By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Travel Editor
©St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 1996
Historians can trace the history of the Arab Republic of Egypt -- its official name -- for more than 5,000 years. It was about 3100 B.C. when a man named Mena, also called Menes, wielded enough power to unite the two kingdoms of Upper (southern) and Lower Egypt. Thus began one of the world's great dynasties, lasting more than 3,000 years.
Mena would become the first of the pharaohs, the kings -- and one queen -- who were demigods on Earth. They were empowered by a bureaucracy of priests who emphasized, endlessly, that Pharaoh was the only mortal who could deal with the hundreds of gods to ensure farmlands would stay fertile and the Nile would provide fish. Pharaoh was the wisest mortal, the fiercest general, the most beneficent leader.
As such, he directed architects and artists to erect and decorate countless temples testifying to his greatness. The decorations were also to remind the gods that Pharaoh was worthy of resurrection: Did the hieroglyphs and paintings not show Pharaoh smiting Egypt's enemies? Did they not show him as a brave explorer?
"Ancient Egypt was not a cult of the individual, so the name of the genius who created hieroglyphs is not known. But we know who the nobles were," says Robert Steven Bianchi, curator of the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" exhibition at the Florida International Museum.
The rulers "were an elite class, 5 to 10 percent of society, who held on to their positions not by oppression but by realizing their advantage and taking care of the lesser people. Otherwise, these rulers could not pass the final judgment after their death and be resurrected."
Bianchi notes that there was no written law, but that the pharaohs were even-handed judges. There is no record of a popular rebellion against the rulers.
The opposite appears true, according to a modern study of some 4,500-year-old skeletons.
Egypt's symbols, the pyramids on the Giza plateau just 10 miles from modern Cairo, were built using millions of stone blocks, each weighing at least 2 tons. These immense cubes were pushed and pulled up ramps built around the structure -- the construction of the Great Pyramid alone is said to have taken 20 years.
Despite the myths of cruel overseers whipping slave labor, "the pyramids were built by free men who were paid" in beer, bread, beans and linen, notes Bianchi. Records show that architects and supervisors were paid substantially more than laborers.
"The skeletons found in the nearby graves of the workers show curvature of the spine, arms and legs," due to repeated physical stress such as would be likely in moving the building blocks, continues the Egyptologist. "Psychologists say that no slave would endure such abuse -- they would choose death instead. But free men labored to honor their pharaoh."
Much of this labor force came from farmers and fishermen who were idled by the annual 3-month-long Nile floods.
Beyond the common workers and the priests, Egyptians were artists, navigators, doctors and astronomers. The first calendar using 365 days for a solar year was created during the Old Kingdom.
As with most royalty, the pharaohs lived well. Says Bianchi: "You could take a pharaoh to a modern-day five-star restaurant and he would be at home."
A pharaoh's subjects grew grain for bread, fished, raised cattle and hunted. The pharaoh lived in palaces, the commoners in one-story, mud-brick homes. No one had indoor plumbing.
Historians generally divide the millennia of pharaonic rule into major periods -- Old, Middle and New kingdoms -- with briefer periods before, during and after.
During the Middle and New kingdoms, art, architecture and literature gained prominence; the lands controlled and the wealth amassed by the pharaohs expanded. Women were elevated to significant positions. The greatest of the antiquities we now study were built on both sides of the Nile around Luxor, hundreds of miles south of present-day Cairo.
But over the centuries, the generals became stronger, the priests become stronger, the bureaucracy became larger and more corrupt -- all sapping the pharaohs' control.
Eventually, in 332 B.C., the troops of fabled Alexander the Great took control of the country. Three centuries later, mighty Rome made Egypt just another part of its empire.
Christianity was introduced in the first century, and an imperial decree in A.D. 551 outlawed paganism -- ancient Egypt's pantheon of human and animal gods was abolished.
Finally, in A.D. 640, Egypt was successfully invaded by Arab forces who brought with them the religion of Islam. Arabic culture and the tenets of Islam still rule.