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- Lower Egypt
- The fertile Nile Delta in northern Egypt formed Lower Egypt, home to the modern-day city of Cairo, the ancient capital of Memphis, and the pyramids at Giza. Lower and Upper Egypt united around 3100 BC to form the united kingdom of Egypt and create a civilization that dominated the ancient world for more than 3,000 years. Canals built from the Nile to the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea brought visitors and trade to Lower Egypt and ultimately introduced the Persians and Greeks, who ruled Egypt following the death of the last native-born king.
- The fourth planet from the Sun, Mars glowed distinctively red in the ancient Egyptian sky, earning it the name "Horus the Red." Observers also described the planet's retrograde motion, noting that Horus sometimes "travels backwards" in the sky. The name of Cairo, the capital of modern Egypt, comes from "Al Qahira," an ancient Arabic name for Mars.
- Milky Way
- The galaxy in which we live appears in the sky as the combined glow of millions of stars. Egyptians viewed the Milky Way as a series of islands in a great river in the sky. Gods were believed to ply the celestial waters just as humans sailed the river Nile. (The dark "islands" in the Milky Way are vast clouds of interstellar gas and dust that block our view of the stars behind them.)
A complex of slabs and stones in a part of the southern Egypt desert called Nabta may be the oldest monument built with astronomical considerations. Thought to have been constructed about 7000 BC (2,000 years before Stonehenge), the site includes a "calendar circle" featuring two pairs of stones that display sunrise at the summer solstice, which heralded the coming of the annual monsoon rains. The circle also includes stones that point east-west and north-south. The site was used by nomads until about 4,800 years ago, when the monsoons shifted southwest and the area became too arid for human habitation. The Nabta culture may have influenced the complex Egyptian civilization ruled by pharaohs for more than 3,000 years.
The longest river in the world, the Nile begins in the East African highlands and flows more than 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to the Mediterranean. Until dams were built in the 1900s, monsoon rains in Ethiopia caused the Nile to flood each year between June and October. The floodwaters left behind rich silt that guaranteed farmers fertile soil in which to grow crops. The ancient division of Egypt into Upper and Lower Egypt corresponds to the river's geography. The Valley, a 660-mile (1,060 km) canyon formed the heart of Upper Egypt, while the 4,250-square-mile (11,000 square km) Delta formed Lower Egypt. The modern city of Cairo is located near where the river splits to create its fertile delta. Ancient Egyptians learned to predict the summer floods by the disappearance of Orion from the night sky, followed by the first appearance of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, at dawn. In ancient theology, Egyptians saw Orion and Sirius as the heavenly embodiment of Osiris and Isis, two of their most important gods, who were believed to bring the life-giving floods each year.
- The sky goddess, Nut, was believed to give birth to the Sun each morning in a daily affirmation of life over death. Through her union with Geb, Father Earth, Nut was also said to have given birth to the divine couples Osiris and Isis, and Seth and Nephthys, the gods who embody the forces of life, death, and rebirth.
- The three bright stars forming the belt of Orion ,the hunter, were the celestial embodiment of Osiris, god of the dead. Orion was of dual importance to Egyptians. The constellation was believed to be the final resting place of pharaohs, where they joined forever with the gods of the sky. Orion also appeared in the night sky shortly before Sirius, which in turn heralded the arrival of the life-giving summer floods. Sirius represented Isis, Osiris' sister and consort, who trailed him across the sky just as she searched the land for his body in the most famous of Egyptian myths.
Known as the Lord of Everything, Osiris symbolized the birth, growth, death, and rebirth of the natural world. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, then briefly brought back to life by his sister and consort Isis to father the god Horus. Egyptians saw Osiris in the Moon, whose phases caused the all-important Nile to rise and fall each month, and in the constellation Orion, whose appearance was connected with the annual flood. As god of the dead, Osiris welcomed the recently deceased to their new world. King Khufu, eager to join Osiris as quickly as possible after his death, had a shaft constructed in his burial chamber pointing directly to Orion, which was considered to be the final resting place of the pharaohs.
