Ancient Egypt: A pyramid scheme that worked
Spanning some three millennia of recorded history, Ancient Egyptians built a state to last. What was behind this success and what can we learn from it?
The “failing state” pandemic that has engulfed the Middle East for many years now appears to be spreading to some of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced societies in the world.
The latest country to enter the fray of frailty is the United States. The fragility of the American state is evident in its disastrous handling and failure to minimise the human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also apparent in the political shambles that followed the expensive political circus that passed for an election, as well as the increasingly vicious tribalism devouring its societal bonds and institutions.
This sorry state of affairs has triggered doom-laden predictions that the US, like its former superpower rival, the Soviet Union, is on the verge of a spectacular collapse.
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Although there is some hope that the incoming Biden administration could undo the damage done by Trump during his catastrophic presidency and pull the country back from the brink of collapse, there is little doubt that the US is in the midst of decline and decay. Not only have other powerful states narrowed the geopolitical and economic gap between themselves and the country once seen as the “sole dominant global power”, America itself seems to be unravelling.
This means that America’s rise and decline were spectacularly fast.
This is not how it was meant to be. The founders of the US intended to build a political system that would stand the test of time. They communicated this desire through Ancient Egyptian iconography and symbology. From the colossal obelisk erected in the capital to commemorate George Washington, to the pyramid on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, the early rulers of America widely used Ancient Egyptian symbols to signify the strength and durability of their young state. Washington, DC, would even have an actual pyramid today, if a certain John Pope’s ostentatious design for the Lincoln memorial had been approved by Congress.
There was a logic to their use of Ancient Egyptian symbols, and especially pyramids, to convey longevity – the first pyramid in Egypt was constructed nearly five millennia ago and is still standing. Meanwhile, the Ancient Egyptian civilisation which constructed the aforementioned pyramid had a recorded history of some three millennia (from the early dynastic era before 3000 BC to the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BC).
Egypt undoubtedly went through several periods of transition and became briefly divided during those 3000 years. However, the Egyptian civilisation did not enter a “dark age” even during these so-called intermediate periods. Instead, it became more localised, with a decentralisation of power, greater economic equality and more social mobility. Moreover, even the foreign conquerors of Ancient Egypt, such as the Macedonians, Persians and Hyksos, adopted Egyptian ways rather than imposing their own.
To put this long history into perspective, the pyramids were already ancient when the Ancient Romans took over Egypt and turned it into a province of their empire. In the two or so millennia since then, which is a millennium shorter than the lifespan of the Egyptian civilisation, the world has witnessed the rise and fall of countless empires, states and civilisations.
So what was behind the remarkable staying power of Ancient Egypt and are there any lessons the modern world can draw from it?
A political system uniquely suited to its surroundings
In short, the Ancient Egyptians owe the longevity of their civilisation to their success in building a political system that was uniquely suited to their surroundings. “The state lasted because its structure worked perfectly, especially within this particular natural environment and it was thus really trustworthy,” says Zeta Xekalaki, a Greek Egyptologist with a PhD from the University of Liverpool.
When what climatologists call the African Humid Period abruptly ended, causing the Sahara desert to revert to its natural dryness, the nomadic hunter-gatherers in what was to become Egypt faced a stark choice: adapt, move on or perish.
The people who eventually became the Egyptians found a way to adjust to the changing environment that eventually proved highly successful and enduring. Not only did they settle down in the Nile Valley to become sedentary farmers, they also managed to innovate effective ways to harness the mighty fertile power of the river and to keep the unforgiving hell of the desert at bay.
“This made the populations who went on to collectively become the Egyptians form a worldview where management was everything,” observes Xekalaki. “To the Egyptian worldview, there was no alternative system able to control the environment and secure wealth as effectively as the one headed by a pharaoh.”
The image of the pharaoh as a benevolent despot has been used to defend Egypt’s modern-day dictators, by suggesting that Egyptians understand no other way of government. It has also been used to defend autocracy elsewhere in the world.
These inferences, however, are built on several gross misunderstandings.
First, claiming the Ancient Egyptian system was superior to democracy ignores the core rationale for democracy. The value of democracy is not that it is a more stable and effective system than autocracy, though it often is, but that it is more just.
Second, the way Ancient Egyptians accepted the authority of the pharaohs was not that different to the way later societies accepted the divine right of kings to rule – an idea peoples of the world have since largely abandoned and would find hard to return to, despite numerous notable exceptions.
Moreover, the claim that the success of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation makes the case for autocracy overlooks the checks and balances that were built into the Egyptian system.
