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The Egyptians by Herodotus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, a Greek city in what is modern-day Turkey. Around the time of his birth (approximately 484 BCE), his city was under Persian rule and the Persians were at war with the Greeks. As a consequence, Herodotus became interested in the subject of the war and its causes. When he grew up, he traveled throughout the Persian world and interviewed veterans in ordert to learn about the war.

Here are some observations about the way that Herodotus wrote history:

Although historians know the names of other early Greeks who were interested in history, Herodotus appears to have beem the first Greek writer to show interest in some question other than "Where did the Greeks come from?"

Herodotus sought the causes of history in actions of men, not the gods.

Herodotus wanted to be truthful, but he also had to be entertaining, because in his time (before books), history was performed in public, not read.

The introduction to his history begins with ...

"THESE are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due need of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds."


  • cataract: a waterfall or rapids that interrupt navigation on a river. Cataracts often served as the borders of ancient states such as Egypt.
  • Hyksos: people who invaded Egypt during the second intermediate period, around 1600 BCE.
  • Menes: king who united Egypt around 3100 BCE
  • pharaoh: a semi-divine ruler of Egypt
  • weft: weaving term that refers to horizontal threads woven between vertical threads to make a piece of cloth



By the time that Herodotus visited Egypt, the oldest civilization in the Mediterranean region had ceased to be independent for more than five hundred years. Yet its reputation as a spiritual center remained intact, as shown by this excerpt from Herodotus' history.

Just as the geography of Mesopotamia played a major role in determining where farmers lived, when they farmed, with whom they traded and how large their population could become without conflict over resources, the geography of the Nile Valley played a major role in determining the characteristics of Egyptian civilization. The most prominent feature is the Nile River, which draws water from three major tributaries in eastern and central Africa -- the Atbara River, the Blue Nile and the White Nile -- and flows through a sandstone desert towards the Mediterranean Sea in the north.

Geography: The Nile Valley has three distinct regions that figured in Egyptian history. At the mouth of the river, the Nile Delta is a low, flat area that is prone to flooding, and which contains some of the best soil in Africa, thanks to annual river floods that wash sediment (called silt) down to the mouth of the river. In ancient history, this area was known as "Lower Egypt." To reach the delta, the river flows through a long channel that winds between sandstone cliffs and narrow flood plains. In ancient history, this region was known as "Upper Egypt." Upper Egypt ended at the first of six major rapids known as "cataracts," and beyond that was the land called "Nubia" by the Egyptians.

Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt

The Nile River floods every year, and in the process, it irrigates the flood plain along either bank and deposits fresh silt along its banks. The flood waters from the White Nile flow through an enormous marsh called the "Sudd" in the southern part of the modern country of Sudan, and arrive later and more slowly than the flood waters from the Blue Nile and the Atbara River. As a result, the Nile floods that reach Upper Egypt are more regular and less violent than the floods that brought water to farmers in Mesopotamia.

Cataracts divide the Nile River into navigable stretches. By limiting the ability of boats to travel the length of the river, cataracts provided good locations for governments to tax trade and prevent armies from invading. As a result, cataracts frequently served as political boundaries in ancient Egyptian history.

The surrounding land is a flat, sandy plain composed of sandstone. There is a large, dry desert to west, and volcanic mountains to the south and southeast. There are also large bodies of salt water to the east (Red Sea) and north (Mediterranean Sea).

Since around 2500 BCE, Egypt has been a total desert, although the evidence from cave paintings and Egyptian writing (hieroglyphics) suggests that the climate was less hostile to human life in the Paleolithic period. During the earliest periods of Egyptian civilization, the desert served as a physical barrier against invasion, although it did not prevent traders from Mesopotamia from reaching a place called Buto in Lower Egypt by 4000 BCE.

The winds blow steadily from north to south in this region. That aided the Egyptians to use the Nile River for navigation, since they could drift from south to north with the current and return from north to south with sails. The winds hindered navigation along the Red Sea, since there was no easy way for ships to return to the north against the wind.

Political history: Egypt's first centralized government formed around 3100 BCE when Upper (desert) and Lower (delta) Egypt were unified. At first, there were many small communities along the Nile River, but as the Sahara Desert dried out, population pressures along the river may have led to warfare and centralization. A carved stone tablet known as the "Palette of Namur," contains images that led historians to conclude that Upper Egypt, led by Menes, conquered Lower Egypt.

That led to the first period of centralized rule in Egypt, called the "Old Kingdom," which lasted from approximately 2770-2200 BCE. During this period, strong pharaohs exerted highly centralized authority over peasants, using local nobles to transmit their orders. The evidence for the centralized power of the pharaohs comes from the major archaeological finds of this period -- the great pyramids. The oldest was the pyramid of Zoser, king of the 3rd Dynasty of Egypt. The center of power (the capital) was located at Memphis (near modern Cairo), where Upper Egypt meets Lower Egypt. The Old Kingdom government appears to have been based on religion, since there was no evidence of an army or warfare.

