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- Burial place of the earliest Egyptian kings, Abydos was also the legendary burial place of the god Osiris, who was believed to be responsible for the life-giving annual Nile floods. Pilgrims journeyed to Abydos near the end of the flood season each year for a festival honoring Osiris.
Originally known as Amenhotep IV, the pharaoh Akhenaten ("servant of the Aten") introduced radical new ideas into Egyptian life. He abandoned the worship of all of Egypt's traditional gods, who represented the forces of nature, and instead worshipped only Aten, the supreme force of light, which came to the world every day and gave it life through the disc of the Sun. Akhenaten's religion was repudiated by his successor (and possibly his son), Tuthankhamen, and later generations tried to erase all record of the heretical pharaoh by destroying his monuments throughout Egypt.
- For Egyptians, the day began at sunrise, when Nut, Mother Sky, "gave birth" to the Sun, which would sail through the celestial waters in his "day boat" before descending in the west to sail under Earth in his "night boat." Akhet ("horizon") was the region between the night boat and the sky, providing a practical explanation for why the sky grows light before the Sun actually appears. Egyptians saw the solar cycle not merely as a natural phenomenon but as reaffirmation of the triumph of life over death.
- The god Amen-Re (or Amun-Re) was a combination of Re, the Sun, and Amun, the first and greatest of the Egyptian gods. Known as the king of gods, Amen-Re is just one example of the many ways in which Re combined with other deities and illustrates the importance of the solar cycle in Egyptian life.
- Amenhotep IV
As pharaoh, Amenhotep IV banished traditional gods such as Amun from public life and established a new religion based on the worship of a single god, Aten. He changed his name to Akhenaten ("servant of the Aten") and built a new capital city called Akhetaten ("Horizon of the Aten"), now known as Amarna. Aten worship and the city of Akhetaten were later abandoned by Tutankhamen.
The most powerful god in Egyptian theology, Amun was considered to be the divine "father" of all pharaohs. Amun was also the most mysterious and transcendent of gods. Even his name means "hidden."
The visible disc of the Sun, Aten was not so much a god as the medium through which the Sun's light comes to the world. Under Akhenaten, however, Aten became the focus of Egyptian religion and represented the life-giving force of light. Aten bestowed the gift of life upon pharaoh, who in turn bestowed life upon his people.
- Royal vizier to Tutankhamen, Ay persuaded the boy king to banish the name and religion of the heretical Akhenaten, who preceded King Tut (and may have been his father), and to restore the traditional gods of Egypt to prominence. Ay succeeded Tutankhamen as pharaoh, who some Egyptologists believe was murdered by Ay and others.
Djoser, who ruled between 2668 and 2649 BC, was the first pharaoh to build a pyramid. His pyramid and mortuary complex, located in Saqqara, are the oldest known stone buildings in the world. Unlike later pyramids built at Giza, Djoser's pyramid was a series of rectangular layers that create huge steps allowing the pharaoh to ascend to heaven. The pyramid was designed by Djoser's vizier Imhotep, one of the few non-royal Egyptians who became a legend in his own right.
Djoser's pyramid and mortuary complex, located in Saqqara.
- The world's most powerful and complex early civilization developed along the Nile river in northern Africa. The separate kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified about 3100 BC by an unknown king, but each retained its own symbols and identity throughout the 3,000-year reign of the pharaohs. In fact, pharaohs were known as Ruler of Two Lands in recognition of the importance of Upper and Lower Egypt. More than 170 pharaohs ruled Egypt between 3100 BC and 343 BC, when Nectanebo II, the last of the native-born kings, died. The Egyptian empire endured under the Persians and Greeks, ending dramatically in 30 BC with the suicide of Cleopatra. Romans then seized power and ruled Egypt from afar until 641 AD, when the country was overtaken by the forces of Islam and the ancient ideas and religion vanished from daily life.
- Great Pyramid of Khufu
Standing at the northern end of the Giza Plateau, the Great Pyramid of King Khufu is the largest and most famous pyramid of all, recognized as the first of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Originally 481 feet or 146.6 meters tall (now 451 feet or 137.5 meters), it was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed in the 19th century. It covers 13 acres and includes 2.3 million blocks, each weighing an average of 2.5 tons. Napoleon once calculated that there were enough stones in the pyramid to build a wall around France one foot wide and 12 feet high. Despite its enormous size and complexity, no one knows exactly how it was constructed. However, astronomy played a significant role in design of the Great Pyramid. A shaft from the King's Chamber points to the constellation Orion, believed to be the final resting place of the pharaohs, apparently to help Khufu join with the gods as quickly as possible. Another shaft pointed to the north star, Thuban, in the constellation Draco. This "eternal" star, which never set, was seen as a symbol of order in the heavens; the dead pharaoh would join with Thuban to maintain order in the sky as he had on Earth.
Great Pyramid of Khufu
Son of the gods Isis and Osiris, Horus was god of the sky, ruler of a united Egypt, and symbol of the living pharaohs. However, in Egyptian mythology, Seth challenged Horus' legitimacy, leading to a series of gruesome contests in which Horus ultimately prevailed. Horus' defeat of Seth, the symbolic victory of order over chaos, was seen as divine recognition of the authority and succession of Egypt's pharaohs.
The goddess Isis was symbolized by Sirius, brightest star in the night sky, whose appearance near the summer solstice heralded the coming of the annual floods. In addition, Sirius followed Orion (Osiris) across the celestial sphere just as Isis searched throughout Egypt for Osiris' body after he was murdered and dismembered by his brother, Seth. Each year, Sirius and Orion disappeared from the sky for 70 days, when they were said to die and prepare for rebirth. Since human souls were thought to walk in the ways of the stars, the mummification process took 70 days the same amount of time required for gods to be reborn in the sky.
- The largest planet, Jupiter was firmly associated with the god Horus, who was a symbol of the living pharaohs. The planet was sometimes called "Horus of the Two Lands," a reference to it shining over Lower and Upper Egypt.
Perhaps the most impressive Egyptian monument after the pyramids of Giza is the temple of Karnak on the eastern bank of the Nile at Thebes. Karnak is actually a series of temple complexes constructed over several hundred years to honor the chief god, Amun. Many of Karnak's important features were built along an east-west axis to track the movement of the Sun, whose return to the eastern sky each morning was viewed as a daily triumph of life over death.
Unlike his predecessors, Khufu (also known as Cheops) channeled his efforts into creating a single monument to his reign. The result was the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Ancient observers were so awed by the pyramid that they assumed Khufu must have used inhuman methods in its construction, earning him a reputation as a tyrant. Modern Egyptologists, however, attribute the pyramid's magnificence to expert engineering and construction methods rather than cruel treatment of laborers.
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