Egypt has known various phases of civilization: the first (Pharaonic age) was purely national, while the following ones (the Hellenistic-Roman and Arab-Islamic ones) substantially represented local varieties of larger supranational civilizations.
Second great civilization of the Near East, the Egyptian one developed with characteristics in some respects similar to the Mesopotamian model, in the economy (agriculture based on irrigation, canalization of water, intense commercial relations with Mediterranean and Asian countries), in the division of labor and in the social stratification, in the pyramidal structure of power at the top of which was a king, in the urban organization and in the architectural monumentality. However, it did have some aspects of its own that originated from the prehistoric traditions of the Nile peoples or derived from its particular geographical position. The peculiarity of Egyptian civilization was already underlined by the Greek historian Herodotus, who in the 5th century BC left an ethnographic account of Egypt.
Unlike Mesopotamia, more composite and unstable in the superimposition of populations of different languages and cultures, and in the fragmentation in autonomous and antagonistic cities, for which there was never a true unification, Egypt, in historical age, always preserved a homogeneous configuration, compact, and its own ‘national physiognomy’. Basically, the only difference was the dualism between the people of the South, who were more anchored to an African Paleolithic heritage, and those of the North, in which Asian and Mediterranean influences prevailed.
Towns, cities and villages wind their way along the course of the Nile which stretched tortuously along the meridian and fertilized the lands with its annual, regular and predictable floods, leaving a blanket of silt (“Egypt is a gift from the Nile”, says Herodotus, Histories, II, 5). To the east and west the desert opened up which, although already crossed by small caravans of merchants in prehistoric times, constituted an insuperable barrier for any population wishing to pass it into arms. This position of physical isolation made Egypt a separate unit, defensible from any external penetration, protected by three ‘gates’ – towards Libya to the west, Nubia to the south, towards the Isthmus of Suez and the massif of the Sinai to the east -, while the roads of communication and trade were concentrated on the Nile and the sea, with garrisons and river cities that exercised a control function over the traffic of goods and men.
The geographical dimension explains not only the continuity, solidity and duration of the reign (about 3000 years from the 1st dynasty up to the Roman conquest), but also the cultural conservatism which manifested itself in forms that remained constant, almost unchanged over time, to the limit of invariance. Again Herodotus notes: “Jealous of their homeland traditions, they do not accept others” (Stories, II, 79). The events of Ancient Egypt, albeit with alternating phases, were therefore characterized by a will and a search for stability: the absolute value was the maintenance of the maat, the cosmic force of harmony, order, continuity; something immutable, eternal, was inherent in the maat, and the change was intended as a symptom of chaos.
This concept, which affected various spheres of the Egyptian life, influenced the ideology of power and determined a relationship of connection between the sacred and the profane, is very noticeable in art. A geometric sense of order and rigid canons regulated the Egyptian style for which the artist was not asked for ‘originality’ but the repetition of traditional models: every slightest variation could subvert the whole, the most important aspect was to represent things in the more precise and durable two-dimensionality. More than on the observation of reality from a random visual angle and at a given moment, the artist drew from memory according to established laws, excluding the exact temporal and spatial determination. Only in the eighteenth dynasty and Tell el-Amarna era.
According to Nexticle, the most original features of the Egyptian experience concerned the complex of rituals and beliefs relating to the corpus magical-religious. The first characteristic aspect of Egyptian religiosity was the divinization of the pharaoh: while the Mesopotamian peoples attributed extraordinary powers to the sovereign but did not identify him with a god, if anything as an intermediary between men and divinities, in Egypt, already at the beginning of history, the pharaoh (“Big house”, to indicate its economic and political power as all the wealth of the country flowed into the palace) was considered a divine being, symbol of the strength of the Sun and the flooding of the Nile. The second peculiarity was the theriomorphic character of religion: alongside the human or symbolic images of the gods, the Egyptians always maintained an iconography of an animal type. From these two ideological traits – the animal aspect of the gods and the divine nature of the pharaoh – descended the rituals, customs,
The history of Pharaonic Egypt is divided into great periods of stability (Ancient, Middle and New Kingdom), corresponding to the 30 dynasties that alternated in the government of the country, alternating with periods of (intermediate) crisis in which the central power dissolved and it fragmented, going to local princes. In any case, the culture was always unique and uniform in the territory.