Before continuing, let's examine how a pyramid provides evidence of centralized rule. A pyramid is a large structure that served as a tomb for a pharaoh. It was constructed from blocks of stone weighing several tons each that were brought to the construction site from elsewhere in the Nile Valley. The pyramids were not built in the Valley itself -- that would have taken up valuable farm land -- but on the plateau overlooking the valley, at the edge of the desert. In a period when there were no machines for moving heavy loads, all of this had to be done using human muscle power, and the largest pyramid of all, Cheops, required that humans lift stone blocks to a height of more than 400 feet.

The labor to do this came from Egyptian farmers, and it had to occur when the farmers were not busy farming; i.e. during the flood season. The Nile floods begin at Cairo about June and reach their maximum in September, during the hottest time of the year in Egypt. It must have been difficult to keep farmers at work moving heavy stone blocks, and it must have also required extensive organization to provide food, water and housing for a work force that probably numbered in the tens of thousands. All of this leads historians to conclude that the leaders of Old Kingdom Egypt possessed extensive power and the means to control large numbers of people.

Following the Old Kingdom, there was a period of decentralization known as the "First Intermediate Period" which lasted from roughly 2200-2000 BCE. During this period, pharoahs lost the ability to have nobles make sure that their orders were carried out. No one knows why, but one possible cause was a climatic disaster that made it impossible for nobles to collect taxes from their peasants to deliver to the pharaoh. Another possibility was resistance to taxation to build public works such as pyramids, which motivated nobles to revolt against central authority. At any rate, for a time, there was no single authority that ruled all of Upper and Lower Egypt, until the region was reunified about 2000 BCE.

The restoration of centralized authority produced the "Middle Kingdom" (roughly 2000-1700 BCE) with a new capital further south at Thebes. Historians believe that in order to establish their authority, the new dynasty of pharaohs obtained support from artisans to equip their armies for the fight against armies led by local nobles. During the Middle Kingdom, religious buildings were constructed as temples rather than as pyramids, signifying a more "democratic" approach to religion that allowed ordinary people to participate. The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom also constructed public works, such as the irrigation project in the Fayum Depression west of the Nile near modern Cairo.

Following the Middle Kingdom, there was another episode of decentralized authority which historians refer to as the "Second Intermediate Period (1786-1560 BCE). Apparently, nobles revolted once again, and within about two generations, people called "Hyksos" invaded. Their origin is unknown, but the Egyptians referred to them as "the sea people" leading historians to speculate that they came from the north. Egyptian sources report that the Hyksos used horses and chariots to cross the desert, and they arrived with bronze weapons which were unknown in Egypt at that time. The Egyptians began to resist the Hyksos around 1600 BCE, and the war to expel the invaders unified the Egyptians and led to the restoration of centralized authority under Ahmose.

The third period of centralized government is called the "New Kingdom" (1560-1087 BCE). Ahmose and his successors overcame both the Hyksos and noble opponents to establish a new, centralized state. They kept the army together and used it to expand into Palestine and Nubia. This was the beginning of the "Egyptian Empire." However, unlike the Persians (who created their empire a thousand years later) the Egyptians never managed to incorporate conquered peoples into Egyptian society.

Ramses III of the nineteenth dynasty (1182-1151 BCE) was the last strong Egyptian ruler. Afterwards, an assortment of outsiders began to invade in the late twelfth century BCE, and they successfully ended the rule of the pharaohs by 1100 BCE. A sequence of Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Rome, Arabs, French and English ruled Egypt until the modern country became independent in 1952 CE.

Religion in Egypt: When we discussed urban civilization, we defined religion as the means by which humans in hte physical world attempt to interact with the metaphysical world. One of the basic beliefs of Egyptian religion was in an afterlife where a deceased person entered the metaphysical world and became united with the supreme deity Osiris. One major purpose of Egyptian religion was to insure that the Nile's annual flood proceeded normally so they would have enough water and new soil to supply food for the subsequent year. The Egyptian deities controlled the flood and thus, contact with the metaphyscial world was essential to make sure that the deities maintained the flood.

In the Old Kingdom, Egyptians believed that only pharaohs could reach the metaphysical world after death. That was because the pharaoh, was considered to be a descendant of Osiris by way of Horus, another deity. To protect their status as "semi- divine," pharaoahs were only allowed to produce children with other members of the royal family. To enable them to reach the afterlife, deceased pharaohs were entombed in pyramids, along with food, servants and everything needed to make a long journey.