The ruler of Egypt was believed to be the "son" of several Egyptian gods, including Amun, greatest of all Egyptian gods; Re, the Sun god; and Osiris, god of the dead. Pharaohs were god-kings who were believed to become gods themselves upon their deaths. They held the power of life and death and amassed power and riches unimaginable in modern times. Though virtually all pharaohs were men, several women rose to the lofty position, including Hatshepsut and the Greek Cleopatra.
- The appearance of the star Procyon heralded the coming of Sirius, brightest star in the night sky, which was believed to be responsible for the annual Nile floods.
Several distinct styles of pyramids were built in Ancient Egypt as monuments and burial chambers for pharaohs. The structures became more massive and complex as building techniques improved, but they all served as stairways by which the deceased king could ascend to heaven. Pyramids were closely associated with the sun god Re (who was believed to beckon the king to his new celestial home) and with the phoenix, the legendary bird that was worshipped as an incarnation of Re. The earliest pyramid, built in Saqqara for King Djoser, is known as a step pyramid because it is composed of a series of rectangular layers, creating a series of huge steps. Later versions built with enormous blocks took on the more familiar smooth-sided pyramid shape. Pyramid building reached its zenith around 2560 BC with construction of the Great Pyramid of King Khufu on the Giza Plateau northeast of modern-day Cairo.
- Pyramids of Giza
The Giza Plateau northeast of modern-day Cairo houses three major pyramids, six smaller pyramids, the Great Sphinx and its temple, and a host of other ceremonial buildings. The three largest pyramids were burial chambers built for King Khufu, his son Khafre (builder of the Great Sphinx), and grandson Menkaure. Several of the smaller pyramids were tombs for the pharaohs' chief wives and family members. The pyramids have been tourist attractions for thousands of years and were probably marred by graffiti as early as the fifth century BC. Their original smooth limestone casing stones were stripped away to build mosques and other buildings in the new city of Cairo, leaving the familiar jagged profiles we see today. A recent theory says that the layout of the three Great Pyramids at Giza was designed to imitate the stars in Orion's Belt, which represented the god Osiris.
Pyramids of Giza
- Pyramid Texts
These sacred inscriptions carved on the inner walls of pyramids are among the earliest written records of Egyptian history. Many of the inscriptions were intended to help the soul of the deceased on the journey to the next world. The texts appeared in tombs from the late Fifth Dynasty (about 2350 BC) throughout the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 BC), when they were replaced by the Coffin Texts.
- Ramesses II
During his 67-year reign, Ramesses the Great constructed more monuments, sired more children, and won more battles than any other pharaoh. His greatest building feat was carving out of the mountainside two temples at Abu Simbel. The entrance of the larger temple is flanked by two pairs of colossal figures of the seated king, each rising 60 feet (18 meters) above the desert floor. A miracle of ancient engineering, the temple is so precisely positioned that the rising Sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes floods through the entrance and illuminates three of the four seated gods (including Ramesses himself) carved in the sanctuary. The fourth god, Ptah, is not completely illuminated because he is associated with the underworld. When the Aswan dam was completed in the 1960s, the temples of Abu Simbel were carved from the mountainside and moved to higher ground to protect them from the rising water.
The name Re means simply "Sun." As the Sun god, Re was believed to be ferried across the sky each day in a boat and to face the dangers of the underworld each night in preparation for a new day. Re took on special importance as chief god of the pharaohs, who called themselves sons of Re and believed they had divine protection. Re also took various forms and combined with other gods. As Amen-Re (or Amun-Re), he combined with Amun to rule the pantheon of Egyptian gods.
Re-Harakhte, a representation of the Sun god, Re (red disk), and Horus (the falcon). In Egyptian theology, Re took many forms.
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