In the summer of 2018, the Getty Centre in the United States held a cultural exhibition entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.”
In the exhibition booklet, the curators Jeffrey Spier, Timothy Potts and Sara Cole wrote: “Egypt, for the Greeks and Romans, was the cultural and political giant of the Mediterranean. The Egyptians established the oldest and largest kingdom in their world. And their country, with its exciting progress, was the land of wonders and incomparable mystery.”
In June 2018, Sebastian Smee, who had visited the exhibition, published a report in The Washington Post entitled “From the Pharaohs to Cleopatra and Julius Caesar: How Egypt influenced Greece and Rome.”
The contact between Egypt and Greece began more than five thousand years ago. In 3000 BC, Egypt contacted the Minoans on the island of Crete. There are still Egyptian scarabs made from the ivory tusks of hippopotamuses found in the rubble of the mass graves of the Minoans.
More than a 1,500 years later, an Egyptian papyrus recorded the use of the Mycenaeans from Greece as mercenaries in the Egyptian army. They fought with the army against the opponents of the Egyptian state in the west. Seven centuries later, the Greeks returned and fought with the Egyptian army in the south, and they left writings to Pharaoh Ramses II in this regard.
According to The Washington Post report, the Greek sculptors who visited Egypt returned to their country and tried to emulate the same calibre of work they had seen in Egypt. The report continued, explaining that Greek sculpture would have been impossible had their sculptors not learned it from Egypt.
“The civilisation achievements in sculpture in ancient Greece, which is the crown of the Western tradition, was launched in one word, namely Egypt," the American newspaper continued.
The report also explains why the Pharaonic monuments in the West have Greek and not Egyptian nomenclature. The reason is that when the Greeks visited Egypt and were dazzled by the Egyptian civilization, they gave them Greek names, which have spread throughout the West. For example, when the Greeks saw the Giza Pyramids, they were reminded of the small wheat cakes of their own country called “Pyramis,” a name that has remained associated with them ever since.
In his book, History of Greece and Rome, Jurji Zaydan mentions that one of Egypt’s novitiates, Cycrops, was the first to introduce sculpture to Greece. Then, Cycrops founded the city of Athens in 1,556 BC. Moreover, he taught the Greeks the use of the alphabet, the use of minerals, and the cultivation of grapes. According to Herodotus, all Greek cities are ancient Egyptian cities. The giants of Greek thought such as Thales, Plato, Solon and Pythagoras served their apprenticeship in Egypt.
Dr. Taha Hussein says that the Greeks at the acme of their civilisation recognize that they were the students of the Egyptians. The Greeks, in turn, had an influence on Egyptian culture and civilisation. Alexander the Great’s decision to establish the city of Alexandria, down to the historical meeting between Queen Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, can be seen to be a continuous common space for creativity and production.
Alexandria was the centre of Hellenic culture, which is Greek culture outside of Greece. It flourished in the three centuries following the death of Alexander the Great, who passed away in 323 BC. The ancient library and university of Alexandria was the first centre of knowledge in the world for seven centuries.
From about 300 BC until the year 400 AD, Alexandria was the cultural capital of the world. In her distinguished book, The Revival of the Sciences of Alexandria, Dr. Radwa Zaki argues that the civilisational landmarks from the Alexandrian era maintained a cultural hegemony for successive centuries.
The city of Alexandria was par excellence the first secular city in history. While the population numbered 100,000, there were 300,000 volumes in the library itself.
According to the famous astronomer Carl Sagan: “The Library of Alexandria was the brain of the planet. It was also the first centre for scientific research in history.” Plato studied in Alexandria, and when he returned to Greece, he established the first academy, which was built on a plot of land owned by the eponymous Academus.
The end of the golden era coincided with the Egyptian mathematician Theon and was marked by the death of his daughter and mathematician Hypatia. When fanatic Christians killed her in 415 AD, the curtain was brought down on the Library of Alexandria, which had led the world’s accumulation of knowledge for seven hundred years.
The Library of Alexandria was not the first library in Egypt. Although it was the greatest, the Pharaonic libraries preceded it. Some historians assert that Demetrius, the ruler of Athens, fled to Alexandria after the overthrow of his rule to become an advisor to Ptolemy and that he brought Aristotle’s private library, which became the inception of the Library of Alexandria. The truth remains, however, that the nucleus of Aristotle’s library was the libraries of Egypt.
The Pharaonic libraries and Aristotle's library together symbolised the intellectual cooperation between the two banks of the Mediterranean. Both libraries embodied the universality of the library and the globalisation of Alexandria.
The Pharaonic library in Edfu Temple preceded the Library of Alexandria. When the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette discovered it, he found a plaque above the entrance to the library with inscriptions of the lists of the books found in the library.
The library in Edfu was well organised and documented. There were many Pharaonic libraries attached to temples, where papyrus scrolls were placed in a way that intended more than preservation; they were organised in terms of topics and subjects.
Meanwhile, the University of On or Ain Shams was the oldest university in Egypt succeeded by The Library of Alexandria as the second oldest Egyptian university.
The Pharaonic university and libraries were the byproduct of a greater work, the Egyptian invention of writing. Egypt – before the Sumerians – presented writing to mankind during the fourth millennium BC. The hieroglyphic texts preceded the Sumerian cuneiform texts by 200 years.
The Narmer Palette preceded by a hundred years, then there were the discoveries of the German mission under the supervision of Dr. Gunter on models of hieroglyphic writing in one of the tombs in the Abydos area in Sohag Governorate. Those models are at least a hundred years older than the Narmer Palette.
There are hieroglyphic writings written in black ink on pottery. The name of the Egyptian language was Muduntar, meaning the “sacred speech.” It is interesting that the hieroglyphs did not include the letters Al-Thaa, Al-Zaal or Al-Zaa, like the Egyptian Colloquial Arabic nowadays.
The Egyptian language developed and became valid for writing decrees, letters and literature. The documents of Egyptian diplomacy during the reign of King Amenhotep III, which are represented in his letters to his son Akhenaten in the 14th century BC, are a model for the development of the Egyptian language to a high diplomatic level. This is also shown in the Amarna Letters, which now reside in the museums of Cairo, Berlin and London.
Abydos – which was the first capital of Egypt and continued as the capital throughout the reign of the first four families – gifted the world so much. Akhmim and other historical cities of Sohag also provided much that surpasses the imagination.
Boats and mud bricks were invented for the first time in Abydos, alongside other contributions in the arts of sculpture and architecture. These advances then transcended into more meaningful artefacts, such as the inventing of writing and the establishment of the Pharaonic libraries, and the documentation of history through wonderful paintings. Today, the ancient city is still an open book.
From Sohag, the unified Egyptian state began, producing its first king. On its walls one can see a painting that includes a list of seventy-six kings. In Sohag, the world learned to transcend the idea of mere material well-being to the aspirations of culture and civilisation.
From the capital Abydos, and from other Pharaonic capitals, the greatest civilisation in human history emerged. Greece was one of its manifestations, as was the Roman civilization. As The Washington Post put it: “After Caesar, Rome madly surrendered to everything that is Egyptian.”
The centres of Egyptian civilisation are numerous in the south and north, but the first word in the book of Egyptian civilisation and humanity was Sohag.