In the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian religion began to offer the possibility of an afterlife to ordinary people. Religious rituals were held in large temples, of which the Temple of Karnak is the most famous. Living an ethical life was key to gaining access to the afterlife, so religion provided rules for ethical behavior. After the end of the Middle Kingdom and the invasion by the Hyksos, religion changed dramatically in the New Kingdom. For example, a woman named Hatshepsut ruled as a pharaoh from 1486 to 1468 BCE, another pharaoh named Akhenaton (1375-1362 BCE) attempted to introduce a religion based on the worship of a single deity named Aten (the god of the sun), perhaps in order to undermine the power of the Egyptian priesthood based in Thebes. Akhenaton's successor, Tutankhamen (1362-1352 BCE), is best known because his tomb survived intact into the twentieth century, but he was also significant because he reversed the religious reforms of his predecessor. The best known literary work on Egyptian religion, the Book of the Dead, was composed during the New Kingdom and contains a collection of spells and incantations to help dead people reach the afterlife.

Social history: Despite the passage of time and the impact of invasions and climate, many pictures, sculptures and texts have survived from ancient Egypt. These samples, from the early New Kindom of Egypt (circa 1500BCE) show a number of aspects of Egyptian social life.

With relatively little farm land, all of which was located along the banks of the Nile, Egyptians relied on plant agriculture for most of their food and they used a variety of techniques to improve crop yields. Picture 1 shows two men using a plow pulled by a pair of oxen (i.e. cattle used for work rather than food). Egyptians would not have eaten beef or other large animals since they could get more food from good farm land by growing plants than by growing grass and using animals to convert it into something that humans could eat.

It also shows a line of donkeys used to transport goods over land. Although this picture does not show it, Egyptians also used boats to transport goods and people along the Nile River.

Besides serving as a transportation route, the Nile also provided food. Picture 2 shows two men carrying baskets of fish on their shoulders, another carrying a string of fish in each hand, and a fourth person deploying a fishing net. The figure in the upper right hand corner is repairing a net.

In the reading by Herodotus about Egypt, he mentions that Egyptian priests were forbidden to eat fish (or beans -- see p7). He implies that eating fish was normal for most Egyptians. Fish and beans would have been the protein sources most easily available to ordinary people. Since priests were "forbidden" to eat common forms of protein, they could justify offerings of rarer forms of protein like milk and meat. Note the butchered meat among the offerings shown in Picture 3 (between the rear end of the brown cow and the seated black figure).

Picture 3 shows several things. There are two types of cattle, one of which is being milked and has a calf. It also shows people of varying size and colors bringing gifts to a large dark-skinned person seated to the left in front of a light-skinned woman with a fan. Until recently, scholars assumed that Egyptians were ethnically linked to the populations of Europe and southwest Asia (i.e. Palestine, Arabia, Anatolia), but African historians have documented many African peoples who trace their origins to Egypt. Picture 3, which dates from about 1500 BCE, suggests that Egypt was a multi-ethnic society and seems to show a black person receiving gifts from people of other colors. One should not take the skin colors literally, however, because like the green and white color on the face of an Eagles fan, the black color might have symbolized something other than race, such as membership in a group like priests or government officials.

Middle Kingdom Egyptian wall
painting showing two humans with a plow plus a line of
donkeys carrying loads
Picture 1: Farmers and livestock

Middle Kingdom Egyptian
wall painting showing humans carrying fish in baskets
Picture 2: Fishing

Middle Kingdom Egyptian
wall painting showing humans with cows.  The humans are shown
with different colored skin suggesting multiple races
Picture 3: Cows, government and ethnicity

SOURCE: Jim Jones took all three photos with a handheld digital camera in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, New York: December 24, 2005) and used Corel Photo-Paint to crop and improve brightness and contrast.

War and Change in Egyptian society: Based on hieroglyphic sources, historians know that early Egyptian society included pharaohs, other local leaders (nobles), priests, artisans (specialized producers of tools and other objects), and the largest category of all, peasant farmers. This social composition remained intact through the Middle Kingdom, but two new groups appeared in Egyptian society in the New Kingdom -- professional soldiers and slaves. Apparently, the Hyksos invasion introduced new ideas into Egyptian society, including the fear of a subsequent invasion by outsiders. The professional army was a response to the fear of invasion, and if modern examples are of any use, later pharaohs kept the army out of politics by sending them on expeditions outside of Egypt. The result was the Egyptian conquest of parts of Palestine and Nubia, and the formation of the Egyptian Empire mentioned previously in this section.

Slavery existed already in Mesopotamia and has a long tradition in other cultures as well. The late arrival of slavery in Egyptian culture may have been a response to the tensions that resulted during several generations of Hyksos rule. Occupation by a foreign power forces the inhabitants of a region to chose sides, and those who chose the losing side stand to lose their freedom or even their lives. Resistance against an occupying power requires sacrifices in the form of taxation and military service, and those who failed to do their share may have wound up owing the government or the neighbors who filled in for them.


  1. Why did Herodotus think Egyptian culture was worth describing?
  2. The second explanatory note explains that Herodotus made a pun when he said that the Egyptians write "rightly" (i.e. correctly) from right to left. Why would someone who is writing history include a pun?
  3. How did Herodotus get his information about Egypt?
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