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West Asia


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Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Canaan, Asia Minor, Persia, Arabia

The antiquity of Egypt deeply impressed the Ancient World. Visitors to the immense temple of Karnak did not need to calculate the country's past from the number of statues there of high priests, though the Greek traveller and historian Herodotus used this method in the fifth century bc They could observe everywhere the relics of a once mighty empire—colossal statues, temples, shrines, tombs, pyramids, and cities. They could also sense their intrusion into a religious and social system that stretched back time out of mind to the first settlers of the Nile valley. ‘As the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves, and their river is different in its nature from all other rivers,’ Herodotus remarked, ‘so have they made all their laws and customs of a kind contrary for the most part to those of all other men. Among them, the women buy and sell, the men stay at home and weave; and alone the Egyptians push the woof downwards. Men carry loads on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women relieve themselves standing, men sitting. This they do indoors, and take their food in the streets, giving the reason, that unpleasant things should be hidden from sight, but pleasant things open to the view of all. Whereas no woman is dedicated to the service of any god or goddess, men serve all deities, male or female. Sons are not obliged to support parents but daughters must always do so.’

For many centuries the Egyptians remained undisturbed in their river valley, since the surrounding deserts presented barriers formidable enough to deter foreign invaders. The perception of this natural security is apparent in the distinction they drew between ‘the black land and the red land.’ Egypt was the black land; other countries were the mountainous, red-earth lands. From the annual inundation of the Nile came the dark silt upon which their agricultural prosperity was founded. ‘When the river overflows the countryside,’ noted Herodotus, ‘the whole of Egypt becomes a sea, and only the towns stick out above the surface of the water, rather like the islands of the Aegean. When this happens, people take boats across the land and not just along the waterways. … No men anywhere else gain so much from the soil with so little labour: farmers escape the toil of breaking up the soil with a plough or a hoe; the river rises unaided, irrigates the fields, and then drains away; seeds are broadcast and trodden in by pigs; these animals even thresh the harvested grain.’ The Nile dominated the way of life as much as it determined the configuration of the land. The Egyptians thought of the world as being a bank of earth divided in the middle by the Nile and surrounded by water, the Great Circular Ocean. This water was personified by Nun, the first of the gods, the source of the river and rain. Above the earth was the sky, held aloft by four pillars at the corners of the world.

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Subjects: Religion.


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