Egyptian Engineering and Culture

Sep 26, 2010

Egyptian Engineering and Culture
Ancient Egypt Provides an Early  Strategic Technology Institute
Example of How A Society’s Worldview Drives Engineering and the Development of Science.


Technology, or if one prefers engineering , is a function of societal values.1 While modern philosophers continue to debate whether technology shapes society or whether society shapes technology, the development of engineering and the science over 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt vividly demonstrates the extent to which technology can have practical social and religious bases.

Unlike the Greeks, who later benefited from the advances of Egyptian and Mesopotamian scholars and who developed an abstract theory of knowledge, the Egyptians used knowledge for the practical accomplishment of goals tied to their religious worldview. An examination of Egyptian engineering and science, principally during the Old Kingdom (c. 2670-2150 BCE) and Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1650 BCE), shows that religion drove the development of, and was reflected by, their monumental architecture. These architectural wonders served as a societal organizing principle and demonstrated the power of the state, which was believed to be run by either an incarnate god on earth or the son of a heavenly god. In addition, the supporting sciences, such as mathematics, astronomy, geography, and medicine all had practical purposes in support of the Egyptian religious worldview.  One also finds that the most accomplished practitioners of engineering and science were accorded high status as priests and established a role model for later cult heroes. Finally, one can observe how ancient Egyptian engineering and science, and the storehouse of knowledge in Alexandria, formed a foundation for the classical Greek mathematical philosophers of the Hellenistic Age.


Egypt’s Early Development

The land of Egypt (Kemet) emerged from the waters of the Nile’s marshes and lakes
about ten thousand years ago. The habitable Egypt developed about 8,000 BCE after the deposit of alluvium from the Nile’s source in Upper Egypt, to the south, in modern Sudan. (Davidson 28).
The Nile Valley is a strip of green hemmed in by the Sahara Desert to the west, mountains to the south, the Red Sea to the east, and the Mediterranean to the north. It forms a narrow strip twelve to twenty five miles wide and hundreds of miles long (McClellan 35).  The geological and archaeological history of ancient Egypt, even in Stone Age times, showed how favorable conditions for farming and settlement allowed the ancients to change their way of life, and in the process, they gradually became different from their ancestors and the nearby nomadic tribes.
While Mesopotamian society, with its collection of cities, is perhaps the first known civilization , in the strictest sense of the word, Egypt was the first state and was by far the oldest continuous state.3 About 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, and shortly thereafter in Egypt, the emergence of ruling classes, religion, writing, and cities formed the standard ingredients of what we refer to as civilization (Roaf 19). A rich delta and Nile valley, and some very ingenious hydraulic engineering, allowed for extensive irrigation and highly productive farmlands.4 Under the influence of irrigation, “Former subsistence-level farming gave way to the production of large surpluses of cereals that could be taxed, stored, and redistributed,” according to James McClellan and Harold Dorn of the Stevens Institute5 (McClellan 31). So, by 4,000 BCE, the Tasian Culture of the Middle Nile and the Badarian Culture who came into the Nile region from the southwest, were cultivating crops6 (Davidson 14-15). By 3,500 BCE they had formed themselves into early states, by 3,200 BCE the nomadic Upper Egyptians and the agriculturalist Lower Egyptians were unified by the legendary Menes, and soon after 2,600 BCE the Pharaoh Khufu, whom the Greeks called Cheops, ordered the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza greatest structure the world has seen. As Basil Davidson notes, “The time span from homo habilis with his earliest tools to Neolithic man with his farming cannot in any case be much less than two million years. Yet not much more than two thousand years separate the earliest farmers who settled along the river Nile from the mathematically precise builders of the monuments of Egypt
They benefited from a fruitful interaction with the environment through invention, and they experienced a ‘feedback relationship’ between environment, biological evolution, and cultural change. The settled life enabled the Egyptians to be handier, more skillful, and better able to think and to act by thought than their ancestors

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