Although it is tempting to think that Egypt was governed by the whim of its monarch, historical evidence suggests that the king’s despotic powers were kept in check through the divine concept of ma’at (harmony), which applied to the pharaoh too, and a complex system of secular laws and courts. Moreover, women in Ancient Egypt enjoyed more legal rights than anywhere else in the world at any time until the 20th century. The modern image of the oppressed and downtrodden Ancient Egyptian peasant and labourer also appears inaccurate in light of recent archaeological discoveries.
Not only were Egyptian workers well compensated for their labour, including some reports of state healthcare, they also knew how to stand up for their rights. This is eloquently expressed in the first (of many) recorded strikes in human history, when unpaid artisans in Egypt downed tools to protest against late wages and the pharaonic system’s failure to perform its duties under ma’at.
Beyond all this, Egypt’s unique geography and topography also played a central role in the development and endurance of the Egyptian civilisation. “The Nile Valley, despite being at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa, works in a way different to any other place on Earth,” explains Xekalaki.
The vast expanses of desert surrounding the Nile Valley acted as natural and well-defined borders for the state, not to mention as defensive buffer zones. They also ensured that the country could take the time to develop its own unique civilisational model largely untroubled by outside threats.
Beyond being a de facto island, another vital factor in Ancient Egypt’s success was its disinterest in conquest and expansionism for most of its history. Many empires throughout history eventually collapsed because they grew too big for their boots and could no longer afford to maintain such enormous dominions.
Egypt, in contrast, never strayed far from its historical frontiers and focused its energies on maintaining its internal prosperity and security.
This was partly founded on Egyptian aloofness and contempt for other civilisations. Egyptians believed they lived in the best society and the idea of leaving their paradise on Earth was unthinkable. This is why the desire for expansionism and conquest has only dominated brief periods in Ancient Egypt’s three-millennia-long history.
Egypt’s geographical advantage eroded over time, as military technology progressed and other civilisations became more powerful. Eventually, Egypt was conquered geographically but not politically or culturally. Later, it was subsumed into other empires, its language, culture and religions naturally dying or being purposefully killed off in the process.
The real lesson from Ancient Egypt: Big government is key to individual wellbeing and state longevity
It is difficult to draw clear lessons for the 21st century from the Egyptian experience. Egypt’s location in the Fertile Crescent meant it was in the middle of the most vibrant area of human development back then but, crucially, it was shielded against threats from rival civilisations by its friend and foe, the vast moat of arid desert enveloping the fertile sliver of the Nile valley and Delta.
In addition, Egypt was so wealthy and technologically advanced, it was, for the most part, able to see off any potential threat quite easily. Moreover, the foreigners that did come were, for the most part, migrants not invaders, making the country a diverse and dynamic melting pot.
In today’s far more crowded world, no country or society enjoys this level of protection against external threats. Moreover, though Egypt was advanced for its time and able to build things we’d be hard pressed to emulate in the modern world, the technology and complexity of the modern world would be bewildering to the Ancient Egyptian.
With this complexity, comes a heightened level of vulnerability and fragility, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us with its disruption of global supply chains.
But there are still two important lessons modern states can learn from Ancient Egyptians.
First, the Ancient Egyptian experience clearly shows that resisting the temptation of empire building could be key to a state’s longevity.
Second, and perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from this ancient civilisation, relates to the role of the state.
Recent decades have seen governments lose significant power to global corporations and the private sector. This process started with the weakest and poorest countries but now extends to even the most powerful.
The neoliberal worldview has convinced us that big government is always bad and that the private sector is far better at ensuring our prosperity and wellbeing than the state.
The Ancient Egyptians did not receive that memo.
Back then, the state was responsible for pretty much everything: ensuring the land was properly managed and irrigated, collecting and redistributing taxes and crucially, guaranteeing work for everyone. Seen through the prism of Keynesian economics and Roosevelt’s New Deal, the pyramids were not (solely) acts of monumental folly but were the largest and grandest job-creation scheme the world has ever known.
Ancient Egypt hence provides us with an interesting case study as we grapple with how to exit the ongoing economic crisis and wonder whether governments should intervene to safeguard work and welfare for everyone.
The Ancient Egyptian experience suggests that a greater role for the state would be good both for the wellbeing of the individual and the future viability of the state itself. This does not mean that we need to roll out a command economy like that of the pharaohs. After all, we do not face the centralised, nationwide challenges facing a pre-modern society seeking to harness the power of a mighty river in an otherwise hostile environment.
What it means is that governments must embrace their role as the ultimate guarantors of citizen welfare and the equitable distribution of wealth.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.