt: Ever Old, Ever New

by Leila Badran

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The land of Egypt evokes the memory of ancient and spectacular achievements. The pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, the Sphinx, the temples and monuments all bear witness to the greatness of a civilization that was already 5,000 years old when America was discovered.

Located in the northeast corner of Africa, Egypt is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by the Red Sea, the Holy Land and Asia, on the south by the Sudan, and on the west by Libya. Its central position between East and West has vitally influenced Egypt’s history and culture.

At the heart of Egypt’s life is the River Nile, whose banks have been cultivated for thousands of years. Since most of Egypt is rainless, the ancient inhabitants waited in June of every year for the Nile flood, which would inundate their dry land. They believed that a yearly tear drop from the goddess Isis caused the Nile to rise, and they worshipped the river which was their source of life, commerce, communication and unity between Upper and Lower Egypt.

During the first 3500 years of its existence, the pharaohs ruled Egypt. It was an age of striking accomplishments: the building and decoration of the pyramids and temples; the development of the hieroglyphic system of writing; the advancement of science and medicine. The Egyptians also had a detailed system of religious belief and practice which found expression in their daily life.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was immortal, and that when a person died his body as well as his spirit entered into another life. Therefore they took great care in preserving the body after death. Objects which the dead person might need in his second life were placed in his tomb. Though their view of life after death included fearful aspects, such as the trials and judgments one must face before attaining the celestial fields, the Egyptians believed that eternal life was the culmination of all the happy moments on earth. Thus their artists portrayed many aspects of daily life on the walls of the tombs; popular belief held that the gods, people, animals and objects that were depicted would later come alive. The drawings are peopled by characters from all walks of life: farmers and bricklayers march along the walls with kings, queens and other members of the nobility, old and young.

Like most ancient peoples, the Egyptians worshipped many gods. One of the pharaohs, Akhnaton, made religious history by proclaiming that there was but one god, Aton, who was the source of all life. Aton was represented by the sun disc, a common sacred symbol of antiquity, whose rays brought life to the world and all its creatures. Although the concept of a single deity was present in Egyptian belief long before the time of Akhnaton, he was the first ruler to establish one god at the center of a religious doctrine.

Though Akhnaton tried to persuade his people to accept Aton as their only god, he was not successful. He was an ineffective leader, and his desire to unite Egyptians in their worship and belief was prompted by political as well as religious ambitions. The religion he promulgated cannot be compared to the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, Akhnaton’s teaching became part of his country’s mystical tradition. Perhaps its memory stirred in the hearts of Egyptians when, centuries later, they at last learned of the one true God.

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