200 years of understanding ancient Egypt —­­ II

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 15 Mar 2022

The ancient Greeks saw the essence of ancient Egyptian civilisation as a reservoir and a school, writes Tarek Osman

We stopped in part one of this series at the question of why many observers have focused on Egypt as the origin of a rich flow of knowledge that they believed has always been present throughout human history.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a simple answer: geography. To the Greeks, Egypt was big, its land vast, and unlike Greece with its peninsulas and islands, easy to navigate and move upon. As long as travellers stayed close to the Nile Valley, their trips were safe and pleasant. This safety and quaintness did not inspire great mythological sagas, but they did foster a strong, and over time unbreakable, bond between the land and its people. Herodotus correctly interpreted this to mean social stability.

Egypt was also rich. Herodotus is famous for crediting the Nile with sustaining life in Egypt. This sustenance was a highly valued quality in the ancient world, when wars were often fought for access to water or pastures. Reading him closely, however, we see that Herodotus saw beyond the wealth that the Nile had guaranteed. He recognised that ancient Egypt’s political system was anchored on delivering to Egyptian peasants sufficient flows of water safely and without their having to defend its sources or fight for its distribution. 

This fostered another form of stability: economic and therefore political. Stability was crucial for preserving valuable knowledge.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s answer to the question of “why Egypt” was different. To him, Egypt was not the gift of the Nile. In his view, the Nile was part of Egypt. What the Nile had allowed for, and the ensuing stability, quaintness, and richness, were all constituents of Egypt. To Plato, the Nile was not the cause, but along with the entirety of Egypt, its effects. 

The cause was the essence of the civilisation of ancient Egypt. Plato, and other philosophers, saw this essence in two forms.

The first was as a reservoir. The ancient Egyptian civilisation was the only one in the old world that the Greeks could see its grand architecture almost intact. And as discussed in the first article in this series, as many Greeks had studied the thinking of their towering figure Pythagoras, they recognised that Egyptian architecture was laden with advanced mathematics, which, following in the footsteps of Pythagoras, they concluded must carry meanings and be expressions of a deeper knowledge. 

The fact that these meanings were the only ones that had survived from ancient history led many to believe in a divine choice that this specific knowledge should survive and for it to survive in that specific land. The idea that Egypt was designed to be a vessel of this knowledge gained ground. As a result, Egypt transcended being seen as the land upon which that knowledge had risen, and became instead the land created for this knowledge to rise upon and be preserved in. 

In the second form Egypt was a school. Not only was Egypt’s civilisation the only one that had survived ancient history with its grand architecture almost intact, but that architecture was also the projection of its civilisation. We in the modern world began to develop some understanding of ancient Egyptian writing only 200 years ago when the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics. For the Greeks it was different. They heard directly from the priests of the temples. Herodotus, a historian, put it bluntly when he told his audiences that Egyptian priests had read what it said on walls and columns to him as if they were pages from a book. 

Plato, a philosopher and educator, was more subtle. He indeed regarded Egypt as an open book. But understanding that book necessitated much more than listening to those who could decipher the drawings on the walls and columns and ceilings and even much more than knowing the language of which these drawings were a part. 

Plato saw that the designs behind the grand architecture and the mathematical prowess inherent in them were, along with the writings and carvings, parts of a whole. In this view, the entirety of Egypt was the book. The meanings entailed in the stories, narratives, sayings, and myths drawn and carved on the walls of buildings, and the way of life in Egypt, orchestrated since time immemorial by the country’s geography and the people’s way of interacting with that geography, were all the contents of that book, elements of that inner knowledge held and preserved in Egypt. Arriving at that form of knowing was the gate to entering the school of Egypt and the key to accessing that knowledge. 

For Plato, the knowledge of this school – and so, the essence of Egypt – was a light illuminating for those in the cave of ignorance the reality outside the darkness in which they lived. 

In this view, Egypt was not the origin of this knowledge – for it is neither Egyptian (despite the place of its birth and preservation), nor Greek (despite its interpretation and later propagation). Instead, this knowledge was always there, before ancient Egypt, and will always be there, inherent in human existence, pervading the collective human consciousness, even if the majority of humans do not recognise it. 

This is the reason why Plato, in Raphael’s famous rendering of the philosopher on the walls of the Vatican in Rome, points his finger upwards in clear contradiction to Aristotle and many of the most influential Greek philosophers who came after him. Plato’s view was that true knowledge derived from higher meanings. This is why understanding the essence of ancient Egypt’s knowledge necessitates understanding ancient Egypt’s conception of the divine, which is the subject of the next article in this series.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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