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The Ancient Vicious Cycle
In Response To: Re: Egypt Fascination ()

From archaeology alone we really don't know much about quality of life, gender equality, or human rights for the average Egyptian in the New Kingdom. What we do know comes primarily from the excavation of Deir el-Medina, the village of tomb workers adjacent to the Valley of the Kings. These tomb workers were a very unique community of artisans with a very stable income and prestige from their critical service to the royal family. It was not at all a typical village in Egypt, and so it is probably a mistake to generalize from there to the rest of Egypt. Laws primarily protected nobility. There would have been no equal justice for the poor, if any at all. Status for women especially would have been proportional to wealth, and since very few women lived like those of Deir el-Medina, I don't suppose their lot was in general very pleasant.

Our best insight into the lives of ordinary people is gained from the Bible. Through a synthesis with archeaology, it is possible to understand the vicious cycle that poor and rich were trapped in. The cycle went basically like this.

1) Civil War

In this phase rival princes employed win-at-all-costs tactics similar to those described in Judges 6:1-6. Caught in the middle, common people were forced to fight for one side or the other, blamed for their unfaithfulness, and punished with every deprivation in the winner-take-all struggle for supremacy among a handful of leaders. In the Egyptian New Kingdom this civil war pitted Tao I (Terah) and his clan against his own father and other close relatives. Tao I rejected one son after another until he found one who was ruthless enough to satisfy him. This prince was Thutmose I.

2) Reconquest

In this phase a tireless warrior manages to subdue Egypt and the Near East. Countless men, women, and children are sacrificed in the name of victory. In the New Kingdom, this figure was Thutmose III.

3) Enslavement

The conquering hero is followed by an oppressive administrator who keeps the reunified kingdom tightly bound together. In the New Kingdom, Amenhotep II (successor of Thutmose III) took advantage of a killing drought in order to reduce the remaining population of Egypt and Canaan to the status of serfs. (Traditionally the common people of Egypt were referred to as "the cattle of Re".) In the following reign of Amenhotep III those who sold their souls for bread were then forced to erect grand monuments for the glory of the king as a living god.

4) Collapse

As the population was concentrated disease spread. Increasing drought exhausted grain reserves. (In other periods too much water led to the same result.) The people were led away from the Nile with the promise of resettlement elsewhere. All but a few died anyway.

5) Civil War

With the death of Amenhotep III, the kingdom split apart and the above process repeated itself. It would be decades of bitter and bloody fighting before Ramses II, a new Joshua, was recognized as sole ruler of Egypt and the Near East. More suffering for everyone.

As you can see, there was never any real relief for the lower class. It wasn't much better for nobility either.

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